Being There: What is the educational function of museums?

I am interested, with Dr Tracy Lau in Hong Kong, in setting up a project that looks at the educational purposes and uses of museums, art galleries and out-of-school experience.

WEF has a long history of trying to ensure that life inside the school connects with and informs life outside the school. And visits to museums and art galleries have played an important part in that kind of education, which is intended to link school work with outside cultural concerns.

There is obviously something important about being in the presence of authentic cultural products. People travel half way around the world to see the Mona Lisa, or to stand on the Spanish Steps. But what is it about that experience that requires presence. Any purely cognitive content might be caught on film, or shown in a first class colour reproduction. Venice might be reconstructed in Las Vegas. So what is it that people think they are doing when they go to museums? And why do teachers think that the experience of going to museums is valuable for the pupils in their charge?

There is a strand of thought that suggests that there are distinct ways of knowing things (Hirst and Peters, The Logic of Education, 1971: Phenix, Realms of Meaning, 1964). There are historical ways of understanding, aesthetic, religious, mathematical, scientific and emotional. There is no consensus on the exact number of different ways of knowing, but something between five and seven is usually suggested. There is something about a Rembrandt self-portrait or a Gainsborough still life that catches the eye of the observer across a room of very distinguished paintings. That is an aesthetic experience that does not depend on knowledge that it is a Rembrandt or a Gainsborough, although a knowledge of the history of art may help in the development of a critical aesthetic understanding.

There is something awe-inspiring about looking at the jewellery or votive figures made by people three thousand years ago and to be confronted with that continuity of hopes and concerns that they share with us. So museums, whether they are science museums, art galleries or historical collections, clearly have a purpose that goes beyond merely presenting knowledge that could be learned from a film or a text book. They are about the emotional engagement with authentic artefacts.

However, there is a difficulty here. Museums are clearly about more than just meeting a selection of articles. In the first place, as noted above, knowing about an object can enhance the experience of it. So museums can provide some context for the objects they display. At a minimum, this might be information given on a display label, although knowing the name of the painter and the title of the picture may not be enough to add very much to the experience. There is something rather worrying about people going through a display of gemstones and reading the labels which say “Opal”, “Aquamarine” or “Quartz”, as though knowing the name of something was inherently important. Something more in the way of context may be needed than just a name ticket.

On the other hand, there are certain aspects of museums that are very definitely not about confronting authentic objects. Some displays are simulations that are designed to stimulate the imagination and bring the context to life in the mind of the observer. Examples might be the simulated passage down the bore hole of an oil well in Houston Museum of Natural Science, or the simulated journey through an underground coal mine in the Rhondda Heritage Park. These are definitely not about “real” experiences but are about creating a context where history can be understood in a particular way.

In between these extremes of the direct experience of an object and its aesthetic value in an art gallery and the creation of a simulated experience that conveys a sense of the context of objects that might be on display elsewhere in the museum there are all sorts of shades of exhibits which explicitly or implicitly hint at a context, as might be the case of a stuffed animal displayed in a glass case with a partial representation of its supposed environment, or provide ample and explicit context through display panels or audio guides , which may or may not be used by the people who attend the museum. The context of art may be implicitly presented through the grouping of paintings and sculptures in a room, or explicitly set out in a detailed catalogue. There may not be a simple answer to the question of what a museum is for, but it at least is important to ask the question, especially if museums are to serve an educational purpose in supporting the school curriculum.

There is an important difference between seeing the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and seeing an accurate replica made from resin at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. But what is the difference? They look exactly the same. You can read exactly the same text and see the different scripts in exactly the same way on both. If you did not know which you were looking at, the experience would be pretty much the same. But in the British Museum you are stimulated to think, “This is the actual stone, the discovery of which unlocked the mystery of ancient systems of writing”. In the Houston Museum of Natural Science you are stimulated to think something about the historical importance of the Rosetta Stone, but not to believe that you are actually in its presence. And if that is not the case, that seeing the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum adds something to the experience, why would we go to the trouble of keeping artefacts in museums? Why not just give every school a replica, or a holograph, of the Rosetta Stone?

So what is it that people think they are learning or experiencing when they go to any kind of museum? What kind of knowledge do they hope to develop, and what are the best ways of stimulating the kind of experience that they want? Perhaps more importantly, when adults take children to a museum, what kind of experience do they want the child to have, and what kind of knowledge do they hope the child will develop?

Of course, a visit to a museum can have many benefits. For a parent, it is a way to get the children out of the house during the summer holidays, it is somewhere to go when it is raining, and it is a way of helping your children with school projects. For a teacher it may be no more than a change of scenery, and the hope that it will motivate an interest in an academic study, without any clear idea of exactly how that will come about. But on the assumption that at least some of the purposes of museum visits are educational, we are interested in developing a study to examine how people hope that museums will have an educational effect.

We are thinking of a preliminary review of the literature on different kinds of knowledge, and how museums are supposed to contribute to their development. But any ideas or thoughts that you have about the educational use of such museums and galleries, particularly as the destination of school trips, would be very welcome.

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