HM - May 2014 - Gilbert

Classroom Applications

Help Students Make the Most of their Visit to the Museum
by Lisa Gilbert
University of Missouri, St. Louis / Missouri History Museum

What makes a museum experience educationally valuable?  When a history teacher seeks to connect students with their community’s resources by bringing them out of the classroom, how can we judge the success of that field trip?

Although our first instincts might be to measure students’ content acquisition before and after the museum visit, we might do well to first ask bigger questions about the nature of museum experiences. 
For example, few would believe that they had fulfilled the requirements of an undergraduate anatomy course simply by visiting a science center exhibit.  Yet in history museums, there often seems to be a sense that a museum exhibit, when properly attended to, will give the visitor content knowledge equivalent to reading a scholarly work.

Unrealistic expectations are a sure recipe for stress, and as educators we can push back before we pass this tension on to our students.  Fortunately, the museum studies literature provides ample grounds for doing so.  Researchers have long emphasized that museums are multifaceted institutions that serve as platforms for multiple kinds of experiences, from recreation to education.

Looking at their work, what practical advice can we offer teachers who want to make the most out of their field trip experiences?

1)Harness the power of social interactions.
Many adult visitors value the ways museums provide a meaningful place to spend time with friends and family.  Why should student visitors be any different?  In fact, the social component of the museum experience features more prominently than content in adults’ long term memories of field trips (Falk & Dierking, 1997); 15-20 years down the road, it’s not uncommon to be able to remember things like the classmate one sat next to on the bus.
The social aspect of field trips is important, and can be capitalized for learning.  As an adult who has given hundreds of educational gallery tours, it pains me to admit it, but a 2013 study found peer-to-peer conversations to be more effective than adult-child interactions. (Falk & Dierking, 2013)  Indeed, rather than insisting on strict attention or reverent silence, our energy would be better spent exploring how conversations can be “important learning tools for higher levels of understanding.” (Astor-Jack et al, 2007, p. 220)

2)Treat students of all grade levels more like adult visitors.
As educators, we want to share our love of lifelong learning with our students.  When it comes to museums, though, sometimes we go about it in an odd way, demanding that students display behaviors that are uncommon in adult visitors.
Think of the last time you visited a museum: what brought you there?  Who were you with?  Did you visit the gift shop, or linger in the cafe?
When I think about my experiences in museums, I realize that my appreciation goes beyond the ways they increase my knowledge about our history.  Museums also give me interesting places to explore in the company of good friends.  While there, our conversations might drift away from the exhibit content, but we still go home feeling intellectually satisfied.

Spending a few hours conducting one’s own study of museum visitors is probably the surest cure for this double standard between adult and student engagement.  It probably won’t take long to recognize what hundreds of tracking studies have demonstrated: that visitors “move through exhibitions in apparently random, unsystematic ways.” (Rounds, 2004, p.391)  Serrell (1998) compiled over one hundred studies of visitor behavior and found that “visitors typically stop at between 20 percent and 40 percent of an exhibition.” (Serrell, 1998, p. 21, quoted in Rounds, 2004, p. 391)

If adult visitors who freely choose which galleries they walk into are categorized as “diligent” when they view just 51% or more of its components (Serrell, 1998, p. 15), why do we expect children to do more, especially in exhibits they may not have chosen to enter on their own?  Further, adults would be indignant if a gallery attendant admonished them to pay better attention, but we routinely redirect students away from behavior that the adults next to them are free to indulge in.

After many years in the museum education field, I can promise you this: if nothing else, your students will leave knowing what a museum is.  It can be a wonderful place to spend time with friends, somewhere that we see exceptional things and consider new ideas.  Or it can be a stressful place where we get the sense we’re not fully welcome.  I’d argue only one of these concepts is more likely to lead to lifelong museum visitation.  Fortunately, as educators, we set the tone for our students’ visits, in ways large and small.

3)Before your visit, prepare students to build skills in museum literacy.
Museums are fairly unique spaces, and yet we often assume children already know how to make use of them.  There’s nothing intuitive about exhibits – if children haven’t been in these spaces before, how are they to know that they can learn more about from a display by reading bits of text placed at a remove from the objects they describe?  The closest analogy is perhaps a store, where price tags relate to goods for sale.  Is it any wonder, then, that many students’ exhibit browsing looks quite a bit like window shopping?  From a sociocultural perspective, the students are behaving in a sensical and predicable way.
Teachers can prepare their students for success by focusing their preparation on the concept of museums themselves more so than their content.  Following the visit, students can sharpen their critical thinking skills by writing museum exhibit reviews.  The Missouri History Museum recommends that students’ reviews focus on the following questions: “1) What story does the museum want to tell me?  2) What tools does the museum use to tell me this story? 3) Does the museum succeed in telling the story it wants to?”  (Missouri History Museum, 2012)  To these questions we might add another: 4) Is this the right story to tell?

Knowing that they need to answer these questions helps students to be attentive not only to the exhibit content, but to developing their own critical perspective on its historical narrative.  This practice, in turn, helps build key historical literacy skills, drawing attention to the creation of a narrative rather than simply swallowing a finished story.

4)Recognize – and celebrate! – the experience itself.
Know that museum professionals believe an exhibit’s content to be just one aspect of a visitor’s experience.  We think about everything from the way the right lighting can engender emotions to the way a layout can help or hinder accessibility – to say nothing of the friendliness of the guest services staff, or the initial impressions formed in the parking lot.  (Really!  See Falk & Dierking, 2013, pp. 173-194 for more on the implicit messages visitors glean from everything from bathrooms to gift shops.)

Meaning is everywhere, and who knows what will stay in a visitor’s memory?  Just as good schools create ripple effects in their students’ lives for years onward, the impact of a museum visit might take many forms, and not show up for a decade or more.

Rounds (2004) provides a robust explanation of why this is so.  Museums aren’t well suited to deep explorations of a particular topic (again, imagine the difference between even an assiduous viewing of an exhibit, compared with the gains made over the course of a semester in a graduate seminar).  But they are particularly well suited to curiosity-driven exploration in the service of identity work, where we pick up bits of ideas that we might need for the person we’ll need to become years from now.

Museums are also good for grasping large ideas rather than specific instances.  For example, Rounds (2006) gives the example of a bird hall in a natural history museum: very few visitors will take the time to examine every specimen, memorize its Latin name, and learn how to fit it into Linnaean taxonomy for themselves.  But most visitors will grasp the general principle that living organisms can be organized, and that we can find ourselves in a bigger world.  (Rounds, 2006, p. 140 and p. 147)

Thus, if we want to see the forest for the trees, we don’t want to design scavenger hunts to ensure students are picking up twigs of information.  Instead, we want to become students of what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’, an inherently pleasurable state in which body and mind become completely immersed in a given activity.  This refocuses our attention on process rather than product, following advice from Packer (2006) to “concentrate as much on the experience of learning as...on the learning outcomes attained.”  (Packer, 2006, p. 341)

Speaking specifically about museum experiences, Csikszentmihalyi and Hermanson recommend that “the link between the museum and the visitor’s life needs to be made clear.  To inspire intrinsic motivation, the objects one finds and the experiences one enjoys, while possibly inspiring awe and a sense of discovery, should not feel disconnected from one’s own life.” (Csikszentmihalyi & Hermanson, 1995, p. 37)

Anchored in this understanding, we can enjoy field trips more ourselves, freed from a preoccupation with whether students are reading every label.  Instead, let’s focus on the ways students find meanings of all kinds in the exhibits we bring them to – even and especially meanings that contribute to their sense of themselves and their world.

Sharing these essential questions of civic engagement provides a vision for how schools and museums can unite, even while maintaining their distinct institutional characters.  As history educators of all kinds, what could be better?
Astor-Jack, T., Whaley, K. L. K., Dierking, L. D., Perry, D. L., & Garibay, C. (2007).

Investigating socially mediated learning. In J. H. Falk, L. D. Dierking & S. Foutz (Eds.),

In principle, in practice: Museums as learning institutions (pp. 217-228). Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Hermanson, K. (1995.) Intrinsic motivation in museums: What makes visitors want to learn? Museum News, May/June 1995, 34-61.
Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L.D. (1997).  School field trips: Assessing their long-term impact.  Curator, 40(3), 211-218.
Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L.D. (2013).  The museum experience revisited.  Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.

Missouri History Museum. (2012). Going beyond the scavenger hunt: Guidelines for meaningful self-guided experiences for K-12 students.  Saint Louis, MO.

Packer, J.  2006.  Learning for fun: The unique contribution of educational leisure experiences. Curator: The Museum Journal 49 (3): 329–344.

Rounds, J. 2004. Strategies for the curiosity-driven museum visitor. Curator: The Museum Journal 47 (4): 389–412.
Rounds, J.  2006. Doing identity work in museums. Curator: The Museum Journal 49 (2): 133–150.
Serrell, B. 1998. Paying Attention: Visitors and Museum Exhibitions. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.
About the author:
Lisa Gilbert is a doctoral student at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis, where she focuses on the ways experiences in ‘third spaces’ can influence human development and the life course.  She is the K-12 Programs Manager at the Missouri History Museum and previously worked as an educational interpreter at the McCord Museum of Canadian History in downtown Montreal.