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Adult learning at Melbourne Museum

Museum learning for adults

by Barbara Goulborn


his book has been produced by Curve Projects P/L for

Melbourne Museum, with financial assistance from
the Adult Community and Further Education Board,
Office of Post Compulsory Education, Training &
Employment, Victoria.
Research and writing by Barbara Goulborn
Illustrations, design and layout by Rod McRae
Editing by Angela Costi and Rowan McRae
First published in 2001 by Melbourne Museum
Text Melbourne Museum
GPO Box 666E, Melbourne VIC 3001
Illustrations Curve Projects P/L, 15, Cleveland St,
Northcote VIC 3070
This work is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the
purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as
permitted under the Copyright Acts, no part may be
reproduced by any process without written permission.
Enquiries should be addressed to the publisher.

Museums and adult learning
Theories behind museum learning
Innovative practice in museums


Museums and adult learning

n the 19 th century, museums were seen as public resources
for the education of adults. The rise of public education
had the effect of making this role disappear to a great
extent in the late 19th century and for much of the 20th
century. To their mutual disadvantage, the curatorial and
educational roles of museums sometimes became separated,
with collections becoming more important than the audience.

More recently, museums have again taken on an educational

function, for adult learners as well as school students. This has
given them a new raison dtre as they become more responsive
to community needs, and also, in the case of publicly-funded
museums, more accountable to the taxpayer. Museums are in
an ideal position to facilitate self-

directed adult learning and to encourage development of

critical intelligence and divergent thinking. The modern
educating museum is acknowledging how adults learn and
removing barriers to access through innovative projects and
collaboration with communities.

What can museums offer

the adult learner?
Adults learn best when they are motivated and engaged.
Museums can motivate and engage through their ability to
communicate through artefacts. Objects to look at, and
sometimes to touch, smell, hear and use, are the main
components of any museum. They are things to be
experienced first hand, rather than mediated
through print or other media, and as such they
can provide enjoyable, interesting,
entertaining matter to stir the imagination
(Bown, 1995), irrespective of the visitors
language or literacy skills.
The objects in museums are arranged in
any number of ways to provide an
interpretation, or to invite the
interpretations of visitors. Through

interaction with collections and seeing connections between

objects, visitors are engaging at an intellectual level as well as a
physical level. They are also making and testing their own and
others hypotheses, as they engage in evaluating material
evidence on display.
In addition to museum collections in themselves, museums
also offer other resources for learning in the form of the
expertise of curatorial and educational staff and published
resources such as labels, displays, guides, catalogues and videos.

Why are adults doing more

Before looking at how museums can be used in adult learning,
and what adults can learn through museums, we need to look
at why adults are involved in more learning. We are hearing the
terms lifelong learning and a learning society with great
frequency these days, indicating that learning doesnt stop at
childhood or adolescence. More adults are engaging in both
formal and informal learning for many different reasons.

skills, knowledge, processes and attitudes.

Some people need further education to keep up with the
demands of their changing job roles, or, as manufacturing jobs
decline in industrialised economies, in order to gain new
employment in the expanding service or information
technology industries. There is also a growing number of
people with spare time on their hands: those who are longterm unemployed, anddue to baby boom demographics and
greater life expectancya greater number of retired people,
whose leisure time is often spent in the process of learning. A
desire for personal physical and mental development, and
community participation are other reasons for adults involving
themselves in learning.

The 4 pillars of learning

A UNESCO report (Delors, 1996) described the 4 main
purposes or functions of education as learning to do, to know,
to live together and to be, naming these the 4 pillars of
learning. These are useful categories for examining why adults

To do
In these days of greater uncertainty and faster change resulting
from globalisation of economic activities and from the
information technology revolution, many adults find
themselves, by necessity or choice, having to learn new things:

This includes vocational and occupational work-related

learning. People may wish to learn new skills for an old job in
a changing context. Or their old job may have disappeared, so
they wish to be employed in newly developing industries such

as biotechnology, call centres or environmental tourism.

Whatever a persons job, its most likely they will have to deal
with ever-increasing technological demands as well as an
orientation towards people skills. Increasing language, literacy
and numeracy demands in the workplace also mean people
need to enhance their existing competence. Courses in this
learning-to-do category would include TAFE basic education,
vocational and short courses, post graduate qualifications and
workplace in-house development. Self-directed study can also
play a big part.

To know
People often learn for the sake of learning. Rather than
knowledge being instrumental to achieving a practical
outcome, it is seen as desirable in order to make sense of the
world around us and to inform the learner about the
arguments surrounding current events and issues. There is a
curiosity which drives acquisition of a broad general knowledge
as well as more in-depth specialist knowledge. Learning how to
learn is an essential component of learning to know. Much of
this type of learning can be informal and unstructured. There
are many classes catering to this need. Topics might include:
Life in the Nile valley; Histories of the urban village; Behind the
headlines; Art of the Torres Strait Islands; Understanding the
infotech revolution; Music, myth and religion.

learning. Subjects include: community languages, human

rights, sustainability, peace, aboriginal reconciliation,
environmental education, public health, inter-cultural
understanding and citizenship. Much of volunteer training
would come under this category: training to work with people
who are elderly, disabled, sick, needing counselling or legal
support; or to work in community organisations such as radio
stations, non-profit organisations, schools and libraries.

To be
Learning-to-be covers personal, physical, mental and spiritual
development and enrichment. People want to learn to have
control over their lives, to improve their health and relationships and to keep fit in mind and body. Classes might include:
Understanding chronic fatigue syndrome, Gentle exercise for the
over 50s, Tai chi, Improving your self esteem, Dealing with anger,
Healthy eating for your toddler, Learn to draw for fun, Beginners
swimming for adults, Arabic drumming, Achieving inner peace,
International cooking with organic vegetables.

To live together
Living in a multicultural democracy leads to a need for

The four pillars of learning

The 4 pillars in practice

Each of these categories of adult learning purposesto do, to
know, to live together and to becan be addressed by and
through museums. Below are some examples of learning in
relation to the Melbourne Museums Forest Gallery, organised
within these categories.

To do

To live together

Learning how to do practical things such as planning an

excursion to the Museum, using public transport, reading
maps, planting an indigenous garden, surviving in a bushfire.

Developing own values whilst understanding others. Getting

involved in local action groups concerned with issues such as
Aboriginal reconciliation or conservation. Moving towards
sustainable lifestyles.

To know

To be

Discovering facts and processes, finding out about why things

are the way they are, for example: geology, biology, flora and
fauna, ecology, environment, Aboriginal culture and history.

Enhancing physical and mental wellbeing through bushwalking

and calming forest-related leisure activities.

How can museums be used

for adult learning?
Through interpretative exhibitions, talks, courses, film shows,
dramatic presentations, field trips, workshops and websites,
museums provide educational resources and activities to the
public of all ages. As well as using museum-instigated
educational initiatives, adult educators can themselves design
museum-related projects and activities. Active relationships can
be developed with museums, ranging from using objects in a
museum as a minor reference or resource, through to a full
partnership with museum staff, developing courses around a
particular object, gallery or exhibition. Museum excursions are
an obvious option, however there are other possibilities, such as
museum staff visiting a class to show and discuss relevant
objects, or accessing museum sites on the internet to view
objects and information about exhibits. In addition to the
more obvious research projects, there are many other options,
such as projects in which students develop performances or
visual art productions based on what they have learnt in
exhibitions, or empowering projects which use museum
content as a starting point to engage people in personal and/or
communal transformation and change.
Museums can be used for both individual and group learning,
and at many different degrees of formality, from incidental,
informal learning and browsing, through to more formally
structured courses.

Theories behind museum learning

mplicit in the way a museum is organised is a theory of

what should be learnt and how people learn. An expertcentric gallery giving top-down information/knowledge to
the passively receptive public implies a positivist view of the
world. By contrast the modern visitor-centric museum which
focuses on active learning through experience and discovery
presumes that people will incorporate their own cultural
understandings into a construction of knowledge of the world:
a constructivist view of learning. Most modern museums with
an educational focus, such as the new Melbourne Museum,
recognise these social and cultural dimensions of learning when
designing a display, exhibition or learning activity.

3. Models of the physical world (2D, 3D, abstract) are effective

learning tools if they encourage the learner to test their own
4. Learning requires active engagement: knowledge has to be
transformed into a personal, internalised representation. The
goals of learning should not be just facts and concepts but also
the use of intellectual processes to manipulate, organise and
test our knowledge and understanding.
5. Reflection on, and consciousness of the process of learning
(metacognition), helps people learn and can be best effected in
a social context.

The points below summarise principles informing a

constructivist approach to museum education. Adult educators
could utilise this approach when developing museum-related
learning activities, contributing, for example, to making a
museum visit a real learning experience.

6. New learning can be enhanced by using language to

communicate understanding and shared meanings. This can be
done by building-in opportunities for social and collaborative

1. Acknowledgement of, and engagement with peoples existing

vernacular explanations is needed in order to develop their
built-in desire to make sense of the world around.

(Based on an article by Terry Russell, The enquiring visitor:

usable learning theory for museum contexts

2. Hands-on involvement alone is not enough. Brains-on

involvement must also be added to make learning happen.


Innovative practice in museums

useums in many countries now see themselves as

institutions for lifelong learning.
Their audiences cover
people from community groups,
schools and colleges, social
clubs, aged care facilities,
hospitals and prisons. As
well as gallery exhibitions,
they provide lectures, film
programs, demonstrations,
tours, study days, evening
classes, projects, workshops,
conferences and outreach
sessions for those unable
to visit the museum.

Examples of projects
Recipes for remembering
Museum Victorias Outreach Service has developed
photographic reminiscence kits for use with elderly
people in the community, to spark off memories of
travel and transport, clothes and games and leisure
and pastimes. As well as stimulating lively oral
histories, reminiscing is advocated as an important
activity for people with dementia, who have lost
short-term memory functions but who often have
retained early memories in great detail.
Encouraging these reminiscences develops selfesteem and a feeling of being valued, significant
factors contributing to the elderly persons feeling
of well-being.

Immigration stories
Leave your story is a project to encourage visitors to Melbournes
Immigration Museum to write their own stories based on the
museums themes of Leavings, Journeys, Settlings, Impacts and
Reunions. There is also a website Hear her voice where


recordings of oral history collected during the development of

the museum may be heard.

looked at domestic objects such as lemon squeezers, fly swats

and toasters, and made historical comparisons. Family literacy
courses and a vocational Return to leisure and tourism course
were other outcomes of this museum-college collaboration.

Community ecomuseum in Melbournes west

Domestic interiors and womens crafts

The Living Museum of the West is a community museum,

with an ecological focus, operating in the western region of
Melbourne. The museum actively involves the people of
Melbournes west and others in documenting, preserving and
interpreting the richness and depth of the regions social,
industrial and environmental history. Programs have included
working in coalition with a local Vietnamese temple,
exhibitions in shopping centres, community groups involved in
the rescue of endangered indigenous vegetation in the suburb
of Sunshine, and the establishment of a thriving business
employing indigenous young people in the Aboriginal
Gardening Team.

The Geffrye Museum in the East End of London involved

local residents who speak English as a second language in
collaborative courses with the local community college, using
the theme of English domestic interiors and related objects as
the context for English language learning. They also ran an
accredited course based on historical crafts for women from the
local community, which included Muslim, Hindu and Jewish
cultural groups. As well as achieving educational outcomes,
such as confidence building and accessing further education
pathways, the participating women gave the museum useful
suggestions to make itself more accessible to women,
particularly mothers, in the local community.

Worldwide tent textiles

Fly swats and toasters

Norfolk Museums Service and Norfolk College (UK) have
collaborated in projects such as developing a Get to know the
museum kit which relates to a basic education curriculum
(Wordpower). They also ran a course for people with moderate
learning disabilities which developed literacy, numeracy and life
skills. Object-based learning was used as a starting point to
help those who were not accustomed to reading. Learners

The Mughal tent project at Londons Victoria and Albert

Museum has become famous worldwide. It was developed to
attract minority groups who did not normally visit the
museum, especially women in the local community from
south-east Asian backgrounds, helping them to understand the
museum and its collections, in particular the Nehru Gallery of
Indian Art collection. The project involved women in making
embroidered tent hangings relating to those in a Mughal tent,
and led to textile-based projects involving participants country-


wide and then world-wide. Traditional embroidery skills were

revived; new skills of numeracy in relation to patternmaking
were learnt; cultural identity, inter-cultural relations and selfvaluing were enhanced, as was a sense of ownership of the
previously alien public institution of the museum. This project
also became part of a further education vocational qualification
course in Art and Design.

Reminiscing in a shopfront
In Blackheath, south-east London, a reminiscence centre was
set up in a shopfront fitted out with furnishings and a
collection of photos from the early 20th century, attracting
senior residents to come in and tell their stories. These were
recorded, photos were taken, then they were desktop-published
for all to see.

Making museum access easier

Many projects have aimed to encourage people with disabilities
to access museums. Wakefield Museums and Galleries in
Yorkshire collaborated with the local college to provide joint
activities and workshops for those with learning (intellectual)
disabilities, helping them to travel independently, seeing the
museum as a public point of reference.
Dulwich Picture Gallery in London encouraged people who
had physical and mental disabilities or who were experiencing
long-term disadvantage, from day centres, hospices and clients
of the social services department, to become involved in
Connexions and UB40 art projects at the galler y. This entailed

easing-in introductory sessions to the project at the learners

home base before establishing gallery-based classes.

In touch with the community

Warwickshires Museum and Archive Education Service
developed an In touch program for adults which included a
Saturday textiles workshop, a demonstration of superconductivity at a local shopping mall, an evening session
looking at old and new wedding dresses and customs, and a
short session identifying museum wildlife specimens using
high-tech equipment.

People and places

Nottingham City Museums Education Section established a
project for people with long-term mental health problems. The
creative project, based on paintings and artefacts, engaged four
groups of people in the community in the planning and
preparation of a Victorian garden party held in the grounds of
Newstead Abbey. The Museum is now looking at building a
continuous, rather than a one-off, project-based relationship
with people with mental health problems.

Communitymuseum partnerships
Many projects incorporate outreach work in which
partnerships with the community are created. In Birmingham,
people in an area of multi-deprivation created an exhibition
expressing their views on changes happening in their area and


relating its history. In the National Museum of Wales at St

Fagans, a family literacy course was established in which
parents shared family memories, resulting in written
productions which were followed up by further visits to the
museum by the participants accompanied by their children.

More ideas and

If you would like more examples of current adult education
practice in museums, the following websites give access to web
addresses for museums worldwide, a great many of which have
an education section documenting current projects. Some ideas
for schools education may also be adapted to the requirements
of adults. As well as ideas for learning projects, it is possible to
access resources about exhibitions and gallery artefacts from
some of the museums, which you could use as source material
for your own projects with students.


Print publications
Baldwin, Luke et al Passionate and purposeful: adult learning
communities in Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean (ed), The
educational role in the museum, Routledge, London, 1994
Bradshaw, Delia Multiple images, common threadscase studies
of good practice in adult community education. Adult
Community and Further Education Board, Melbourne, 1995

Field, Jane (ed) Electronic Pathways: adult learning and the new
communication technologies, National Institute for Adult
Continuing Education, Leicester, UK, 1997
Foley, Griff (ed) Understanding adult education and training,
Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1995
Gonczi, Andrew (ed) Developing a competent workforce: adult
learning strategies for vocational educators and trainers, National
Centre for Vocational Education Research, Leabrook, SA, 1992

Bradshaw, Delia Transforming lives, transforming communities.

Adult Community and Further Education Board, Melbourne,

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean (ed) The educational role in the

museum, Routledge, London, 1994

Campbell, Annie and Curtin, Penelope (eds) Adult community

education: some issues, National Centre for Vocational
Education Research, Leabrook, SA, 1999

Jensen, Nina Children, Teenagers and adults in museums: a

developmental perspective in Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean (ed), The
educational role in the museum, Routledge, London, 1994

Commonwealth of Australia, Senate Employment, Education

and Training reference Committee Beyond Cinderellatowards
a learning society, Canberra, 1997

Mackeracher, Dorothy Making sense of adult learning, Culture

Concepts Inc. Toronto, Ontario, 1996

Delors, Jacques Learning: the treasure withinreport to

UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the
Twenty-first Century, UNESCO Publishing, Paris, 1996
Draper, James A and Barer-Stein, Thelma The craft of teaching
adults, Culture Concepts Inc., Toronto, 1993

Mayo, Marjorie Imagining tomorrow, adult education for

transformation National Institute for Adult Continuing
Education, Leicester, UK, 1997
Mayo, Marjorie and Thompson, Jane Adult learning, critical
intelligence and social change, NIACE, Leicester, UK, 1995


Merriam, Sarran A and Caffarella, R.S. Learning in adulthood,

a comprehensive guide, Jossey-Bass Publications, San Francisco

Adult Community and Further Education Board, Victoria


Newman, Michael Maelers regard: images of adult learning,

Stewart Victor publishing, Sydney, 1999

Adult Education Resource and Information Service (ARIS)

Usher, Robin, Bryant, Ian and Johnston, Rennie Adult

education and the postmodern challenge: learning beyond the lines,
Routledge, London, 1997

Adult Learning Australia

Adult Community and Further Education Board Taking ACE

to the year 2000, Melbourne, 1998
Walters, Shirley Globalisation, adult education and training,
impacts and issues, National Institute for Adult Continuing
Education, Leicester, UK, 1997
West, Linden Beyond fragments: adults, motivation and higher
educationa biographical analysis, Taylor and Francis,
London, 1996

ABC Radio National

Australian Council for Adult Literacy
Australian National Training Authority (ANTA)
Centre for the Economics of Education and Training
(CEET), Monash University
Certificates in General Education for Adults (CGEA)
ICOM/Virtual libraries and museums project
Melbourne Museum


National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

Lifelong Learning Network, University of Canberra
Research Centre for Vocational Education and Training
(RCVET), University of Technology, Sydney
Short Courses Victoria
UK Department of Lifelong Learning
University of the Third Age Online
The Group for Education in Museums GEM
24-hour museum