Friday, May 16, 2008

What does lifelong learning mean for museums in a Web 2.0 world?

Here's background to the provocative paper I'm giving at the Museum Australia Futures Forum event in Canberra next week as part of the Learning for Life group.

In 1918 Benjamin Gilman's work, Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method, was published by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. In one essay first published in 1916 Gilman Writes: '... an inordinate amount of physical effort is demanded of the ideal visitor by the present methods in which we offer most objects to his inspection. ... Indeed, we may even go further and claim that in some proportion of the objects put on public view in every museum the qualities for which they are shown are rendered wholly invisible by the way they are shown. They are so placed and in such lighting that it is a physical impossibility by any exertion of limb or eye to descry the particular characteristics to which they owe their selection for show.' (p.252).

Gilman illustrated his work with a series of photographs depicting the "ideal visitor" interacting with a series of showcases and in quite uncomfortable physical positions. I have images of visitors to many exhibitions in exactly the same positions! What has changed?

In 1901 the then Secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel P. Langley, appointed himself Honorary Curator of the Children's Room as he felt that museums should be doing more for children. In a letter to himself accepting the position he wrote: 'The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution has been pleased to confer upon me the honourable but arduous duties of the care of the Children's Room. He has at his service so many men learned in natural history that I do not know why he has chosen me, who knows so little about it, unless perhaps it's because these gentlemen may possibility not be also learned in the ways of children, for whom this little room is meant. It has been my purpose to deserve his confidence, and to carry out what I believe to be his intention, by identifying myself with the interests of my young clients. Speaking, therefore, on their behalf and as one of them, I should say that we never have a fair chance in museums. We cannot see things on the top shelves, which only grown-up people are tall enough to look into, and most of the things we can see and would like to know about have Latin words on them which we cannot understand: some things we do not care for at all, and other things which look entertaining have nothing on them to tell us what they are about. ... We think there is nothing in the world more entertaining than birds, animals, and live things; and next to these is our interest in the same things, even though they are not alive; and next to this the same things, even though they are not alive; and next to this is to read about them. All of us care about them and some of us hope to care for them all our lives long. We are not very much interested in Latin names, and however much they may mean to grown-up people, we do not want to have our entertainment spoiled by it being a lesson.' (quoted in Skramstad, 1999, p.113-114).

We still hear today from museum folk who despair at having children running loose in our exhibitions, and we still have many exhibitions that are not designed for them, despite having content that they are keenly interested in.

Valerie Beer's 1987 Curator paper, Great Expectations: do museums know what visitors are doing?, found that museum staff consistently over-estimated the time visitors would spend in an exhibition and that staff don't expect visitors to read labels. She also found evidence that: 'Variety, not quantity, appears to be key.' (p.213). Beer also mentioned that often we assume that it is the visitors' behaviour that needs to be changed, and suggested that we '... examine our assumptions that visitor behaviour should be changed' (p.213). How many times have we sat in project team meetings where we talk about how we are going to direct the visitor's experience toward what we want to tell them, not what they would like to experience and know about?

Mike Ellis and Brian Kelly in their paper, Web 2.0: How to Stop Thinking and Start Doing: Addressing Organisational Barriers, stated 'Web 2.0 puts users and not the organisation at the centre of the equation. This is threatening, but also exciting in that it has the potential to lead to richer content, a more personal experience'. The lines between the web and other forms of learning are blurring and will need to be carefully considered by museums when thinking about what lifelong learning really means.

My provocative paper at the Futures Forum will address these issues and more – I'll post my notes after I give the talk otherwise no one will turn up to hear me!


LyndaK said...

I decided to post my Powerpoint slides anyway on my SlideShare site.

BTW what a top little application that is, I've only just discovered it!

LyndaK said...

Found this interesting link Design anthropology: What can it add to your design practice?via Christopher over at Museum 3.0. For those of you at the Futures Forum who heard me ranting on about designers who aren't visitor-focussed being the cause of many of our problems (sorry to all you designers who read this blog and are visitor-focussed!) this may help explain away some of my frustration.