Making a difference: what have we learned about visitor learning?

An overall picture of visitor learning at the Australian Museum drawn from a range of audience research studies conducted at the Australian Museum

Learning is a key issue for museums to address. Museums are positioning themselves in the market as places for learning and, at the same time, research has shown that people visit museums to learn. Learning is becoming increasingly important as museums struggle for relevance in the new century, with increased competition and choice for consumers, sophisticated expectations of leisure experiences, lifelong learning, as well as the ongoing need for museums to be accountable for all facets of their work to a wider range of stakeholders and communities. In writing about the decline of science centres, Bradburne argues that in order to survive, museums need to make a conceptual shift in their thinking from teaching facts to facilitating enquiry, " visitors can leave not saying 'I know' but rather 'I know how to know'." (1998:119).

If, as Bradburne envisions, the new museum will be "...a place where communities of learners can work together to generate new knowledge" (1998:127), visitor studies has a critical role to play in finding out how people are learning from their museum experiences as well as promoting organisational learning and the ability for change. Visitor studies must become a key core museum activity that will enhance museums' capacity to respond to user needs and promote museums as places for lifelong learning. How many museums are taking the opportunity to use visitor studies as a strategic management tool?

There is a vast literature about how people learn and how they learn in informal contexts, including museums (Crane, Nicholson, Chen and Bitgood, 1994; Falk and Dierking, 1995; Roschelle, 1995; Hein and Alexander, 1998; Hein, 1998). There has been less work investigating the impact of museum visiting on subsequent learning through changes in attitudes and behaviour. Research has been undertaken with specific types of visitors such as families (Borun, Chambers, and Cleghorn, 1996; Moussouri, 1997), school children (Birney, 1988; Falk and Dierking, 1992; Griffin, 1998) and adult museum visitors (McManus, 1993; Silverman, 1995; Falk and Dierking, 1997; Falk, Moussouri, and Coulson, 1998). Most of these, however, are limited to either targeted, one-off studies or to particular types of visitors.

This paper identifies twelve key themes arising from the learning literature, and through a metaanalysis of recent audience research and evaluation projects undertaken by the Australian Museum Audience Research Centre, looks for evidence of visitor learning in relation to each theme. The Australian Museum in Sydney is Australia's oldest natural history museum, established in 1827. The Museum aims to excite visitors' minds about natural history, cultural heritage and the interaction of human cultures with the environment. The Museum has implemented a vigorous program of audience research over the past five years using a variety of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, including visitor surveys, depth interviews, focus groups, tracking and observational studies (Kelly, 2000a). Based on this body of work an overall picture of visitor learning at the Australian Museum
across a broad range of programs and audiences can be drawn.

1. Learning is a social activity

People usually visit museums as part of some social group (Falk, 1998). 54% of visitors to the Australian Museum visit with a family group and 18% with friends, with school groups accounting for approximately 20% of visitors (Kelly, 1999a).

Research undertaken with parents of children who had recently visited the Museum looked at the value they placed on museums as places for family learning (Kelly, 2000a). Parents said that a museum outing provided their family with opportunities to learn in different ways. They considered museum visiting as valuable in creating and strengthening bonds with their children and as something all the family could enjoy in an informal environment. They stated that the ideal museum visit catered for both children and adults in the ways that they learn and engage with material, so that they can experience learning together. Research by Stanton (1999) found similar outcomes: parents have beliefs about parenting practices in terms of what is essential and what is good practice. Women saw museums as a parenting resource and a productive use of leisure time, and men saw museums as 'family business', places where learning and entertainment is combined.

A study of why parents visited Kids' Island, a special exhibition for children aged 0 to 5 years, found that the 'ideal state' that families visiting the Museum wished to achieve was to learn. The mother most frequently initiated the visit, taking responsibility for information gathering, with the final decision to visit made jointly by adults and children (Mitchell, 1999). A series of recent exit surveys showed that people visited the Australian Museum for a number of reasons: to learn, because of the interests of their children/family, for entertainment, for special exhibitions and to experience something new, with the visit being planned only a few days before.

2. Learning is a sensory experience

Visitors are well aware that sensory experiences are important. Parents reported that children are kept engrossed through engaging all the senses with colour, movement, surprise and lots of different things to touch, play and interact with. After a tour through parts of the Museum's natural history collections, visitors surveyed for a front-end study for an exhibition about biodiversity emphasised the importance of using all senses, especially colour, sound, light and smell, as they had experienced this for themselves in the collection areas (Kelly, 1999b).

3. Learning is facilitated by "real stuff" and living exhibits

In a front end study for an exhibition on bats (1999) visitors thought that live bats were essential to get up close to these creatures to see more about how they behave and, therefore, enhance learning. In the summative evaluation (2000) the same question was asked, with 97% of visitors saying that it was important to have live bats in the exhibition to:

  • get a better idea of what bats do and what they are like;
  • show children the real thing;
  • make the exhibition more complete; because
  • there are limited opportunities to see them in 'real life'.

Real and live things make a lasting impression:

[Live bats] makes a sense of connection to what you're learning about.

For children to see live bats gives them more associations so they learn better.

Tracking studies undertaken in a number of exhibitions (Kelly, 2000a) have shown that, when available, live exhibits are the most attractive, closely followed by dioramas and specimens.

4. Learning is an active process

Parents and children believe that interactivity is important for learning as long as the interaction is meaningful - they value museums for the opportunity to actively learn:

Kids love doing practical things with their hands and seeing things working for themselves instead of just seeing a diagram and explaining.

I find they light up when they tell you about it because they've learned it somewhere else, demonstrating to you their knowledge of a particular subject.

5. Learning is connecting with prior knowledge

In a study undertaken in 1998, focus groups were held with people six months after they had visited the Museum's newly opened Indigenous Australians exhibition. Participants were able to give examples of gaining greater understanding through relating what they had seen in the exhibition to their own experiences and knowledge:

I came again actually to have another look at the exhibition. What really struck me, I think, is a feeling of dispossession...and in a way there were many similarities to the Welsh people. The English, of course, came into and invaded Wales and took over half of the village houses and tribes, and later on they actually banned the Welsh language from being spoken. So we have many similarities that I noticed going around.

6. Learning is new information

92% of visitors surveyed for the Bats exhibition could name facts that they learned relating to diversity, cultural aspects of bats, vampire bats, live bats, biology and behaviour:

If you put a flying fox bone on your ankle and black your hair you'll have a painless childbirth.

When bats have a baby, after the head comes out the body comes out five hours later.

[I'm] surprised that they do have sight.

7. Learning is immediate

When asked about things they have learned and would tell others, visitors to the Spiders! exhibition (1998) said:

Don't bandage red back spider bites - just use ice.

We only have two deadly spiders in Australia.

They're marvellous - ten different types of web for each spider!

Feedback forms completed by visitors exiting the Body Art exhibition (2000) showed that many visitors were inspired:

You've made me more determined than ever to defy my parents and get my tongue pierced.

Now we are fascinated in the procedure of body art. Your exhibition has encouraged us to look at future exhibitions. We are also interested in cosmetic surgery and are looking forward to having our own experience with this technology.

The body piercing was fabulous, it really opens the eyes of younger people to what they are getting themselves into.

8. Learning is changing your point of view

Participants in the Indigenous Australians research talked about thinking differently about Indigenous people after seeing the exhibition:

I thought differently. I've met Aboriginal people...and it didn't click with the way that, as a child, when you grew up and everything you heard [was negative] and then you see an exhibition like this, well then you see a lot more of the story.

Every time you hear about Aboriginals they're either going to jail or fighting. [Now I'd] think why do they always show this type of story? Why don't they show the nice story?

43% of visitors to Bats said that their views about bats had changed - they liked or understood them more after visiting the exhibition:

[I'm] not so afraid, they're gentler than I thought, only usually see them overhead.

[I have] more knowledge and understanding of their role in ecology.

[there is a] bat colony at home I disliked, now I've changed my perception.

Interestingly, 54% of visitors said that their views about bats had not changed because they already knew things about bats or had a positive attitude towards them.

9. Learning is long-term

Parents know when a museum visit has been a success because at the time children don't want to leave, they ask questions and show displays to their siblings. Afterwards they talk about it, look at the world in a different way and notice more about the world around them:

I think if they talk about it in a couple of weeks or a couple of months later, 'Oh, remember when we did this', then they have really enjoyed it. Or bringing it up for a school assignment or something like that.

I think it is the comments they make say a month or two down the track. They have remembered. It hasn't gone in and out the other side.

Participants in the Indigenous Australians exhibition research reported doing the following things after their visit: buying a Aboriginal book/diary, purchasing Aboriginal artworks, using the information in school projects, recommending the exhibition to others, returning to the exhibition with others, thinking differently, and gaining more respect for and understanding of Indigenous people.

10. Learning is individual

Parents understand that their children have individual learning needs, and often talk about their children's learning in constructivist terms, that is, making meaning and generating new knowledge based on prior knowledge, experience and interests:

They're teaching themselves in their own way basically. They're actually zooming in on something that interests them rather than you saying 'look what about doing this, doing that'. When you go to a museum there's so many different things you can look at and they're actually choosing the bits that interest them. In some areas they stay longer, in other bits forget it. Every child's different if you watch them.

Visitors to the Body Art exhibition expressed personal views, relating their own experiences:

I've got my eyebrow pierced and have three tattoos. After walking through the exhibition I feel like getting more piercings and tattoos. I've been inspired.

I waited until I was 53 to break free of a strict Catholic upbringing and a formalised military life-style. On my 53rd birthday my daughter paid for me to have a tattoo on my hip. I love it.

11. Learning is entertaining and fun

In a series of exit surveys conducted 68% of visitors gave a rating of high to 'entertainment' as a reason for visiting places such as museums and galleries, compared to 70% rating 'learning' as high. Parents value museums as places where learning can be relaxing and fun: don't want to be lectured, they don't want it as if they're going to school, it's got to be fun.

In a pilot study investigating adult conceptions of learning respondents thought that learning was "...entertaining, but not all entertainment was learning" (Kelly, 2000b). Museums were seen as entertaining experiences chosen by the person on their own terms that foster active, informal learning.

12. Learning is making a difference

Museums need to ensure that their programs are making a difference both in the short and long term. Visitor research needs to be asking this question often! Through targeted, creative use of questions that uncover individual's personal stories and experiences we can demonstrate that we are making a difference. People can have amazing responses to exhibitions. For example, participants in the Indigenous Australians research, when prompted by photographs of the exhibition, wrote vivid descriptions of how they remembered feeling in the exhibition at particular times. At the end of the discussion another participant told a story about what she did after visiting the exhibition:

You know what I did? I went home and bought one of those shirts, an extra large men's [Aboriginal] flag shirt, and I went home and I made a dress out of it. I made a dress. So I have this mini Aboriginal dress, and it looks pretty nice, and I wear this dress on Bondi Beach [a famous beach in Sydney] where anything goes and I can not tell you the energy of the people and the way people respond. Unbelievable. Bondi Beach, you know, anything goes there. I thought I was going to get beaten up! Twice I wore this dress. It was incredible. That was my own little experiment.


If museums are to take a leading role in providing new and meaningful learning experiences for communities of learners then studying visitor learning needs to be part of an active research program. Through analysing audience research studies that use a variety of approaches to uncover visitor outcomes, we can begin to build pictures of what people are learning from their museum experiences. Stephen Weil has stated "...what difference did it make that your museum was there?" (1994:43). This needs to be the focus for visitor studies in the future - we need to continually ask this question of our users, and of ourselves. If museums are claiming that they are places for learning then they need to become learning organisations through application of the tools, methods and information that visitor studies provides to their internal processes. Through this, visitor research will become truly strategic, actively contributing to the museum's capability for organisational learning and change: making a difference internally and externally. Without this, museums will fail to stay relevant.


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Ms Jen Cork , Senior Digital Producer
Dr Lynda Kelly , Manager Online, Editing and Audience Research
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