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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Janette Griffin has been teaching and researching in school, museum,  a science centre and university programs. More about Janette Griffin

The museum education mix: students, teachers and museum educators
by Janette Griffin


While some school classes may still sit in a classroom, talked at by education officers, or be met at the museum’s schools entrance and provided with rules and worksheets, there are now many innovative and interactive programs available in museums. Learning opportunities that include emotional, aesthetic and interactive experiences have replaced ‘teaching’. Students spend more time immersed in the galleries, participating in drama, role play, online and hands-on interaction. Changes have been influenced by recent research into school students’ learning in museums. Numerous people, especially in the US and the UK, have contributed to these changes. [1] Many Australian educators and researchers have also expanded our knowledge of students’ learning in museums through practice and/or research. Some examples of their work will be described in this chapter. [2]

Museums have always positioned themselves as educational institutions, and yet the role of education staff has developed erratically and variably. In school-level programs there has been a trend to smaller groups working with a museum educator: from up to 60 in the 1970s to smaller groups now. Less time is spent in classrooms and more time in exhibition areas complemented by hands-on experiences. Programs are considerably more learning- and student-oriented and less object-driven. If worksheets are provided at all, they now seek thought-provoking investigations rather than simply ‘fill in the blanks’. Opportunity for communication with teachers and students has expanded dramatically through web-based information, materials and activities. In this chapter I will explore these changes for the museum educators,[3] the students, the teachers [4] and the museums as a whole. An interesting question that remains as yet unanswered is the amount of influence that students exert on cultural institutions, especially considering how large, diverse and measurable the group is.

Museum educators

Tony Sadler and Beryl Morris, who worked in South Australia, gave a picture of the perspectives and experiences of museum educators across Australia in the 1980s. [5] Many of the articles emphasised the importance of specialist content knowledge, familiarity with the institution’s collections and ability to give advice on labels, displays and publications. Interestingly, there was little emphasis on teaching and learning processes.

Even by the 1980s many institutions had only one educator who, because of professional isolation, needed to be assertive and actively promote their ideas and their profession. However new ideas were spreading with discussion about displays engaging ‘all the senses’ and being more than simple ‘copy down the label’ exercises.

Over the past 30 years the work undertaken by museum educators has broadened considerably. Programs consisting of children sitting in rows listening to a ‘lecture’ and having specimens or objects passed around, or filing past displayed objects, have largely disappeared. There has been a major shift towards experiential opportunities for students to enjoy shared, engaging and relevant experiences. Many more programs are conducted within exhibition spaces. Many more programs emphasise learning processes more than outcomes — for example, how to look, interrogate, deduce, and evaluate. Inquiry-based learning, personalised learning agendas and allowing students to have ownership and responsibility for their learning rather than simply gathering information are emphasised.

Museum educators have been increasingly involved in development of web-based and online materials. Electronic booking and access to pre-, during, and post-visit materials are available from many museums. This reduces the need, but sadly also the opportunity, for museum educators to talk with teachers before the visit. At the same time, however, it provides extensive materials for work in the classroom before and after the visit, and in some instances considerable insight into the museum’s exhibitions, programs, information and collections.

Some museums, particularly those with widely scattered constituents, are using school intranet, the Internet and web-based materials as learning tools. Hence, teachers and students can be better informed before going to the museum. At the same time, outreach programs – such as travelling exhibitions transported on trains, buses or trucks and boxed materials – are being reduced. There has been little investigation into the impact of these changes.

Educators have been involved to a degree in exhibition development for some time, but often at the edges only, or after the main themes have been developed. However, Pamela Clelland Gray at the National Portrait Gallery gives us an example of more recent approaches. [6] She looked at the educational aim of art museums and concluded that development of exhibitions involving both curatorial and educational staff leads to greater opportunity for engagement and enhanced visual literacy of wider audiences.

Historically artworks have been subject to curatorial procedures that tend to generate a fixed and single meaning. Art is positioned at an interface between the museum’s culture and the audience’s and shifts the ownership of the meaning of the works — interpretation rather than perception. Increasingly educators are involved in aspects of text development, aspects of comfort and environment, curatorial involvement in exhibitions, and web-based outreach programs. Education staff on exhibition teams not only represent the school visitor but often theirs is the most authoritative voice on appropriate approaches to understanding.

Many museum educators today have a responsibility that goes well beyond the school student audience. While in some institutions public programs are separate from school visit programs, there is a move toward staff working across all audience groups. This link enables shared theoretical and philosophical approaches which in turn enhance visitor experiences, as well as giving greater recognition to the professional role of educators in all aspects of the museum’s work.

At the same time staff are focusing programs for discrete audiences — very young children, primary, secondary/adolescents, singles or groups of adults and family groups — and these programs are seen as ‘audience drivers’. Rather than being an adjunct to an exhibition, they are the programs which attract people to the exhibition and institution and provide the key experience for the visit. This has meant that, for example, family and holiday programs are being taken much more seriously by institutions and funded accordingly.

While educators have become involved in more diverse ways, there has also been a trend toward varied employment arrangements. Thirty or more years ago the majority of museum educators were seconded from state or Catholic education systems. Today museums in only one state, South Australia, predominantly employ seconded teachers in museums. Working conditions have ranged from working at the museum for school hours on school days to full-time hours and days. Pay scales were and still are variable from state to state and between institutions in the one state.

A number of museums have moved to having fewer full-time staff who work across many programs, and instead have engaged increasing numbers of part-time or casual staff for each specific program. There are both positive and negative outcomes from these changes: a wider pool of skills provides opportunities for specialists in each of the audience segments. In some museums there are fewer teacher-trained staff, but the skills base is broadened by employing youth workers, communication experts, drama or other arts experts.

Casualisation, however, can lead to increased complexity of jobs and heavier workloads for the remaining full-time staff through project management, leaving less time for professional development opportunities such as attending meetings and conferences at local, state or national level. Casualisation may also lead to lower commitment to the organisation.

Student experiences

Museum educators consider their main job to be providing learning opportunities and student-oriented experiences. The museum educator is no longer accurately described by the contributors to the booklet of Sadler and Morris. Increasing varieties of resources and pedagogies are being used to encourage choice, discussion, questioning and active involvement. Educators must develop understanding of student-centred learning approaches and experiences in keeping with ongoing research based on sociocultural and constructivist learning processes. This move away from content information in the learning agenda of museums privileges the students, giving individual students responsibility for their own learning. Students are recognised as capable and willing to learn when given the right opportunities in these stimulating environments – be they face-to-face or online.

Research in Australia on learning complements many studies conducted overseas and has informed changes in the nature of public programs in Australia. The studies explore experiences of very young children in museums, primary and secondary school students, adolescents and young people, families and older visitors. Leonie Rennie and Terry McClafferty [7] at Curtin University investigated the design of exhibits and environments in Science Centres to see what can help or hinder learning. The exhibit design must allow for the learning objectives to be achievable. Critical characteristics for understanding in museums are the personal nature of learning; being contextualised; and given time. David Anderson [8] found that students at the Queensland Sciencentre learned through reflection, making links to prior experiences, and later application of the resulting understandings in the classroom. Displays and activities that involved a diversity of sensory modes led to greater learning than did any other components of the visit. [9]

Susan Groundwater-Smith and Lynda Kelly in Sydney [10] asked upper primary and secondary students to photograph examples of aspects of the museum that help or hinder their learning. Students then developed posters of their findings. They revealed four categories that helped learning:

Cognitive: when they know how things work, have opportunities to ask questions, seek information from varied sources, and are stimulated through various senses;
Physical: when safe and comfortable, able to move easily, space is well lit, and the scale is appropriate;
Social: when learning with friends, a satisfying social occasion;
Emotional: when connected to their interests but not when emotionally confronted.

Students’ understanding of why they are visiting a museum, knowing what they are there to learn about, having choice in the specifics of their learning, and being able to learn and to record information in ways that they prefer, leads to substantial engagement in learning. These parameters are equally important for both primary and secondary students. [11] Sadly, there are many teachers who do not involve their students in decisions about, and the planning of the field trip. I return to this below.

Interestingly, despite teachers and worksheets, students of all ages nevertheless learn from their visit. Observations of individual students visiting museums in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra revealed that learning behaviours account for about (a surprising) 87 per cent of all behaviours. Most adolescents choose learning as the first thing that they think of when asked to describe their thoughts about museums, and most of them have positive things to say about the atmosphere of a museum. They like seeing the real thing, enjoy interactive exhibits and dislike being distracted by others. Students prefer to visit a museum with their school class rather than with their parents, reflecting the positive social experience of being with their friends. [12] Young children in science centres learn more when given the opportunity to interact with peers and adults. [13]

Teachers’ (or museum educators’) expectations that students should complete detailed worksheets are an impediment to student learning. Students feel rushed to find the answers and do not have time to appreciate the exhibits. Too many museum experiences still seem to concentrate on verbal/linguistic learning processes. [14] Peter Hoban and colleagues at Sovereign Hill present a wide variety of topics and activities from which the students can choose, in consultation with their teacher. The visit comprises five steps: Define your topic; Think, wink and decide; [15] Undertake the excursion; Present the project; Self-assessment.

Young children quickly take on the observed practices of those around them, and happily interact with all aspects of their environment. They are less likely than older people to be concerned about the environment as they readily incorporate it along with all other aspects of the program or exhibits. [16] They readily learn ‘about’ art, for example, when given opportunities to not only respond to it but also be involved in making it: ‘Social interaction is a key to enabling children to build conceptual understanding through their encounters and transactions with objects. Teachers, parents, museum educators, and peers play an influential role in helping children form ideas through dynamic discussion about art objects.’ [17]

The experiences of both museum educators and researchers clearly show that students DO learn and enjoy their visits to museums, as long as they are allowed to do so. School teachers, however, may be the ones whose attitudes and behaviours have changed least. This is shown by research and evaluation studies and educators’ experiences over more than 20 years in Australia.


While museum educators have been working to form closer relationships with schools, there is still an ongoing lack of meaningful communication between museum educators and school teachers. Teachers find excursions to museums to be worthwhile but stressful. There is considerable logistical preparation: a need to consider cost, safety, behaviour, organisation, relevance, justification to parents and principals. On the other hand, they see the benefits as extending classroom learning, involving relevant and interesting learning experiences and widening the students’ horizons and life experience. Teachers choose excursion venues based on relevance to their school topic, easy access to the site, and proximity to other excursion venues. [18] Excursions are also seen as an opportunity ‘to get out of class’, and for social interaction.

Teachers frequently find themselves out of their depth and feel inadequate, even frightened, when conducting excursions. Hence many seem to be running excursions in the same way they experienced them when they were students at school. The ‘fear factor’ seems to interfere with learning-oriented interactions with the students while in the museum. Often teachers simply hand over the students (and the responsibility of the learning) to the museum educators. (This has been and remains a feature of museum visits in many countries.)

There is very little understanding by teachers of pedagogical approaches which help students learn in a museum. There are gaps between teacher aspirations and teacher practice. For their part, museum staff don’t always understand teachers’ needs. Teachers make the key decisions regarding field trip planning and implementation, but the inherent conflict between the systems of formal schooling and informal education with their different learning formats, different bureaucracies and different philosophies are not resolved. [19]

Both teachers and museum educators consider ‘that better museum-school communication is the most important component necessary to increase the effectiveness of school visits to museums. Teachers should be more knowledgeable of what museums have to offer and museums should provide more information to the right people so that they may become so’. [20] This underlines the need to provide pedagogical preparation for teachers in order to actively participate in the potential learning opportunities provided by the museum. While teachers view the school and museum as complementary learning experiences, very few perceive a difference between classroom and excursion learning strategies. There is a misrecognition of the social relations of power in which museum staff are dominant and in which school-based educators have an ill-defined and often educationally ineffective pedagogical role. [21] The implicit power relations create barriers and silences that impede engagement by teachers. Pathways are needed to develop relationships that make each group’s roles and responsibilities explicit and valued.

A framework has been developed to provide teachers with a process that prepares the students for their visit and makes school excursions operate more like family visits. The framework School Museum Integrated Learning Experiences for Students (SMILES) is based on three major elements: Purpose (students know exactly why they are going to the museum because the visit is part of a classroom-based topic); Choice (which specific parts of the museum will be visited and how students will find and gather information); and Ownership (of their own or their group’s learning agenda). The students’ and teachers’ declared outcomes of both learning and enjoyment when the school field trips are run in this way clearly affirms the validity of the process. The preparation allows for meaningful interactions with the museum educators and the exhibitions.

The SMILES framework leads to students and teachers feeling positive about their enjoyment of the visit and the learning outcomes. Aspects of this process have been adopted (if they were not already being used) by many museums in their materials for teachers and in their on-site programs. However, despite the clear benefits, many teachers still do not use the framework.

Opportunities are needed for teachers to undertake appropriate professional development which emphasises that learning in an informal setting such as a museum requires different pedagogical approaches from those commonly used in schools. More opportunities are needed for museum educators to take formal courses or to have appropriate professional learning in this area. Few museum studies courses have dedicated subjects on museum education, although there are public program subjects in which this is incorporated. Generally museum educators learn ‘on the job’ and can only rely on their considerable dedication and professionalism.

Museum educators in many states have been active in working with professional teachers’ associations in many learning areas. Unfortunately much of the interaction is one way – we need to find ways to encourage and facilitate shared roles and responsibility for teachers and museum educators in the learning process. Some university teacher education faculties include visits to museums: there is, however, a need to be careful not to let this reinforce the view that ‘we (the museum) can do it all for you’. University of Technology, Sydney has established a subject for all primary teacher education students that involves placements in museums to gain an understanding of the role of museum educators and of the learning environment. At the same time the program is emphasising the key role that the teachers have in facilitating learning in informal settings. There is an important opportunity here to facilitate more workshops that develop shared responsibility for the learning between teachers and museum educators.


Significantly, six of the 10 Aims for Museums described in the Pigott Report of 1975 [22] included aspects of learning and public programs. Key elements included curiosity, educating formally and informally, extending knowledge, the magic of rare and unique objects, use of art and theatre and relevance to all ages. It is salutary to reflect on this emphasis, and perhaps to revisit these aims.

There are many gems but also some dinosaurs in the combined efforts of museum educators and teachers in providing excellent learning opportunities for school students in museums. Strengthening the membership and activity of the Museums Australia Education National Network across all states is an important way forward. Recent links between this network and development of the National Curriculum [23] in several areas is an excellent advance. The museum education profession has moved forward in many positive directions. The two areas important in making further progress are shared recognition and respect for ongoing learning by both museum educators and teachers.


1 Leaders in this field internationally include John Falk and Lynn Dierking (Institute for Learning Innovation and Oregon State University), George Hein (Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts), Paulette McManus (University College, London), Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (University of Leicester), David Anderson (Victoria & Albert Museum, London).

2 To gather a broad picture of past and current programs in Australia 20 interviews and/or surveys were conducted with experienced museum educators from major Australian museums covering all states and territories and including museums of art, botanic gardens, history, maritime, natural history, science, and social history. I would like to acknowledge the following people with whom I have consulted to develop this paper: Helen Whitty NSW, Lyn Beasley ACT, Genevieve Fahey VIC, Janelle Hatherley NSW, Peter Hoban VIC, Brian Ladd NSW, Sarah Main NSW, Terry McClafferty WA, Chris Nobbs SA and Ian Watts VIC.

3 For simplicity, the term museum educator is used to describe all people employed or volunteering in a museum to work primarily but not exclusively with school groups.

4 Similarly, teachers are those who have brought the group from school, and may also include parents and other helpers accompanying the school group.

5 Tony Sadler and Beryl Morris, Museum Educators Think Aloud on Educational Philosophy, Quoll Enterprises, Seaton, SA, 1989, p. 41.

6 Pamela Clelland Gray, ‘Public learning and the art museum: future directions.’ Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney, Sydney, 2002.

7 Leonie Rennie and Terence McClafferty, ‘Objects and learning: understanding young children’s interaction with science exhibitions’, in Scott Paris (ed.), Perspectives on Object Centered Learning in Museums. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, 2002, pp. 191–211.

8 Formerly at Queensland University of Technology, now at University of British Columbia.

9 David Anderson, Keith Lucas and Ian Ginns, ‘Theoretical perspectives on learning in an informal setting’, National Association for Research in Science Teaching Conference, Boston, MA, 1999.

10 Susan Groundwater-Smith and Lynda Kelly, ‘As we see it: improving learning in the museum’, British Education Research Association Annual Conference, Edinburgh, 2003.

11 Janette Griffin, School-Museum Integrated Learning Experiences in Science, University of Technology, Sydney, PhD Thesis. 1998,

12 Janette Griffin, Carolyn Meehan and David Jay, ‘The other side of evaluating student learning in museums: separating the how from the what’, Museums Australia Conference, Sydney, 2005.

13 Rennie and McClafferty, ‘Objects and learning: understanding young children’s interaction with science exhibitions’.

14 Peter Hoban and Marion Tonkin, ‘Children should be seen AND heard: catering for multiple intelligences in a museum setting’. Presentation at Museums Australia Conference. Adelaide, 2002.

15 Think: Things I know; WINK: What I Need to Know: and Decide: Where and how will I find information at Sovereign Hill. Booklet available for download at

16 Lyn Fasoli, ‘Following the signs: induction of preschool children to the Art Gallery’, Uncover: Graduate Research in the Museum Sector, University of Sydney and the Australian Museum (AMARC), Sydney, 2002.

17 Barbara Piscitelli and Katrina Weier, ‘Learning with, through, and about art: the role of social interactions’, in Scott Paris (ed.), Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums, Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates, Mahwah, NJ, 2002, pp. 121–151.

18 Kathy Stewart, ‘Up the garden path’, Uncover, Vol. 1, 2002, pp. 199–206.

19 David Anderson, A Common Wealth: Museums and Learning in the United Kingdom Department of National Heritage, London, 1997.

20 Lisa Edwards, Museum School Interactions: A Sydney Study, Honours Thesis, Faculty of Education, University of Sydney.

21 Donna Mathewson and Penny McKeon, ‘Disrupting notions of collaboration: the problematic engagement of museums and schools’, Australian Association for Research in Education, Brisbane 2002.

22 Museums in Australia 1975, Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections including the Report of the Planning Committee on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, AGPS, Canberra, 1975, p. 6.

23 The Australian Curriculum website, Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority.

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Cite as: Janette Griffin, 2011, 'The museum education mix: students, teachers and museum educators', in Understanding Museums: Australian museums and museology, Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6