The objective of the Museum Learning Collaborative is to generate a research agenda--and in time, a body of research--sufficiently broad and powerful to guide the study of learning in informal contexts. These contexts include art museums, science galleries, history museums and historical reconstructions, zoos and aquaria, children's museums, and botanical gardens. Such an agenda, built on an understanding and interpretation of previous research and undergirded by a coherent theoretical framework, will enable research conducted in these settings to progress beyond a collection of studies of the particular factors that are important in individual places (e.g., visitor studies or evaluations of exhibits or galleries) toward a cumulative body of knowledge dealing with learning in the museum setting. Theory is useful in that it highlights the questions and issues worthy of exploration, emphasizes what is central in the research findings, and provides the integrating frame that defines a coherent portrait from a series of independent investigations.


The unifying theoretical framework that we believe can coherently organize the research agenda is sociocultural theory. Sociocultural theory emphasizes the idea that meaning emerges in the interplay between individuals acting in social contexts and the mediators--tools, talk, activity structures, signs, and symbol systems--that exist in that context. Individuals both shape and are shaped by these mediators; a unique aspect of humans is our propensity to invent and to invent with the instruments of our own development. Culture, environment and history hold sway in every time and place.

Sociocultural theory is suitable for spanning the wide variety of informal learning contexts that museums provide and their diverse populations of visitors because it emphasizes both variability and commonalities in visitors' learning. Sociocultural theory focuses on processes of learning, not simply its outcomes. Hence, it is developmental in its emphasis on and methods for tracking change over time, as well as in its emphasis on identifying the role of meaningful encounters and events in the sweep of a person's life course. Finally, sociocultural theory foregrounds how people's thinking changes as they make meaning of their experiences. Museums are places of signs, symbols, culturally significant artifacts, tools, and activities; it is difficult to think of institutions that more self-consciously foreground and value a meaning-based conceptualization of learning.


We conceptualize our research agenda as being organized around a set of three integrating themes that derive from this theoretical framework. It should be noted that these themes overlap in many particular cases of study. The themes are (1) learning and learning environments; (2) interpretation, meaning and explanation; and (3) identity, motivation and interest. These three themes each emphasize different aspects of the learning setting: the design of the environment, the interface between people and the environment, and people themselves.

Learning and Learning Environments The first theme articulates interrelations between learning and the design of learning environments. Here we address the variety of ways in which text, images, models and activities serve as mediators of and affordances for learning, and explore how the findings from these studies can influence the development and design of exhibits. We regard the design of learning environments and the study of learning as proceeding hand in hand. The term "design experiments" has been suggested to describe studies in which researchers try to understand learning by iteratively studying educational environments and then developing theoretically-based educational interventions and systematically studying the changes that occur. Design experiments proceed in cycles, in which the initial situation is studied and then future design is informed by theory, and the theory, in turn is informed by results, redesign, and further study.

Interpretation, Meaning and Explanation The second theme highlights interpretation, meaning, and explanation as processes and products of social interaction. This theme presses on the issue of dialectics between curator, institution, designer, docent and viewers, and acknowledges that meaning is inherently social. We again consider the variety of ways in which text, images, models and activities serve as mediators of and affordances for learning -- specifically, how these affect the issues of interpretation, meaning, and explanations. We address how individuals and groups make sense of their experiences in museums, focusing on the nature of intentions and social interactions among viewers, as well as between viewers and the museum. Also of interest are patterns of inter-generational, intra-generational, inter-viewer and even intra-viewer interactions that lead to interpretation. This theme will guide our study of how meanings are influenced by interactions.

Identify, Motivation and Interests The final theme concerns previous experience related to one's identity as a learner. Identity, interest, and motivation both influence further museum participation and serve as a means in which a visit can continue to play our in a visitor's future. This theme considers how museum experiences change the ways that people see themselves as learners of history, art, or science; as historians, artists or scientists; and as members of cultural groups with a rich past and an open future. Identity, motivation, and interest are closely interwoven in actual behavior, although it may be helpful to analyze them separately in generating a program of research on learning in museums.

In sum, the purpose of the Collaborative is to work together to develop a program of research in informal learning that cumulates, so that the whole is truly more than the sum of the individual studies. Such an endeavor can assist the field by providing us with a common foundation to move beyond the fragmented nature of current research, so that the wheel will not need to be reinvented at every turn.

The Collaborative is housed at LRDC. There is a core team of researchers and a core group of museums.

We expect that over time the Collaborative will expand to a larger group of researchers and museums.