Exploring the Latest Educational Innovations at Museums

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Friday, September 18th, 2015

Educational opportunities inside museums

The role of museums and other cultural institutions is rapidly changing. For centuries, museums held an unchallenged place as the archive and key interpreter of cultural knowledge. This has evolved, with major changes in funding structures and an increasing availability of educational and entertainment options, creating both stress and opportunities on the system. What role does the modern museum play within today’s broader educational ecosystem? What developments do museums need in order to stay relevant as educational institutions?

One of the most obvious answers – and one that we’re seeing many examples of – involves technology. Technology is no longer optional. Younger generations of visitors are constantly relying on their smartphones, tablets and connectivity to their peers on the Internet for information and entertainment. There’s no question that can’t quickly be answered with a Google search. This has shifted the dynamic in museums in fundamental ways.

Wounded Warriors Healing Through Fire

The first mindset shift has to do with patience. Often, when curators are building a museum exhibit they have a storyline in mind. Each experience, artifact and bit of knowledge that’s shared is intentional. Every part is organized to build toward a larger message or takeaway. But in a world where any fact can be found on demand, it’s harder to keep people engaged. As a result, curation is shifting away from long build-ups and finding ways to structure narratives that immediately engage visitors with little to no patience to read plaques. Museum exhibits are increasingly starting in the middle of the action, as novelists would say.

Relevance is another important concept in the evolving museum world. Visitors are overwhelmed with information. They are relying on curators to help quickly and easily figure out what information is most relevant to their interests. As a result, exhibits are becoming more and more narrowly focused on highly specific topics. The way that the public finds information and determines relevancy is changing. Think of how we use search engines. The availability of highly specific niche information has made it possible to pursue interests on a micro level. Museums are putting that fact to work by having micro-focused attractions that appeal to very specific audiences.

For many museum visitors, engagement also means an increased desire to touch the artifacts. Many smaller museums are differentiating themselves by determining what artifacts audiences can engage with in a tactile way without causing damage. From a technological perspective, 3-D printing and other replication techniques are allowing recreations of artifacts that can be touched and held. The recreations are accurate down to the smallest detail. The Smithsonian and the British Museum are both pioneering the use of 3D printing as a way to provide expanded educational opportunities.

Interactive approaches to learning science

Counterintuitively, in this time of high technology development, one of the biggest areas that museum visitors are asking for is increased authenticity. As many museums push to develop a branded app or a game, one recent study showed that the public has a desire for “the real thing.” They want less virtual and more actual history, science and culture. Many institutions are responding by creating opportunities for guests to interact with experts. Whether it’s a hands-on class to learn a skill like basket weaving or the chance to attend a talk with a videogame designer or an Egyptian archaeologist, museums are becoming platforms that enable access to interesting people and ideas.

Visitor-centered programs are taking a major role on the educational playing field. From the Oakland Museum of California’s Visitor Centered Touring where museum visitors participate in creating their own tours to the Hague’s Wonderkamers, museums are looking for ways to increase participation. In particular, visitors want the opportunity to create their own experiences. From branded apps that help guests better navigate through collections to hands-on tools like the Cooper Hewitt’s interactive pen, institutions are struggling to find ways to proactively make guests part of the exhibit and creation process.

One final trend that’s worth noting from an educational perspective is museums taking a stand on social issues. From LGBTQ initiatives to Hot Shop Heroes: Healing with Fire, an after-hours program for wounded warriors, museums are finding ways to engage a wider range of populations. The objectives range from helping people tell their stories to creating spaces for learning within museums. But hot-button social issues are playing an ever increasing role in museum programming, and museums are becoming a safe space for exploring complex and controversial issues.

Technology and competing educational resources are forcing museums to rethink their roles. But change isn’t always bad. Increased pressure is leading to real innovation in the way museums approach curation, exhibit development and visitor experience management. What are some of the most effective and creative educational approaches that you’ve seen at museums? Let us know in the comments below.

Images sourced courtesy of the AAMD, the Army, and Explorations in Public History

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