8.3. Educational communication of exhibitions: from guided tours to interactive workshops (Andrea Kárpáti)

In the 20th century, museums started to include public education as part of their mission along with preservation and research. Hooper-Greenhill’s ideas about education being a key component in every museum’s raison d’etre suggest the realisation that museums are public institutions and education is one of the most important services they can perform to justify their support from their immediate and larger community. (Hooper – Greenhill, 2007) At present, museums have come under increasing pressure to place an even higher priority on their role as informal educators. Museum evaluations address how appealing an exhibit is to visitors.  One of the indicators of appeal is, whether or not visitors will interact with an exhibit. Since learning is voluntary in a museum setting, such an interaction shows increased interest and deeper involvement than just strolling around, watching some of the exhibits. The essence of museum learning today is interaction. Educational programs have gone far beyond guided tours and explanatory lectures. They include, to name only the most frequent ones,

–        Experimentation in laboratories in or near a science/technology exhibition or in simulation lab environments (for example, to gain hands-on experiences about scientific discoveries);

–        Studio work (based on the style or theme of a master in the exhibition);

–        Experiences with the sister arts (painting inspired by a show of theatre costumes, learning to use folk music instruments to appreciate an ethnographic display, creative writing based on works of art etc.);

–        Quizzes and quests (that guide visitors through pointing out major attractions);

–        Film shows followed by discussion (to contextualise the master / genre / culture presented).

–        Museum camp: full, day, unusual activities in and around the museum (e. g.: treasure hunt, sleep-in, volunteering as peer guides, ticket booth personnel, storage hands etc.)

Children’s drawing on a poster.

8.10. picture: Poster of a museum camp organised during the summer holidays. Vasvári Pál Museum, Tiszavasvári, Hungary.

However, not all age groups are equally targeted. Museum education surveys in The Netherlands (Haagenars, 2008) and Hungary (Káldy, Kárpáti and Szirmai, 2011)[41] arrived at similar conclusions: educational programs in museums used to be oriented mainly towards interested adults who belong to the majority nation of the respective countries.

“The days when the education department in a museum concentrated solely on schools are well and truly past. In recent years museums have been trying to attract and retain an increasingly broader public. They do more research on the tastes and preferences of the target groups and take them into account when mounting exhibitions. Indeed, the interviewees named 'all visitors' as the target group. Most displayed a certain degree of missionary zeal to engage with people who are not used to visiting museums.

The results of the nationwide questionnaires show that nowadays it is adults – individuals and groups – who form the most important target group for the educational activities in museums, usually interested laypersons, experts, devotees and senior citizens. Second place goes to children between the ages of six and twelve and teenagers (individuals). Less attention is paid to foreign tourists than in the previous report. The educational activities are least directed at ethnic groups, the disabled and the under-fives. Engaging with ethnic groups, young adults and visitors from the region is still regarded as a challenge by many museums. The literature search suggests that the low incidence of museum visits by ethnic groups may be largely due to a generally low level of education and the fact that the average age is still young. There are scarcely any museum programmes that target senior citizens, who are overrepresented in the museum-going public.” (Haagenars et al., 2008, p. 14)

Falk and Dierking (2000) emphasize the role of the social group in the way visitors construct meaning in their contextual model of learning. Following their model, social interaction not only promotes, but also is a prerequisite for intellectual, social, personal and cultural development. Other studies with children and object-centred learning also recognize the importance of social interaction (Falk, 2009). The potential of the learning environment and its objects largely depends on the social atmosphere generated and the support young children receive through positive, reciprocal interactions. A successful learning setting functions as a community of learners, where all individuals are respected, their learning is supported, and opportunities for collaboration are provided.[42]

Young people are looking at pictures around a table in a large marble museum hall.

8.11. picture: Led by a curator acting as explainer, young visitors solve quizzes about the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

The learning theories best suited to museum-based educational processes are constructivism and trialogical learning. According to the constructivist theory, the learner should be encouraged to activate a wide range of previously gained information and experiences to construct new meaning and integrate it with his or her knowledge base. Knowledge construction should be guided and promoted, but not dictated by the teacher who is invited to assume the position of mentor. As a result, visitors will come up with narratives related to the exhibition theme, new insights about their naive scientific theories based on hands-on displays and lab experiments or changes of taste and development of a flexible set of expectations about contemporary art.  According to the trialogical learning theory, even the object of study is jointly selected and the inquiry process is a democratic sharing of ideas and resources. A successful art or science project involving works exhibited, a video film contextualising an idea presented in a display, an object offered to the museum because of its relations with an installation may all be products of trialogical learning in museums. (For educational examples of the use of this theory, cf. Kárpáti and Dorner, 2012)

Museum educators or explainers play a key role in forging bridges between museums and visitors. To improve the professional esteem and working conditions of explainers, ECSITE, the European network of science centres and museums established THE Group,[43] (Thematic Human Interface and Explainers). THE Group revealed the major features of a successful training program for explainers that include many skills directly related to exhibition communication:

–        Development of self-perception and professionalization (as communicator, a museum professional, a science teacher etc.);

Expanding theoretical knowledge (e. g., theories of learning through conversation);

–        Acquisition of the dialogue model of communication with visitors and new formats of animation;

–        Training for tackling controversial issues;

–        Enhancement of professional negotiation skills (e.g.: conducting successful conversations to improve the relationship between explainers and management).

“Explainers (animators, guides, pilots, etc.) are the main direct, people to people interface between science centres and their public. The relevance of explainers in the communication quality of a science centre can hardly be questioned. For many centres, interactive humans are as crucial as interactive exhibits in providing a high quality experience to the visitors. (...)

Explainer with a stoneware plate in hand and painting utensils on her desk.

8.12. picture: Museum education session at the Open-Air Museum of Folk Art at Szentendre. The explainer shows how folk pottery was hand-painted. 2013. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

The on-going transformation of science centres from expository and interactive to participatory, i.e. moving from only exhibition-centred to a more active role of the public in the science centres as well as public engagement of science ethical issues, involves new roles also for the explainers.” (THE Group, 2008)

Visitors turn to handheld guides for an educational experience, however, much more frequently than engaging in a workshop activity. In a game design project called ARCHIE, researchers wanted to deal with the negative side effects of handhelds providing useful educational content but isolating friends and family members from each-other. This project explored different possibilities a mobile museum guide can offer in the future: greater versatility for visitors to get information tailored to their needs and interests (personalization), the opportunity to discover the exhibits at their own pace (localization), and stimulation through social interaction among family or group members (communication). (Van Loon et al., 2007) Their game may serve as a model for a good educational activity in a museum, too. Its main objectives are as follows:

–        Encourage visitors to look more profoundly at the exhibits (for example, zoom into details of the handheld and compare it with the real life experience);

–        Direct the visitor’s gaze by use of spoken instructions and low-key animations on screen when it’s time to look at the real object;

–        Stimulate comment and discussion about the exhibition;

–        Provide hardware and content for retrieval by two persons or more to ensure a social experience during the visit.

Children engaged in making paper mock-ups.

8.13. picture: Museum workshop at the Zebra Studio of the Vasarely Museum in Pécs, Hungary. 2009. (Photo: Hajnalka Kovács)

„Guided tours still come first in school activities, but there has been a sharp rise in the percentage of museums that also offer classes and workshops. The hands-on trend that is gathering pace in other educational activities is also evident in the school activities. Art and sculpture museums and museums with a mixed collection offer customized activities more frequently. This may have something to do with the introduction of art and culture subjects in the upper stream. These museums say more often that the introduction of art and culture has influenced their educational repertoire.

The museums say that schools often play a role in the development of educational material by acting as sounding boards and by testing material. The results of the interviews confirm that primary schools are the main educational target of museums. Recently, more attention has been paid to young children.” (Haagenars et al., 2008, p. 16

Museums today offer a wide variety of events that target all audience groups at the same time with different activities. In Europe, the Night of the Museums  when institutions are open till late and offer unusual, hands-on, interactive events, are very popular. In Hungary, museums have another national event to show a different face of museums: the Summering Festival called Majális in Hungarian, because it is traditionally organised in May. (See the documentary video by Veronika Werovszky that shows the atmosphere of these events.)

Small bottles with materials inside that have an intensive scent.

8.14. picture: Experimenting in the exhibition area. Visitors are asked to smell them and think about moods and emotions associated with these scents. Heureka Science Center, Helsinki, 2010. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Small bottles with materials for smelling inside and explanatory text beside one of them.

8.15. picture: In a small cylinder at the side of each bottle, there is a text explaining the contents: its name, origin, medical and culinary uses are all described. Heureka Science Center, Helsinki, 2010. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Three types of evaluation may be used to determine how likely it is that an exhibit will successfully communicate its message to the public.

1.       Front-end evaluation identifies what visitors already know about the exhibit’s subject matter and brings to light naive theories, pseudo-scientific ideas and misconceptions they may have about the topic. It also reveals questions and concerns regarding issues that are already part of public discourse. It is typically conducted early on in the exhibit development phase. Front-end evaluation and usually consists of visitor interviews and/or questionnaires.

2.       Formative evaluation methods can be used to test the prototypes of an exhibit being developed. Models are used to test what aspects of an exhibit’s design are likely to work and what parts need alteration to communicate its message as clearly as possible. Such a testing   procedure may result in a more accessible display, both physically and intellectually.

3.       Summative evaluation is conducted once an exhibit is complete, to determine how successfully the exhibit communicates its message to the public. This procedure is also called remedial evaluation as its results may be used for a similar exhibition. There are means for improving a completed exhibit, so some deficits may still be corrected during the lifespan of the present exhibition.  Summative evaluation focuses on looking at how visitors interact with exhibits and what they are learning from their experience.

Although most museum professionals agree that conducting evaluations at various stages of exhibit development provides valuable information that can be used to improve the educational quality of their exhibits, many museums do not routinely conduct evaluations. Most often, limited funding and resources are the reasons, particularly by small museums. Evaluation is vitally important because, understanding your actual and potential audience can help with effective targeting, planning and timing, and consequently a more efficient exhibition communication.

Orchestra about to play, with audience at restaurant tables sitting nearby.

8.16. picture: Irregular museum communication program: „Museum Plus” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. Every first Thursday night of the month, this museum and its sister collection, the Hungarian National Gallery, take turns in organising irregular events. (Photo: Andrea Kárpáti)

Evaluation should address the exhibition’s success in achieving its educational goals. This is not an easy task because educational objectives of exhibitions tend to be specific, long-term and therefore very difficult to evaluate. To understand visitor learning, two approaches are emerging:

–        The behaviourist model that contends that knowledge transmitted will be integrated with existing ideas and experiences and thus become part of the learner’s behaviour.  When using this approach, museum staff has to consider a wider range of learning results, not just those directly transmitted by one or more educationally oriented displays. Attitude and motivation surveys may reveal important learning gains well beyond factual knowledge about an exhibit.

–        The constructivist model: here the student is not a passive recipient of knowledge; therefore, evaluation focuses on individual learning objectives and plans concerning the museum visit and their realisation. In a constructivist situation, the role of the teacher (or, in the case of a museum, the exhibit) is not to disperse knowledge but to provide incentives by which students can build it up. In order to understand visitor knowledge as a construct and result of the museum experience, we need to evaluate the learning process, not just the results.

Because behaviourists and constructivists have different models about the way people learn, they also tend to disagree on how information should be conveyed, what ideal learning environments are and how one should determine whether or not learning is taking place. In the museum field, all of these points can result in differences of opinion among museum staff on how to build effective exhibits and how one should go about evaluating whether or not an exhibit has achieved educational goals. First, whereas behaviourists would argue that information is conveyed through dissemination of knowledge from the exhibition to the learner, a constructivist would argue that the value of an exhibit is in allowing the learner to experiment and have educational experiences that facilitate the construction of knowledge, not its transmission.

During the process of exhibit development and evaluation, differences of opinion on learning theory can result in different museum learning strategies. The evaluation of the programs will assist the museum leadership in deciding which theory (and resulting practice) would be most appropriate for the next exhibition. As a result of regular visitor studies and program evaluations, museum educators and explainers can make data-driven recommendations to exhibit development teams to improve exhibits under development. These improvements will maximize the likelihood that the exhibition will successfully communicate its intended message to visitors.

Smiling middle-aged man squatting in front of a reindeer display with two young girls.

8.17. picture: Home page for volunteers, London Natural History Museum, London



[41] Káldy Mária, Kárpáti Andrea, Szirmai Anna Linda (2010): Múzeumpedagógia Magyarországon 2008 – 2009. Helyzetkép és perspektívák . Múzeumi iránytű 6. Szabadtéri Néprajzi Múzeum, Múzeumi Oktatási és Képzési Központ, Szentendre. An English language publication based on the following Hungarian report on museum learning is under preparation: Kárpáti, A. (submitted): Museum education in Hungary: current trends and perspectives. Paper submitted to the Journal of Science Communication on 30 September 2013.

[42] Good practice examples for informal learning in science museums are to be found on the Informal Science web site.

[43] The description of THE Group’s activities and trainings can be found on the „Groups” sub-page on the home page of ECSITE.