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

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Lynda Kelly is Head of Audience Research, Australian Museum. More about Lynda Kelly

Family visitors to museums in Australia
by Lynda Kelly

Museums in Australia have recognised the need to become more responsive to their audiences, especially families who both visit museums and see the value of them. Changes in family and social structures have provided opportunities for museums to play an important role in social engagement and bonding and for meeting the learning requirements of families in this complex information age. Research has consistently found that positive early family visits to museums have a significant impact on later visiting habits. [1]

Families are a key audience for museums in Australia. For example, at the Australian Museum, Sydney and the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, they account for over half the number of visitors. In regional museums in New South Wales, contrary to established beliefs, almost one-third of visitors are families. Research has established that families access a wide range of information sources when learning together during their visits to museums. When people visit museums as young children with their family they are more likely to visit when they are older. [2]

This chapter will discuss museum visits and family life and how families form successful learning units illustrated through examples from research with families visiting an Australian Museum exhibition. The principal gains from recent research are the recognition of the importance of learning in family visits and the different roles that various family members play before, during and after their visit.

Families in the new century

The forces of social change, economic circumstances, increasing divorce rates, remarriage/re-partnering, and changing living patterns have meant that the term ‘family’ is not as straightforward as it was in the past.

The Institute of Family Studies, Australia, defined a family as a group of individuals related by blood, marriage, adoption or cohabitation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics also has a similar but more detailed description: a family is two or more persons, one of whom is at least 15 years of age, who are related by blood, marriage (registered or de facto), adoption, step or fostering, and who are usually resident in the same household. [3] The common elements in these definitions are that there is some type of relationship, and that the group themselves identify as a family unit.

John Falk and Lynn Dierking of the Institute for Learning Innovation (and now Oregon State University), who have carried out extensive studies of learning in museums, recognise that families are ‘those who self-define themselves as a family (in other words, all members are not necessarily biologically related)’. [4]

As in other countries, there have been significant changes in the nature of family groupings in Australia in the past 20 years. Families consisting of couples with children of any age remain the most prevalent type of family in Australia. However, between 1986 and 2001 the number of one-parent families increased by 53 per cent, and couple families without children living with them increased by 33 per cent. Consequently, two-parent families with children are forming a smaller proportion of all families — 47 per cent of families in 2001, down from 54 per cent in 1986. [5] Due to these demographic shifts, museums are increasingly using the term ‘intergenerational groups’ to refer to mixed groups of people, including children, who are related in some way.

Families in Australian museums

Museums in Australia have long recognised the importance of families as visitors, with several establishing separate spaces for these groups, especially those with very young children. Patricia McDonald, the first professional education officer employed by the Australian Museum, in reviewing the history of educational activities at the Australian Museum, observed, ‘From its inception the Australian Museum has been regarded as an educational institution and its activities have been concerned with increasing general public interest in and knowledge of the natural sciences’. [6] The Museum has provided programs for students and children since the early 1920s, with the establishment of a special Children’s Room in 1962.

Due to both audience demand and changes in thinking about how people – particularly children – learned, the Museum developed the Discovery Room, one of the earliest interactive spaces and one heavily used by families. This was followed by a whole exhibition floor dedicated to interactive learning specifically aimed at children and families (the Discovery Space). Since that time these areas have undergone several iterations, with the establishment of the popular Search and Discover in 1998 and Kids’ Island in 1999 as active, hands-on exploratory learning spaces catering specifically to children and their families, and drawing on the Museum’s collection strengths and research expertise.

The latest key development in family programming has been the opening of Kidspace in 2007 as part of the Museum’s redevelopment. These developments were informed by extensive evaluation with both adults and children, which repeatedly found families commenting on the importance of having spaces for young children within the Museum that were enjoyable, promoted hands-on learning, and stimulated children’s curiosity and creativity while providing a chance to explore and discover within the special context of the family.

Two other major museums developed dedicated spaces specifically designed for children and families during the past 10 years. The Melbourne Museum’s Children’s Gallery is aimed at three- to eight-year-olds and has a mandate to encourage discovery and exploration within a range of science issues. The aim was to provide an interactive, hands-on and playful space that engages all the senses through continually updated exhibitions. The National Museum of Australia developed Kspace, an interactive, technology-focused space where children ‘design their own future’. In addition, Our Place was designed as a series of cubbies for children to explore the Museum’s themes in their own ways, as well as being useful programming spaces.

The Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, when developing its Pirates program for families, realised that, in exhibitions aimed at children, the accompanying adults also needed something to occupy them. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, while catering for family audiences through its many exhibitions (both permanent and temporary) and programs, recognised the value of a dedicated space for children who were visiting with their parents. The interactive installation, Zoe’s House, caters specifically for children aged three to six years to facilitate both cooperative and creative play in children.

All these examples demonstrate an approach to programming for families that is based on constructivist learning principles [7], being interactive, playful and learner-centred, while encouraging social interaction through providing something for all ages.

Families and learning in museums

Learning is a key reason for museum visits generally, by individuals, small groups and families. People who visit museums value learning and seek opportunities to learn in many ways. Those who visit more often are usually better educated. ‘The primary reason most people attend museums, whether by themselves or with their children, is in order to learn … [therefore, they are] likely to see museums as places that provide opportunities for them to expand their own and their children’s learning horizons’. [8]

Why is the family such an important learning unit? Culture plays a strong role in learning survival and life skills, with much of this being learned through the family. Studies of literacy and adult learning suggested that an orientation to lifelong learning and readiness to learn in later life is strongly linked to the family. [9] Families live and learn together, and the attitudes and behaviours developed there continue through later life, including their visits to museums. [10] ‘Family members talk about what they know from previous experiences and memories … these discussions provide opportunities for parents to reinforce past experiences and family history and develop a shared understanding among family members.’ [11]

Whereas earlier research indicated that the principal motivation for visits to museums by families was to give opportunities for social interaction, many more recent studies reveal that family conversations and behaviours in museums are centred on learning. [12] Family interactions strongly influence how people learn in later life, particularly in forming attitudes, values and views of the world. [13] Learning is a key ‘life skill’ that assists a child develop along the right ‘life path’: ‘With the correct guidance from the family you hope that they will have a better life with all these learning skills that they have gained.’ [14] Over time a family’s behaviour is developed and refined and, through the rich experiences provided by museums, families become more successful as learning units.

Visitors also recognise the important role that museums play in learning about difficult or sensitive issues. Adults visiting the Australian Museum’s Indigenous Australians exhibition felt that it was important for them and their children to learn more about Australia’s Indigenous cultures in order to understand and reflect on past injustices and to better comprehend contemporary issues. [15] Parents with children aged less than five years visiting an Indigenous program at the Australian Museum felt it was critical that their children were introduced to Indigenous issues from an early age to help prepare them for later learning. These families especially valued their visit because it filled gaps in the adults’ knowledge about Indigenous subjects and issues and helped them become more confident when talking to their children about these issues. [16]

Family visits to museums in Australia share a number of characteristics. [17] When families voluntarily choose to visit museums they wish both to learn and engage in social interaction in a recreational context. They take time for orientation, enter with a sense of curiosity, bring with them a set of prior experiences and a personal agendas, link what they see to their own prior experiences, are most attracted to concrete and/or interactive displays, have a common viewing behaviour which involves looking very closely at each display in the first gallery, then skimming and moving randomly in subsequent galleries. The visiting behaviour is modified by increased experience with the setting: they like to revisit favourite displays, share their viewing and learning in a social context, enjoy and remember interactions with people from the museum, respond to physical needs by sitting or having a break after little more than an hour and generally stay for less than two hours.

Research has found that visitors play three roles which are particularly relevant to the family group during the visit: visit manager by directing and organising; museum expert through explaining, clarifying and correcting; and learning-facilitator in questioning, linking, reminiscing and wondering. [18] These roles occur simultaneously, are closely linked to the process of learning and are dependent on both the social context of the visit and the group composition, particularly the ages of any accompanying children.

Adults spend as much time playing the visit manager role and engaging their children as looking at displays themselves. Adults have many strategies on hand to manage their children’s needs, such as distracting them, asking questions and directing their attention to something they might like.

Accompanying adults play a key role in facilitating family learning: ‘Parents can be effective facilitators for their children’s learning when exhibitions are designed with collaborative learning in mind and when adults feel comfortable with the content and experiences provided in the museum’. [19] Mothers and fathers take different roles during a visit, mothers being more concerned with the logistics of the visit whilst fathers see museums as ‘family business’. [20] Parents often play a ‘teaching’ role in a museum visit,[21] and assist learning through drawing on their own experiences, and they often took ‘central control’ over the visit. [22]

The mood and behaviour of the child may influence the learning that takes place through its impact on the accompanying adults. Adults sometimes have to spend time trying to activate interest and enthusiasm from a disengaged and bored child, which can also create tension if the adult wants to see something that appeals to them, as illustrated in another conversation of the same family.

Families sharing learning

Research has consistently shown that social interaction promotes learning and that the role of the parent is critical. A key finding of one study of learning in children’s museums showed that ‘children stayed longer at exhibits and learned more when they were accompanied by an adult who was actively involved in the activities’. [23] Museum behaviours of family members include reading labels together, discussing what they are looking at and asking each other questions. These family interactions stimulate learning, providing an extensive, continuous reciprocal influence on visitor/exhibit interactions. [24]

Paulette McManus, a UK-based museum audience researcher, also described family visitors as ‘hunter-gatherers’:

actively foraging in the museum to satisfy their curiosity about the topics and objects which museum professionals collect and study … [This] behaviour is practical and economical since the exploration and information-gathering is shared out between the family members. [25]

There is a two-way sharing of learning between parent and child: each has expertise and experience to share. Different levels of expertise can emerge among group members that provide a wider range of explanations than occur among groups with a balanced level of expertise among its members. [26]

Linking to prior, present and past experiences

Visitors engage with exhibitions through the lens of their personal experiences and identity. [27] They make personal meanings from the objects they are looking at and connect these to their own lives. [28]

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill of the University of Leicester in England, well-known internationally for her work on museum communications and education, concluded from her research on teachers and students in the United Kingdom that children exhibited more positive learning identities after visiting a museum. Families can get very excited about exhibitions, holding animated discussions about the many things they had seen and learned in a positive and confident manner.

Tales of successful learners: families visiting museums

‘Museum experiences embedded within children’s familiar culture and contexts are powerful mediators of memory, enjoyment and learning in these settings’. [29] New museum experiences are linked with familiar prior knowledge, there is a strong tendency to share learning with family members, the physical needs of visitors and their ‘natural’ viewing itinerary must be addressed, curiosity and choice in learning selections are important.

Parents facilitate learning when the exhibits allow for collaborative participation and they feel comfortable with the information. [30] Adults’ views of knowledge, such as understanding the tentative nature of science knowledge, influence the way they interact with their children and how they convey the learning process. Parents make use of learning facilities such as open access libraries and activity kits if they know they are there and understand their role. Family members each take notice of different aspects of an exhibit and construct a shared meaning together.

Museums are one part of the family’s free-choice learning activities. Parents consider museum visits to be valuable in creating and strengthening relationships with their children, in spending quality time together, in sharing experiences and in enabling them to tune into what fascinates their children. Museums are seen as a good day out, something the whole family can enjoy as a different form of education and are considered generally good value for money. [31]

In this increasingly complex world, where the real and virtual are blurring and where changes in society can seem overwhelming, museums are able to provide spaces for families to be together as well as learn together. Parents value museum visits because they provide children with opportunities to learn in different ways through bringing concepts to life and enhancing school learning experiences. They stimulate visitors of all ages and open their minds to new ideas, the world around them, history and other cultures. Children enjoy museums as places where they can fantasise, explore and learn in ways that are more engaging than they experience in more formal settings, such as school. The challenge for museums is to use the elements that families value, the ways they interact with museums, and how they operate as extremely effective learning units to apply these principles, not only to the development of future exhibitions and programs but also the ways they plan for other group visitors to museums.


1 J Falk and L Dierking, Learning from Museums: visitor experiences and the making of meaning, AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, 2000.

2 For a comprehensive list of references see L Kelly, G Savage, J Griffin and S Tonkin, Knowledge Quest: Australian families visit museums, Australian Museum, Sydney, 2004, and L Kelly, Visitors and Learners: adult museum visitors' learning identities, University of Technology, Sydney, 2007.

3 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Social Trends, Canberra, 2007.

4 Falk and Dierking, Learning from Museums, p. 110.

5 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Directory of Child and Family Statistics. Canberra, 2000

6 In Ron Strahan (ed.), Rare and Curious Specimens: an illustrated history of the Australian Museum 1827–1979, Australian Museum, Sydney, 1979, p. 151.

7 George Hein of Lesley College, Cambridge, MA, was instrumental in highlighting the application of constructivist learning principles in museum exhibitions: see George E Hein, Learning in the Museum, Routledge, London, 1998.

8 J Falk, T Moussouri, and D Coulson, ‘The Effect of Visitors' Agendas on Museum Learning’, Curator: The Museum Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2, 1998, p. 40.

9 K Rubenson, ‘Adults' Readiness to Learn: Questioning Lifelong Learning for All’, paper presented at the Australian Association for Educational Research, Sydney, 2000.

10 L Kelly et al, Knowledge Quest.

11 Falk and Dierking, Learning from Museums, p. 93

12 G Leinhardt, C Tittle, and K Knutson, ‘Talking to Oneself: diaries of museum visits’, in G Leinhardt, K Crowley and K Knutson (eds), Learning Conversations in Museums, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah 2000, pp. 103–133; for other references see Kelly, et al, Knowledge Quest, and Kelly, Visitors and Learners.

13 Kelly, Visitors and Learners.

14 Kelly, 2007 Interview Transcript 3.2: From an interview with an adult visitor discussing their approach to learning.

15 L Kelly and P Gordon, ‘Developing a Community of Practice: museums and reconciliation in Australia’, in R Sandell (ed.), Museums, Society, Inequality, Routledge, London, 2002, pp. 153–174 .

16 Australian Museum Audience Research Centre, Early Childhood Program Evaluation Report, ms, Australian Museum, Sydney, 2006.

17 Kelly et al, Knowledge Quest.

18 These and the following specific comments result from a study of families visiting an exhibition at the Australian Museum, Uncovered: Treasures of the Australian Museum (2004). The exhibition dealt with why, how and what the Museum had collected by detailing the stories, images and voices behind some of the most important discoveries of the previous 175 years. It also explained why collections were so important and outlined past, present and future Museum scientific research; for further details see Kelly, Visitors and Learners.

19 Falk and Dierking, Learning from Museums, p. 95.

20 S Stanton, ‘Museums, Families and Cultural Models’, Visitor Studies Today!, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1999, pp. 6–9.

21 K Ellenbogen, ‘Museums in Family Life: An Ethnographic Case Study’, in G Leinhardt, K Crowley and K Knutson (eds), Learning Conversations in Museums, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah 2002, pp. 81–101.

22 D Ash, ‘Negotiations of Thematic Conversations About Biology’, in Leinhardt, Crowley and Knutson (eds), Learning Conversations in Museums, pp. 357–400.

23 L Puchner, R Rapoport and S Gaskins, ‘Learning in Children's Museums: is it really happening?’ Curator: The Museum Journal, Vol. 44, No. 3, 2001, pp. 237–259.

24 L Dierking, ‘Historical Survey of Theories of Learning’, in G Durbin (ed.), Developing Museum Exhibitions for Lifelong Learning, HMSO, London for GEM, Group for Education in Museums, 1996, pp. 21–24; J Diamond, ‘The Behaviour of Family Groups in Science Museums’, Curator: The Museum Journal, Vol. 29, No. 2, 1986, pp. 139–154.

25 P McManus, ‘Families in Museums’, in R Miles and Zavala (eds), Towards Museums of the Future: new European perspectives, Routledge, London, 1994.

26 J Fienberg and G Leinhardt, ‘Looking Through the Glass: reflections of identity in conversations at a history museum’, in Leinhardt, Crowley and Knutson (eds), Learning Conversations in Museums, pp. 357–400.

27 Stanton, Museums, Families and Cultural Models’.

28 Leinhardt, Tittle and Knutson, ‘Talking to Oneself’, p. 91.

29 D Anderson, B Piscitelli, K Weier, M Everett and C Tayler, ‘Children's Museum Experiences: identifying powerful mediators of learning’, Curator: The Museum Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3, 2002, pp. 213–231.

30 Falk and Dierking, Learning from Museums.

31 Blue Moon Research and Planning. Qualitative study for Australian Museum Forward Plan, ms, Australian Museum, Sydney, 1998.

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Cite as: Lynda Kelly, 2011, 'Family visitors to museums in Australia', 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