Monday, August 13, 2012

Tips for Consciously Learning in Museums (without Killing the Fun)

by Saul Carliner

The summer travel season, when many of us explore new places and experience new things, is ripe with opportunities for true informal learning—that is, learning where you, as the learner, set the objectives and determine for yourself when you have achieved them. 

(This differs from informal learning for the workplace, which represents more of a partnership between employers and workers on the process, content, location, and purpose of learning, and—like other types of informal learning—can happen consciously or unconsciously. See Chapter 1 of Informal Learning Basics for more about these definitions.)

Some might learn a new sport. Some might try a new artistic activity, like journal writing or painting.  Some might try their hand at cooking a different type of cuisine.  Some might hike new paths. 

And some, like me, might explore new museums.  Museums captured my imagination at a young age, fostered my intellectual awakening, and provided many hours of wonder about—and engagement with—art, history, science, nature, and even music.  More immediate to the point, museums fostered my interest in informal learning, because that’s what they do.

So how can you get the most from your museum visit—without killing it?  Here are some tips.

Start with a flexible agenda.  From the get-go, give yourself permission to wander and explore whatever strikes your fancy. This museum visit isn’t a business meeting where you have specific tasks to accomplish; it’s supposed to be fun.  So don’t kill it by over-planning it.

Once inside, focus on what interests you.   See something that catches your attention?  Go to it.  Gaze at it. Read about it.  Linger all you want, or leave in an instant if it doesn’t seem to be what you thought it was.  You have free choice to explore; that’s why museums call the type of learning that goes on within their walls free-choice learning.

Follow the efforts to attract your attention.  Part of the fun of a museum is the unexpected discovery and exhibit designers go out of their way to provide you with opportunities to have one or two of those.  Enticing you to the museum to see a special exhibition, designers purposely place it in the back of the museum so that you’ll have to walk past the permanent exhibition—and perhaps, wander into it (much like grocery stores place the milk at the back to entice you to purchase something else along the way).

Within exhibits, designers try to beckon visitors to explore by effectively using sight lines and sizes of objects to catch your attention.  Or they might use sound or similar audiovisual devices to attract visitors to other parts of the exhibition or building. 

Get a general sense of what’s going on.  Unlike a casino, where they shut off access to daylight and remove all the clocks so you’ll keep gambling, museums are not trying to disorient you. 

On the contrary, museum design teams want you to know where you are and what you’re seeing.  That’s why most designers place orientation labels in each gallery so you’ll know the topic addressed in that gallery and why it’s significant. 

When something interests you a bit, go a bit deeper.  Some galleries strike a chord and motivate visitors to learn more about the topic.  That’s why most museum exhibition designers—especially in science, history, technology, cultural, and similar museums—provide a second set of labels, each of which explores a key theme within the broad topic of the gallery. 

These labels usually define the key theme and explain its relationship to the main topic of the gallery, and provide additional context.  In some exhibitions, thematic labels highlight some key or signature objects in the gallery. 

If something interests you a lot, go even deeper than that.  In some instances, either because you have an innate interest in the theme of the exhibition or because the exhibition designers inspired interest, you want to learn even more—about the broad themes and about individual objects. 

So many museums provide additional labels that go into further depth about the topic.  Section or case labels describe a sub-theme within a particular theme; object labels provide details on each object. 

When you’re not sure what to do, get “help.”  Most museums offer guided tours by trained guides, called docents. The tours are usually free, so if you’re not sure where to begin your visit or what to view while in the building, try this option.  Docents are trained to make sure you see key highlights of the collection on display, but most add a personal story or two and in the process of doing so, share their infectious enthusiasm for the museum.  So even though you might start a visit with little interest, the docent might inspire some. 

Docent tours also make sense when you face a language barrier .  Most museums display labels in a limited number of languages.  If yours isn’t one of them, you might miss out on the experience because you can’t get information about galleries and objects that interest you. Many museums offer tours in languages other than the ones on display. 

But some people still feel uncomfortable with docent tours.  Ask if the museum has a translation of the exhibition labels.  Some have special books that you can use within the museum; others have “apps” on the iPad or audioguides (that is, audio devices you can use while in the museum) that provide information in your language. 

And if nothing interests you, don’t read anything.  You can just look at the objects and appreciate them for what they are—something to look at.  Or just sit on a bench and observe the other visitors interacting with the exhibition. 

That’s the key characteristic of free-choice learning: you’re free to choose whether or not you feel like learning about something—or learn about anything at all.

And to be honest, most museums have so many exhibitions and so many labels that you couldn’t read everything on a single visit if you wanted to.  (That also gives you a reason to return.) 

Continue your learning.  Over the next several posts, I’ll share some thoughts about museums I’ve recently visited.  Maybe that will spark your interest in visiting one of the ones mentioned—or another one of your choice. 

Tip: For more information about the links between informal learning and museums, see the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Informal Learning Basics.   

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