Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Museum Environment as Teacher

What does this space say about learning?
(Photo credit: Atelier of water Energy: Agriturismo Il Ginepro)
Twenty-five years ago I first came across the image of the environment as the third teacher in a brochure for The Hundred Languages of Children exhibit from the Municipal Schools in Reggio Emilia (IT). I was intrigued and delighted with the idea that the environment, along with parents and the teacher, was understood to promote the child’s well-being, offer learning opportunities, and support independence, in beautiful, thoughtfully arranged settings.  

The idea wasn’t new to me. My graduate work had focused on the relationship between humans and the environment, between behavior and space. This vivid image, however, expanded my thinking and inspired me to imagine ways in which museum learning spaces could be harnessed for learning.  

The Environments of Our Lives
Environments are the lived-in containers of our lives. They are the spaces we inhabit, that shelter and protect us, inspire and give us pleasure. They make both daily life and grand occasions possible. At all points in the lifespan, environments represent an emergent context and force that shape behavior, inform choices, and deliver information.

The physical environment is more than the shape of a space or its full volume. It is more than the arrangement of furniture, the materials and finishes that cover surfaces, the combinations of walls and openings, light and sound. Our environment surrounds us. We engage with it directly, on many levels, and throughout our lives.

What does this space say about learning?
(Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo credit: Vergeront)
Contexts layered with meaning, environments signal what goes on in a space and at successive scales. This is a playground; that is a place to worship; this is a place for commercial exchange, that is a public gathering space, a place for sports, or a private, personal space. Scale and the configuration of space; qualities of light, sound, and smells; materials and surfaces add to the broad clues of function. Is this school welcoming? Is this park safe? Can I accomplish my tasks? Can I stay here and explore?

Although clearly physical, built and natural environments are also emotional, social, and cognitive spaces. They affect us across a range of emotions, making us feel at ease or anxious, competent or inadequate, motivated or discouraged. Some spaces encourage social interactions; they bring us together, facilitate connections, and invite conversations; and other spaces isolate us. We can be intellectually invigorated by our surroundings, intrigued by materials and objects that encourage us to ask questions, have ideas, investigate, and pursue choices.

An environment may be consistent with our expectations, facilitate our intentions, and support our capabilities. Sometimes, however, its goals–or those of its creators–are at odds with our own. The interaction of features, materials, light, and sound can be problematic; they can challenge our understanding of where we are and how to find our way. While soft, ambient sounds can create a soothing backdrop to conversation, loud sounds amplified by hard surfaces make conversation difficult, especially for people with limited hearing.

Surroundings with a sense of soul that resonate deeply with our own invite us to linger while a soulless container hurries us to leave. Across all domains, environments can facilitate or interfere with a feeling of well-being, a sense of accomplishment, rewarding interactions with others, and bold imaginings.

Ever-present, Reaching, and Teaching
While the concept of the environment as the third teacher emerges from the schools in Reggio, this idea is neither limited to children nor to schools and Italy.

Art, history, science, natural history, or children’s museums, historic houses or zoos; indoor or outdoor, purpose built or adapted spaces are functional and experiential entities with purpose. At least since the 1992 publication of the Association of American Museum’s Excellence and Equity, education has been recognized as central to museums' public service.

What does this space say about learning?
(Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota. Photo credit: Vergeront)
Museums advance their learning interests and serve their learners using a wide array of opportunities and resources. Text and labels; demonstrations, lectures and programs; objects and collections; curricula and interpretation; blogs and digital resources; phenomena and planned discovery are familiar approaches to learning in museums.

Museum visitors, however, are not just learners when they are in a classroom or reading a label. Like all learners, they are minds-on, senses-on, hands-on learners engaging directly with their surroundings and with others wherever they are and whatever they are doing. Even when shopping, standing in line, or relaxing in areas a museum doesn’t think of as educational, visitors are sensing, thinking, and learning.

And the environment is ever-present, reaching and teaching them. Space and scale; sound and light; visual and physical access; materials, textures, colors, and objects are encouraging exploration, facilitating connections with others and with ideas, and supporting meaning making. Conversely, these same features may be discouraging curiosity, interfering with connections, and overwhelming the senses. 

The environment may speak louder than words, labels, and intentions to children and adults in how the museum:

• … is welcoming, creates a sense of belonging, puts them at ease; and assures safety;
• … values learners as competent, active agents in their own learning;
• … supports values such as creativity, caring, inclusiveness, or experimentation;
• … engages the learner’s curiosity and interests and removes barriers to participation;
• … encourages connections and promotes enjoyable interactions among visitors and with staff;
• … increases comfort and relieves fatigue;
• … creates ways for learners to see traces of their doing, thinking, and learning;
• … offers opportunities to explore, browse, reflect;
• … values alternative perspectives and learning in different ways;
• … creates moments of delight and beauty.

Harnessing the Environment for Learning
There are points in a museum’s life when it does focus deliberately on its environment from various perspectives. Typically this is when a museum constructs a new building, remodels a space, reconfigures the entry and lobby, opens an exhibition, adds a maker space, or upgrades exhibit components. A museum team, often working with architects and designers, considers the size and shape of a space, how it must work for its primary purpose and users, adjacencies and flow of spaces, the look and feel of the space, the furniture and equipment needed. After the opening, the space shifts to operations mode with regular cleaning and scheduled maintenance. Taking stock of the space is unlikely until the next remodel.

But spaces are dynamic. As living systems that morph over time, affected by use, misuse, and inevitable micro
What does this space say about learning?
(NYSCi. Photo credit: Andrew Kelly)
changes, museum spaces evolve. Strategic goals change, program schedules and formats are adjusted, visitor patterns shift, and new technologies arrive as the old disappear. Some spaces groan from over use, some are under-used, and some attract unwelcome activities.

The environment is an essential element of a museum’s learning value and its public service. Harnessing this great potential to serve its learners relies on a museum understanding its own learning interests, being attuned to the environment, and integrating these insights into museum-wide procedures, practices, and decisions. This on-going work requires the perspective of people from across the museum: designers, educators, visitor service, operations, and facilities staff. And visitors. The following practices work together and inform one another to help accomplish this.

1. Align museum goals and interests with the environment. Museums have goals, values, and guiding principles. They may aspire to be a more connected community, inspire innovation, strengthen families, or promote wellbeing. By identifying examples of how these driving principles can–and do–play out in the environment, a museum builds a shared vocabulary around the environment as teacher that contributes to experience planning, operations, and increasing impact. (See # 2, 4 & 5)  

2. Build space planning into experience planning. Each step in experience planning is an opening to focusing on how qualities and features of the environment can support learning. For instance, if a museum wants the visitor to try something new or take a risk, what conditions must be present for someone to experience a situation as safe, recognize new pathways, and perceive invitations to be creative? (See # 1 & 3)

3. Design, Not Rules and Signs. What museums hope to encourage visitors to do can be facilitated or obstructed by the environment; even a single feature can interfere with safety, comfort, or access. Spaces may create a bottleneck; invite racing, chasing, climbing; tempt leaning on cases. A museum can make rules and put up signs. Or it can address the problem through design solutions and decisions about the environment. (See # 2 & 4)

What does this space say about learning?
(Photo credit: New-York Historical Society Museum and Library)
4. Modify spaces based on information. Understanding how a space is informing the learning that takes place emerges from information and insights. Observation, asking questions, and listening to visitors help identify the physical qualities that encourage learning. Where is the flow of activity, traffic, and interactions positive and humming? What qualities are present? These insights can inform the vocabulary, experience planning, and dialogues about space. (See # 2, 3 & 5)

5. Open dialogues about museum spaces. Conversation among staff, volunteers, members, community partners, people of different ages, backgrounds, and abilities expands the environment’s capacity to support learning. These exchanges may probe what the environment says about the museum’s view of learning, how learning opportunities are best supported, and possible improvements. When a museum and its friends explore these questions together, a bigger, more visible view of the museum environment as teacher develops. (See #1 and #4)

What does your museum environment say about learning?

Related Museum Notes Posts

… we value space for its power to organize, promote pleasant relationships between children of different ages, create a handsome environment, provide changes, promote choices and activity and its potential for sparking all kinds of social and affective learning. All this contributes to a sense of well-being and security in children.
Loris Malaguzzi


  1. This is the best piece on learning and environments I've read in years. Not only have you drawn needed attention to a much misunderstood element of learning, you've provided specific discussion points that can help us focus on the relationship between architecture and people in museums.

  2. Thank you, Jim. I agree that this is both a gap in understanding and resources for our field. I know that many of our colleagues deal with the "referred pain" of a disconnect between learning and environments.