More Than Fieldtrips: Museums as Lifelong Learning Centers

By Dick Thomas

At its foundation, 9 Billion Schools believes in life-long, life-wide and life-deep personalized learning for all. It recognizes that learning is not limited to formal education—from the moment we’re born until the moment we die, we’re in a constant state of learning. That even includes our “off” time; leisure learning makes up a larger portion of our life than our time inside the classroom.

Woman In Museum Lifelong Learning Centers.jpeg

American museums receive approximately 850 million visits per year, and roughly 55 million of those visits are from school groups. But that means a vast majority—795 million—are adults and families seeking museums in their leisure time, not as part of their traditional education.

In so many ways, museums epitomize life-long, life-wide and life-deep learning (L3). Learners of all ages go there to have a wide range of learning experiences: art, history, science, fashion, culture, music, sports, air and space, and many other interests. Beyond the exhibits, museums often create supporting educational programs for surrounding schools, universities, community organizations and general visitors. In fact, according to the Center for the Future of Museums, museums provide more than 18 million instructional hours for educational programs each year. 

The future of the learning ecosystem

The Center for the Future of Museums report, “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem” states, “The next era of education will be characterized by self-directed, experiential, social and distributed learning that is designed to foster the 21st-century skills of critical thinking, synthesis of information, innovation, creativity, teamwork and collaboration.”

We couldn’t agree more—we’ve spoken extensively on the 9 Billion Schools blog about preparing today’s students for a future we can’t even imagine by focusing on these transferrable, adaptable skills. Many museum organizations are joining the call for personalized approaches to learning, and they want to play a role in that transition. What role can museums play in helping us realize this future?

According to Katherine Prince, senior director, strategic foresight, KnowledgeWorks, “Museums and other cultural institutions should see themselves not just as critical stakeholders in creating the future of learning, but as agents of change that could steward the charge of equity and advocate for interest-driven collaborative learning as a key feature of the expanded learning ecosystem.”

As educational change agents, museums could play a more significant role in L3 learning—not just as repositories of knowledge, but contributors to it. This is already happening on a wide scale. Whether it’s an art gallery hosting a dialogue on the meaning of beauty, a natural history museum inviting the community on a local archaeological dig, or a local historical landmark exposing an ugly side of social justice, there are endless possibilities for museums to spur conversation, build community and even promote a change to public policy.

Why museums?

Museums provide opportunities for inquiry-based, experiential learning and opportunities to connect people with their communities, culture and history. As community-based learning centers, museums are uniquely situated to truly be hubs for lifelong learning, filling gaps in academic curriculum and supporting learners of all ages and backgrounds.

How? Just ask the Center for the Future of Museums, which has a goal to integrate the nation’s museums into a vibrant “learning grid” of educational assets. Museums can play a larger role in traditional education by integrating classroom education with museum resources and immersive experiences. Think fieldtrips, on steroids.

But we know that L3 learning is about more than formal education, so it’s just as, if not more, important to focus on the role museums play in leisure learning. Adults and families often seek out museums not to explicitly learn about one new thing, but to enjoy a new experience—it’s for fun. Few other institutions create environments that have the potential to be equal parts enjoyable experiences, learning opportunities, tourist attractions and more. That space is almost exclusively filled by museums that serve millions of curious adults and families each year. 

The type of learning occurring in museums across the country is about more than facts and figures. Attending museums helps visitors, and in turn their communities, better understand and appreciate cultural diversity. Since museums are viewed as apolitical, factual institutions, people from many backgrounds are more likely to trust and internalize what they learn in museums as opposed to, say, on social media. In our current socio-political climate, learning cultural understanding, appreciation and empathy is an invaluable experience.

Museums in the digital age

With new technology, museums have the opportunity to create personalized experiences for each visitor by catering to individuals’ interests and learning preferences. Incorporating digital components can help museums move past traditional models and towards being integrated community lifelong learning centers.

In his article “Rethinking Museums for the Digital Age,” MuseumNext founder Jim Richardson says, “Today the museum must continue to change. This is in part both enabled and in response to technology in the world around us, and the changing expectations that our audiences have because of this technology.”

There are a number of companies developing new digital options for museums to increase visitor engagement and learning. Many of these developments use smartphone apps that provide additional interactive multimedia content, audio guides, and museum maps to create immersive museum experiences. These developments give visitors opportunities to choose how they want to interact with the museum and all the information at their disposal. (Check out MuseumNext’s article “10 Startups Disrupting Museums,” which provides more detail on emerging museum technology.) 

It’s not just about helping visitors interact with the museum, though. One of my colleagues attended a talk last spring at SXSWedu, during which Aimee Davis from Chicago’s The Field Museum shared how technology enabled experiential learning. When the museum opened its Cyrus Tang Hall of China in June 2015, it had amassed 5,000 years of Chinese history, culture and artifacts into a single exhibit. The museum incorporated digital reading rails, videos, maps and 360-degree views of objects to offer visitors additional context, information and connection to the artifacts.

These developments benefit museums as well, by compiling visitor engagement data that demonstrates what exhibits are popular, how much time visitors spend in each area, and what content resonates with their audiences. This data can help museums tailor their digital and real-life exhibits to visitor preferences, making the museum experience more relevant and engaging.

Taking advantage of museums today

There’s no sense in waiting for an educational paradigm shift or for digital startups to take advantage of local museums and the learning opportunities they present. Here are a few resources to help you explore a new museum in your own neighborhood:

American Alliance of Museums

Museums Association

Association of Children’s Museums

Learning throughout a lifetime requires learning outside the rigors of traditional education. By reframing our focus to acknowledge that museums are as much about education as they are entertainment, we can all take advantage of leisure-learning at its finest.