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As we see it: improving learning in the museum

Susan Groundwater-Smith
Faculty of Education & Social Work University of Sydney

Lynda Kelly
Australian Museum

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh,
11-13 September 2003

This paper reports upon a project which investigated ways in which the Australian Museum's presentation of its collection and exhibitions assists and inhibits learning. The project was conducted in two phases. The first of these gathered images and interpretations from education staff and interpretive officers of the museum. The second phase involved students from the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools. Using an image based research methodology all participants photographed features of the museum which either facilitated or inhibited learning. From these images posters were created and discussed. The paper attends to both the results of the study and the methodology within the context of practitioner enquiry.


The Australian Museum is a commanding sandstone building which has occupied its present site for over one hundred and fifty years. Its beginnings were inauspicious to say the least. It was originally established in 1827 in a variety of temporary settings. By the 1830s "its main employees were an Irishman who had been sentenced for bayonetting a rioter and a Londoner, who convicted for stealing clothes was now the museum's field collector and taxidermist" (Blainey, 1979, p. i). Today it has a large establishment of staff including scientists of international repute, guides, interpretive officers, education officers, designers and maintenance people. It also has an Audience Research Unit whose purpose is to regularly investigate the ways in which the various visitors to the museum receive the collection and specific exhibitions. It was in this context the Unit in partnership with the Centre for Practitioner Research at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney decided to undertake an investigation with school students regarding the ways in which the museum contributed to learning. During the course of the discussions it became clear that it would also be important to explore the perceptions of those officers most directly involved with school visitors, that is to say the education and interpretive officers.

As a consequence a study was conceived to be undertaken in two phases. The first of these would involve the museum staff, the detail of which is spelled out below. The second phases would be conducted with a range of schools who were members of the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools. The Coalition consists of seven metropolitan Sydney schools, three of which are in the Independent Sector with the remainder in the Government Sector. Five of the seven schools participated in the study.

The notion of the school as a knowledge building organisation, founded upon evidence based practice, has now been widely discussed (Hargreaves, 1999; Groundwater-Smith & Mockler, 2002). Practitioner enquiry, in this context, moves beyond the individual to the collective and sees as its objective that the whole school can be engaged in systematic enquiry as a normal part of its practice and a means of contributing to school improvement. The norms of individuality and privacy are transcended by norms of collaboration and collective deliberation.

The knowledge creating school, according to Hargreaves (1999), is likely to be one in which the following factors and conditions, inter-alia, prevail:

Professional knowledge creation, from Hargreaves' perspective, is knowledge which is derived from the systematic accumulation of evidence. In effect it is developed from systematic forms of practitioner enquiry.

The schools see as their purposes:

The processes which they employ and share are:

The project with the Australian Museum was welcomed by the schools as an opportunity to develop an innovative research methodology that could be later used within the schools themselves as well as making a contribution to the wider educational community.


Phase 1:

In this phase education staff and interpretive officers gathered photographic images of that which assists or inhibits visitor learning in the museum. Images were collated as posters which conceptually linked the images and provided additional text that acted as signposts for the viewer.

Learning was taken as that described by Kelly (2001):

Learning is a dynamic process dependent on the individual and their environment within a social context that focuses on some change. Ultimately, museum learning is about 'changing as a person': how well the visit inspires and stimulates people into wanting to know more, as well as changing how they see themselves and their world both as an individual and as a part of a community. (p.3)

What the participants were attempting to capture in their image based collages was that which facilitated or impeded meaning making by those who visited the museum; that is to say "how do people make, or not make, meaning from the objects that are displayed, the forms of display, the accompanying text (whether print or digital), the physical settings and those personnel who are available to provide assistance of one kind or another?"

While image based research is now being increasingly recognised in the qualitative research community as a legitimate means of documenting social phenomena (Prosser, 1998) there is still some hesitancy in adopting it. The written word has long been regarded as the more authoritative mode of recording such phenomena. It was believed that imagery did not have the capacity to communicate sophisticated and abstract constructions. Ruby (1995) as an anthropologist, characterises the elevation of the written word as a "logo-centric approach (that) denies much of the multi-sensory experience of trying to know another culture" (p. 135).

In the project being discussed here, the culture is well known to the participants, so the argument is slightly different. It was reasoned that where participants in a community of practice are familiar with the mores and norms that govern that practice this may, in effect, mask what is taking place; in that the practices become implicit and taken for granted. It is not that the photographic image transparently discloses "the real" but rather that it captures an instance that can then be problematised (Schein, 1992).

Importantly, the participants were also the photographers. The images that they selected represented their subjective understanding of the environment that surrounded them and of which they were a part. The nature of this study is such that the subjective becomes the intersubjective in that the images become the basis for discussion and debate. As Heath (1997) notes, in relation to video imagery, the technology has the capacity to enhance a new sociology which permits an investigation and analysis of social actions and activities (p.195). What we have are what Walker (2002) refers to as "visual cues" about the contexts in which people engage in a particular social practice. That these clues may be ambiguous and multi-layered is part of the very real challenge of interpretation (Prosser & Warburton, 1999).

Of particular interest in this project was the methodology that allowed each participant to not only act as an "insider" displaying his or her own interpretation of that which assists and inhibits visitor learning in the museum, it also engaged each as an "outsider" viewing and interpreting the images of others. What was worthy of inclusion as a central practice by one, could be seen as strange and marginal by another. As Sontag (2003) poignantly reminds us when we look at the same photographs we neither see nor feel the same thing because we bring different career and social histories to that which we observe. Certainly each participant in this phase of the project shares the same work environment, but experiences it differently. It was believed that by making the posters available to colleagues for comment and discussion it would be possible to surface and problematise these differences.

The strategy that was adopted which would enable each participant to respond to the posters of his or her colleagues was that of the 'silent conversation'. The idea of the 'silent conversation' is one which has been designed by Dr Anne Ratzki in her work with educators engaged in team building activities in the Cologne Holweide district in Germany. It is a process that ensures that every voice is given legitimacy, regardless of status. It also provides opportunities for reflection which has a public face.

Participants were asked to consider the information that they had received in the form of posters and then document their responses on large sheets of paper in terms of:

While there were not many rules these were outlined as:

Following the 'silent conversation' focus groups were conducted where participants were able to speak to the responses that had been recorded. Finally participants could indicate their affirmation of any three particular statements that they found most salient to matters that assist or impede visitor learning in the museum.

Phase 2:

As a preparation for the students' visits to the Museum it was important that they engage meta-cognitively with notions of learning in informal settings. As well, they needed to reflect upon photography and imagery as a tool that could be used to capture the experience of the Museum visit. Consequently each school in the study including two Girls High Schools, one Boys High School, one Primary School and one Independent Girls School K-12, was visited and a workshop undertaken with all participating classes. The workshop and a synthesis of responses to it are documented below:

Learning Workshop:

Museum Visits:

All schools booked their visits through the Australian Museum's normal procedures. All visits were undertaken without special attention being paid by Museum staff. The fees for all schools were waived.

Post Excursion Site Visits:

Visits were made to: the Boys High School, Year 8; the Girls High Schools, Year 7; the Primary School, K/l, 5/6, the Independent Girls School, Years 6, 7 and 11. Each school was visited by the researcher and two Australian Museum observers. Over two hundred and fifty students were involved. At each school the debriefing took a similar form:


The findings were detailed and complex. In the interests of brevity only the images collected in the posters will be presented here.

Museum Staff:

Altogether eighteen posters compiled by education and interpretive officers were presented. While they were diverse in their conceptual design, man y of them metaphorical (balloons, a puzzle, an oscillation index, a spaceship, a garden, a weaving, a smile) there was a high level of agreement in terms of their content.

Supporting Learning

Positive learning predominated and was associated with the roles undertaken by staff to welcome, explain, demonstrate, present information, provide access to exhibits, stimulate and generally support and facilitate visitors' learning experiences.

"Staff and volunteers smile and chat and tell stories, answer questions, give directions, take tours, set up activities and videos, run workshops, offer knowledge to everyone."

It was seen that by both having access to specialist personnel and actual artefacts, as well as reading new and provocative ideas, it was possible to challenge established values and promote serious questioning of current practices (for example the Indigenous People exhibition).

Imaginative, quirky, surprising and innovative displays were seen to be stimulating for the learner. For example the skeletons positioned on an exercise machine and in a rocking chair were not only seen as amusing, but also enabled the viewer to understand something of the structure and function of the exhibit.

As well, it was appreciated that staff are working behind the scenes, developing resources that will assist in making the museum visit a worthwhile one and engaging in those things required for good customer service.

Frequently portrayed was the Search and Discovery room with young learners probing and poring over the many things available to them. Much was made of the live exhibits and the opportunity to engage in hands on learning.

The majority of images of visitors to the museum were related to young people, ranging from toddlers to school groups. They were invited to touch, examine, query, investigate and play. There was an emphasis upon experiences being multi-sensory, seeing, touching, hearing (but not much tasting or smelling). In the case of younger visitors, toddlers and the like there were opportunities to engage in imaginative play, "a chance to do your own thing" by dressing up, playing instruments and the like.

There was a recognition that individual needs should be met, whether by interacting with visitors with disabilities or by assisting self-guiding visitors. Learning was seen to be assisted not only by interactions with staff (including volunteers) but also with parents. It was also understood that by meeting physical needs in the provision of food, drink, toilets, change rooms, people would feel comfortable and therefore amenable to the learning opportunities that the museum offers.

Inhibiting Learning:

Again, there was a high level of agreement among the images of those things which inhibited learning. Lack of space, congested, cluttered and messy spaces, darkened passage ways, difficult to read signage, poorly placed signage (too high or too low), uncomfortable settings, darkened panels, empty showcases and shelving, "mangey" exhibits and fixtures not properly anchored; in sum, a general inattention to maintenance. As one poster indicated, if the aim is to encourage the establishment and development of connections between the audience and the collection this can be frustrated by poor organisation, cluttered arrangements and inadequate access.

"Sometimes staff have troubles smiling 'cause things that are broken don't get fixed, signs are not correct, text is too small, there are too many things to do and not enough staff."

One poster drew attention to the possibility for misinterpretation. The example offered was the "Asians Out" graffiti included in an exhibit; while it lent power to the actual display, it could have been constructed as offensive by some Asian visitors who would have difficulty contextualising it..

Where inhibiting factors focussed upon visitors, rather than upon the physical conditions of the museum they tended to relate to the ways in which school groups were catered for in that they were too often concerned to interact with dense text in order to complete worksheets, rather than engage in deeper learning through critique and discussion. It was also suggested that for some other visitors the noise and exuberance of school groups can be quite disruptive.

Mixed Blessings:

Several posters suggested that some of the learning resources in the museum can be a mixed blessing. For example computers are seen to have a great potential to facilitate learning, both on-site and on the web, but if the material that they display is organised in a closed, lock-step fashion then they are unlikely to promote questioning or speculation on the part of the user. Similarly, having people available to interact with visitors is seen as positive, however, there are issues as to whether they are sufficiently learner focused and prepared to start from the learner's perceptions and understandings.

Allowing visitors access to complex instruments such as microscopes was seen to be a positive strategy, but for many the instrument may be difficult to use, or placed in an uncomfortable setting.

One poster suggested that there is a tension in the ways in which the museum is seeking to meet the objectives of assisting in life long learning in terms of further developing understandings of society, culture, politics, science and the environment while at the same time being compelled to be economically viable "and put bums on seats". Another kind of tension was associated with the balance between providing for open learning while at the same time ensuring the sufficient interpretation is available.


Altogether fifty four posters were presented. Overall more positive images were captured than those that were negative. Major points are made here in relation to the particular group who had visited the museum.

Boys High School:

Five posters were presented. Each group had prepared a short, quite formal talk to accompany the posters and these were also collected. Likes centred around the sense of awe experienced by the boys as they encountered the various exhibits. They found many to be "stunningly beautiful" (if not always well explained). Minerals, butterflies, The Two Emperors Exhibition all opened new doors for them. They found excitement in being able to engage with "real" things - real bones, real tools, real photographs (of chained Aboriginal people). They were intrigued by the detail, how smart and tricky spiders were "they can dig underground to hide and catch insects.

The boys found the Indigenous Australians gallery moving as it made them reflect upon racism and its manifestations. They liked the caveman exhibition:

It had a model of two adults burying a baby and teaches us that even past man cared about the death of others and that burying bodies is better than not. It taught us a bit about past man and what we believe they were like.

"Hands-on" exhibits were favoured. For example the fact that one could animate the skeleton by riding a bike. "I liked it (the skeletons exhibition) because it made me think 'these used to be living creatures, what have they been through?' and it was really interesting." Using the microscope to examine bugs and the Mineral Wheel were also cited.

The friendly staff were nominated as important to learning. One group's speech concluded:

In our conclusion the museum is a great learning environment but with a few touch ups every now and then it would be excellent. Overall we liked the museum and we think it is improving every year. We enjoyed the day and learned something we didn't know before.

Generally the boys pointed to dark display cases, not enough hands-on and "dodgy lighting" as problematic. One group did not like the Death Exhibition, "It wasn't very interesting at all, it only had old and new coffins and some other things like a dead body and some other displays." Another group used pie graphs to indicate what they perceived as a lack of balance in the orientation of the museum - 50% science, 20% history, 15% nature and 15 % other. They would have liked this redistributed to 25% in each category.

Girls High School 1:

Altogether eight posters were presented. Because of its detail and coherence one poster will be discussed in full with supplementary points made from the others.

The particularly striking poster was of a three dimensional target comprising of four rings. Surrounding it were eleven photographs, behind which were detailed explanations of what they represented and justifications for why they were positioned as they were.

At the bullseye of the target sat the Search and Discovery room.

This photo is in the bullseye because we thought it was the best feature of the museum. We loved the hands on experience. This helped us incredibly with our learning.

The second, third and fourth photographs were attached to the second ring.

The second photograph was of jars of specimens and was also taken within the Search and Discovery Room.

We love the practical hands on kind of learning. We thought it was very cool.

The third photo in this ring was included because it connected to closely to their studies on biodiversity, while the fourth illustrated a member of the museum staff discussing an exhibit:

This photo represents how helpful the museum staff were. This woman was so helpful. We really appreciated the direction and help we received.

In the third ring were photographs five, six, seven and eight.

Photograph five was of the skeletons exhibition and indicated that students enjoyed the humour of it. The sixth was of the pull-up boards.

These boards are a fantastic idea! They were so helpful and because it wasn't just a sign it enticed us to see what was under it. We only used the fish one, but we loved these boards indeed. They were extremely helpful to our learning.

The seventh photograph was again in the Search and Discovery Room showing the microscopes as a great aid to learning. The final photograph in this ring was of the six girls who comprised the poster group. They were posed next to a figure captioned "If you are smaller than me, please come in, this is a special place for little children".2

Our friends helped us by encouraging us to persist and swap useful information that the museum provided. The fact that the museum had a laid back environment where we could just talk and hang out was really good for us.

The outer ring of the target was saved for the more negative experiences of the students. Photograph nine illustrated some food purchases.

Although we understood totally about prices of food we thought it was a touch pricey. We also thought we would have been happier if we could say take a drink into the museum exhibitions. But we also totally understood about necessary safety precautions.

The tenth photograph was of the scaffolded entrance.

This entrance was not very appealing to us. When we arrived it said to our group 'don't come in - construction site'. Not 'Hey, look over here, come inside!' We understood perfectly that the construction was necessary. We just didn't get the welcoming feel of a great place, which was unfortunate because it was a great place.

The final photograph was of a leopard its fangs embedded in its prey, an early man.

Although we loved the in-your-face-thing which this photo is, certainly, we though it was a bit gruesome and it didn't attract us to look at any information which may have accompanied it. It made us, instead, look away.

Girls High School 2:

Altogether twelve posters were presented. Many of the images focused upon being with friends. For these girls being with peers and being able to talk about what they were experiencing was critical to their enjoyment. Finding places to sit and relax with friends was seen as helpful to their learning. They also liked having help available when it was required: signs, models, maps and "lots of staff to help when needed."

They liked the opportunity to have free entry and use the range of facilities such as pristine toilets and the cafeteria, "the café helped us to relax and gave us a break from working". They also enjoyed the gift shop.

As with other groups "hands-on" experiences were valued; the literally "hands on" experience when comparing their own hands to an ape's was cited. Working and interactive exhibits were greatly valued. Several referred to making the bookmark in the Two Emperors Exhibition. "It (the bookmark) was a cheap silvernear (sic)", others liked being able to place their heads in the cardboard cut-outs advertising the exhibition. Several also referred to the street banners and posters of the exhibition, it made them feel that they were experiencing "something important".

As well as helpful guides these students also saw that their teachers were an important resource as they steered them through the exhibition, explaining things to them that they might not understand.

Although they were there principally for the Two Emperors Exhibition the students also noticed and were interested in the ways in which the Neanderthals exhibition gave them access to past traditions.

On the one hand they liked it when things were "bright and clear, then you have a memorable experience". On the other hand dark, crowded, sometimes roped off, sections were unappealing. The poor behaviour of other students also was distracting "people running around, playing around, distracted us from learning." "The Museum shouldn't let too many schools in on one day because it gets too crowded and noisy." Noisiness came not only from the crowds but also the "big bang" movie which ran on a continuous loop.

The museum was seen as very large and somewhat intimidating. Some felt it was possible to "get lost in the dark corridors". They were disappointed that there were places where they could not take photographs, but no explanation was provided as to why photography was prohibited.

Students indicated, through their posters, that they thought the museum should be concerned with safety. The construction site and trailing power chords were identified as safety hazards. Also there was a concern that some exhibits, such as the skeletons, might be frightening for young children.

Primary School:

Years K/1 (three posters)

Students liked having fun in the museum. These posters indicated that for these young people there was a great deal of fun to be had. "I could hear the shells", "I could pretend I was a turtle", "I could find bones", "It was fun because we could put the pieces (of a bones puzzle) together", "The skeletons were fun because the bones looked funny when they moved", "I liked the Allosaurus head because I could put my head in it, it was really big""

They enjoyed attractive displays such as the minerals gallery "It was shiny like a rainbow".

These young children enjoyed being exposed to new knowledge. "I found out that baby dinosaurs come from eggs", "I learnt dinosaurs have plates on the backbone so they don't get hurt", "The lobster has sharp claws!", "The big T Rex's footprint was much bigger than mine", "I liked the Echidna because the Echidna's spikes hurt my hand".

Some exhibits scared the students, but they were still fun. They discovered that cats kill birds in the bush and that some animals have very large teeth!

They did not enjoy themselves so much when they could not touch exhibits. "I liked the Pteranodon but I wanted to know what it felt like", "There were too many of the same thing (butterflies) and I couldn't touch them".

Sometimes they found there was too much information, or that the exhibit was too dark. They wanted to be surprised, so while for some the books were interesting for others it was a resource that they already had access to and could use elsewhere such as at home.

Years 5/6 (one poster)

What helped were explanatory panels that were clear in both size and vocabulary, "it helps when I can understand the words".

Objects that can be touched and handled assisted learning. "When I move, the skeleton moves!" Similarly things that were novel and inviting contributed to good learning "This (Thylacine) I've never seen before."

Students were pleased to find they could connect exhibits to things that they were learning at school. They valued the good explanations that they received from guides (interpretive officers).

Even though some exhibits were "scarey" they helped the students remember.

They liked moments when they could be involved, for example being able to photograph each other with their heads inserted into the Two Emperors' cut -out.

What hindered their learning were panels where the words were too technical and difficult. "The dragonflies were cool, but the words too hard. There was too much information".

When objects were isolated in glass cabinets it was frustrating because students could not feel them or even imagine, in some cases, what they might be.

Some objects were overfamiliar and did not stimulate the students. "I've seen it before."

Independent Girls School:

Two classes of Year 6 students produced twelve posters. While their main focus was on biodiversity they had the opportunity to visit a number of other exhibits.

Brightness and colour featured significantly in their posters. Cabinets of minerals with their brilliant colours and intriguing shapes held their attention. Indeed there were many references to the minerals collection including the cave.

They valued the way in which collections were organised and classified (butterflies) and the information provided in such things as the "pull up panels". They especially enjoyed the chance to experience the mini-lab and to examine specimens. They found that there were many and various resources in the form of books, computers, puzzles, games and friendly staff. There were helpful graphics and models "There was a helpful timeline of reptiles", "The diagram about hot fluids and metals helped us." In contrast some displays were too technical and assumed too much knowledge for younger visitors.

Being with friends was seen as important to their learning as was the opportunity to enjoy themselves, having fun dressing up and trying their hand at using the microscopes.

The overcrowding was of particular concern. Noisy, rowdy boys seemed to be the main trouble. Dark screens, screens that did not work, dangerous stairs, small and confusing writing did not help them. Two posters featured the information on the Eureka prize which was under layered glass and therefore difficult to read. One student suffering a knee injury was in a wheel chair and found access to some areas very difficult.

Students had concerns for small children visiting the museum. They saw that there were "dangerous chemicals" in the reach of children. Also the very graphic leopard preying upon an early man was "very, very disturbing".

Year 7 students produced five posters. They concentrated upon the ways in which large, clear photographs, posters and information "bubbles" in the Indigenous Australians Gallery captured their attention. These circular panels that quoted statements on such matters as social justice, family, land and spirituality featured greatly in the posters. Students commented on the warmth and companionship that were demonstrated in photographs of Aboriginal families. It allowed them to "think differently, we've discovered another world."

A number of specific features were photographed these being: the freedom bus, the chapel, the jail cell and the cave "it helped us experience what it would be like to live back as an Aborigine a long time ago". Hands on technology and games were helpful to their learning as were the museum staff "The lady at the front desk told us what we could see and she gave us some helpful starting information."

Having said that there were a number of concerns. These being messy, unattractive displays, television sets placed too high for comfortable viewing, noise, crowding, closed off sections, malfunctioning technology and missing game parts (no dice for snakes and boomerangs game).

While much information was helpful sometimes there was too much information or the information required a glossary to explain particular terms (kin):

Excess information - it was hard to read the writing. The writing was very small. This was bad because it was boring to read and as we didn't have much time we wouldn't have finished reading it.

Having to hurry was referred to several times by this group of students.

For this group the photographs of Aboriginal men, chained together, were "sad and disturbing".

In summary though the museum was "Inspiring, yes, bored, no!"

Year 11 students compiled one poster and also had a set of photographs that they had not incorporated into a complete visual text. Understandably, they were more preoccupied with their studies in the lead up to examinations. Their photographs indicated that they believed that those things that triggered empathetic feelings such as the jail cell, the freedom bus, the cave and the photographs of chained Aboriginal men served this purpose. They enjoyed "cool" graphics, for example the snake sign painted on the floor and found specific information, such as that on the Wik campaign, useful. Colourful posters were attractive and of interest as was the comprehensive collection of books. Touch screens that worked and opportunities to interact with exhibits were welcomed. They found themselves frustrated by equipment that did not work, poor signage, dark corners, obstructing pillars and shabby presentation. They thought the maze was confusing and used by younger museum visitors are a pretext to run and push.

The issues in relation to learning in the museum that were highlighted by students can be seen to fall into four categories:

Cognitive Factors:

In order to be substantively engaged in learning in the museum students need to: know how things work; be able to think through ideas; have opportunities to ask questions; be able to handle, manipulate and closely examine artefacts and exhibits; be able to seek out information from several sources in language that is appropriate to their age and stage of development; be stimulated through various of the senses.

Physical Factors:

Students need to feel safe and comfortable. They want to be able to move around readily unimpeded by a number of prohibitive signs. They want the areas to be well lit and inviting and to find physical spaces that are scaled to their ages and needs.


Students like learning with their friends. While they recognise that a visit to the museum is designed by their teachers to assist in their learning, they also want it to be a satisfying social occasion when they can learn with and from their peers.


Students want to be emotionally connected while at the same time not being emotionally confronted. This is best exemplified by considering two exhibits. Year 11 students spoke of their visit to the Jewish Museum and the opportunity to speak with survivors of the Holocaust. They found this emotionally demanding, but exceptionally worthwhile. In contrast, their experience with the Indigenous Australians Gallery failed to connect in the same way. It was seen as too fragmented with some elements inadequately explained. "It was aimed at consciousness raising, but consciousness raising about what?"

In the second instance the leopard exhibit was so powerful for some that they could not look at it and felt quite frightened by it. The exhibit invoked both awe and fear simultaneously. That a creature could so attack its prey clearly engaged the students. Even though they were in no personal danger, many still felt frightened and threatened.


From the meetings with the staff and the students and examination of their posters it was clear that visitors in general and the students in particular were indeed learning from their visits to the Australian Museum. Schouten (1987) has likened students visiting museums and galleries as 'window shopping' (p.240) implying that their attention is cursory and ephemeral. This is clearly not the case. Rather they were engaging with the multifaceted range of experiences available to them. Certainly, all the experiences were not positive ones and the staff and students were well able to distinguish between those things that supported learning and those that impeded it.

What is clear is that simply displaying objects is not sufficient for learning. The organisation of the display, its presentation in terms of the lighting and accompanying text are both critical. MacLulich (1991) for example, used a functional grammar approach to demonstrate how information can be made more accessible to the reader by restructuring it into shorter and better sequenced sentences. Staff could see the difficulties in small print and poorly illuminated signage. A number of students wanted explanations that were less scientific and more couched in "kid-speak".

Falk & Dierking (1995) commented more generally upon the physical aspects of the museum thus:

What people learn from settings is not always a consequence of premeditated design. Settings are at once physical and psychological constructs. The light, the ambience, the 'feel' and even the smell of an environment influences learning. Often these influences (physical environments) are at once the most subconscious and the most powerful, the hardest to verbalise but the easiest to recall. For this reason, the role of the physical context on learning has been one of the least-studied, most-neglected aspects of learning (1995, p. 11).

The opportunities for interaction and the use of a range of the senses all came into play as the students experienced the collection. As Bloom & Mintz (1990) Csikszentmihalyi & Hermanson (1995) Hein (1998) and Falk & Dierking (2000) have all observed learning is becoming equated with active participation and interaction with that which the museum offers. The students who took part in this study greatly valued those occasions when they could handle exhibits and interact with them. Take these two examples from young students at the Primary School "I liked the Echidna because the Echidna's spikes hurt my hand". "I liked the Allosaurus head because I could put my head in it, it was really big". Each demonstrates the power of the reality that the museum can offer in providing direct experience with real objects. The Discovery Room was an important resource that was photographed by many of the staff and the students. As the Smithsonian Institute (1991) has observed:

In discovery rooms people get to do things that are always forbidden in museums and zoos: reach through the glass and handle the treasures behind it. (P. 12)

The Smithsonian argues that discovery rooms offer visitors:

As well, students connected what they had experienced to the attitudes and beliefs that they held as they visited the museum (c.f. Falk & Dierking, 1992). Hence one student might see an exhibit as gruesome and uninviting while another might find it challenging and stimulating. They had "their own opinions about things, and with something to say about the museum and its products (Hooper-Greenhill, 1994, p. 328).

Jones (1999) found that the museum visit is constituted of a subtle, nuanced interplay of what she names as contexts. These include the personal, the social and the physical contexts. She perceives that each constitute a part of the implicit or hidden curriculum that governs the learning that takes place for young people in museum settings.

Each of these 'contexts' plays host to an abundance of hidden messages that are often as contradictory as they are independently contingent. The hidden curriculum of any given museum, or indeed, for any given museum visitor, is not a single static set of tacit meanings, interpretations and messages. Rather it is a multi-layered and mercurial phenomenon whose variables can never be fully 'known'. (Jones, 1999, p. 23).

Although this study did not focus on the teachers and the roles that they might play in supporting learning in the museum, from at least one school it was made clear that the teacher's expectations that the students should complete the prepared sheets actually acted to impede their learning. This was supported by the findings from the staff. The students felt that they were rushed as they sought to find the answers to the questions that had been set for them. It is important not to take this as implicit criticism of the teacher who was very receptive to these views of his students, but rather to see that this is an opportunity to consider briefly teacher professional learning. Edwards (2000) quoted Cochran Hicks (1986, p. 2) who suggested that teachers have been identified as "foreigners" in the museum as a learning space. In her study Edwards set out to explore the perceptions of selected teachers and museum educators in the Sydney region regarding the use of museum resources by schools and found that there was a lack of interaction between the two. She concluded:

Until museum educators and teachers have closer links and better communication improvements will not occur. Teachers must communicate more effectively what they want from museum visits and museum educators must do the same in regards to their expectations of what benefits students will receive from the museum experience. (Edwards, 2000, p. 76)

However, familiarisation and communication may not be enough. It is important for both teachers and museum educators to appreciate that the structuring of students' experiences must go beyond seeking out information and must begin to challenge students to become more active in developing the information into deep and meaningful knowledge.

A museum should in some way offer the opportunity to see, touch, hear and have sensual, emotional and intellectual interactions with and experiences of what is in that place. A visit to a museum should be an experience similar to listening to music, visiting a library, reading a book, going to the theatre or cinema - a confrontation with the products of fellow human beings that can lead to revelation and deeper understanding. (Talboys, 2000, p. 5).


In the first phase of this study the Education and Interpretative Officers of the Australian Museum were invited to inquire, through imagery, into the Museum's focus upon learning. In the second phase of the study, the students themselves were consulted and taken seriously. Farmery (2001) found that consulting children can give powerful insights into museums' policies and practices. For example, in her study, children argued that interactive exhibits often only work at a superficial level and can at best be called 'passive interactives' imparting little understanding and creating few meaningful or lasting connections. This finding resonates to that of Allen (2002) who discovered that live animal exhibit elements elicited significantly more frequent and diverse learning talk than hands-on elements:

This is a surprising and provocative result given that the educational lore of museums, backed by an array of studies, gives such high value to interactive experience. How is it that small, generally inactive animals confined to terrariums in which they could not be touched or communicated with, could elicit more learning talk than custom designed hands-on exhibits? (p. 297)

The students in this photographic study were well able to indicate that they welcomed opportunities when they could be fully engaged with provocative questions, fascinating and puzzling exhibits and clear, well structured and accessible information. Whether they experienced small, live crocodiles with very sharp teeth, or the wonders of the minerals collection, or the ability to sit in the Freedom bus, or being able to drive the movements of a skeleton, they all found ways of learning in the Australian Museum. What better way to sum up the experience than through the words of a group of boys from Boys High School:

In our conclusion the museum is a great learning environment but with a few touch ups every now and then it would be excellent. Overall we liked the museum and we think it is improving every year. We enjoyed the day and learned something we didn't know before.


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  2. While the girls did not write about this figure during the presentation they indicated that they would have liked access to the space because it looked "so much fun". They believed that there was a view that older students were more serious and did not need learning to be fun. This, they strongly disputed.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 21 October 2003