John H. Falk, Lynn D. Dierking, Susan Foutz. In Principle, in Practice: Museums as Learning Institutions. Altamira Press, 2007. 296. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7591-0976-6.
Reviewed by Christopher Whitehead
Published on H-AfrArts (December, 2008)
Commissioned by Jean M. Borgatti
Museum Learning and Research
To best understand this book, the reader should know the background
and reasons behind its creation. In Principal, In Practice is the
first of the Learning Innovations Series by the Institute for Learning
Innovation (ILI), an organization which for over twenty years has been
researching and advocating for free-choice learning, in and out of the
classroom. The ILI was initially funded by the Informal Science
Education program; thus, most of the book focuses on learning in
science museums and its applicability to other types of museums. This
series is important because it is one of the first to look critically
at museums as serious institutions of learning and to acknowledge the
dearth of research on museum learning prior to the late twentieth
This first book focuses on the history of and opportunities for
free-choice learning in museums, as well as avenues for future
research. Each subsequent book will focus on free-choice learning of a
different kind--through libraries and community-based organizations or
through journalism and the Internet. In Principle, In Practice
identifies the key issues in museum-based informal learning, charts
the need for further research, and makes a very useful read for anyone
working in or through a museum or collections-based organization.
Written by a variety of authors from inside and outside the museum
field, the book is organized into four sections reflecting the book's
stated goal: "to gather in a single place an accessible compendium of
what we currently know about learning in museums, to inquire where
that knowledge leads us in terms of practice and community, and
finally to ponder what still needs to be learned" (p. xi).
The first five chapters in the section "How People Learn in Museums"
provide a selective overview of the nature of learning in museums
based on recent research. This history is by no means comprehensive,
but generally corresponds to the commonly known history of museum
learning. The first chapter takes a particularly enjoyable and
interesting approach to describing research. The author, John H. Falk,
compares learning research to filmmaking. His premise is that both try
to describe a situation in life using the coherent and convincing
timeline of a story. "Just like a film, a good learning study should
provide a mix of 'close-up' (sufficient detail to explain the process
of the individual) and 'panorama' (larger context-longitudinal
aspects, i.e., flash-backs and flash-forwards) to ask why and what
learning occurred.... A good researcher (like a skilled documentary
filmmaker) is trying to determine how to capture 'reality,' often in
'real time'"(pp. 13, 15).
Falk claims that museum research has generally been conducted as if
only two or three factors influence museum learning, despite recent
research identifying hundreds of factors. Like a film, the research
should contain many elements assembled into a seamless whole.
Falk explains that the key for museum researchers is, metaphorically
speaking, to shoot lots of extra film, including interviews before and
after, other events inside the museum and other locations outside the
museum and come prepared with a range of lenses, both macro and micro.
He maintains that research is crucial for museums, but fails to
address how a museum should go about integrating this fuller view of
research into its modus operandi.
Another chapter in this section focuses on families as museum
visitors. This includes a timeline of the progression of research into
family learning over the last thirty years. Families--containing
mixed ages but sharing common experiences, beliefs, and values--were
first identified as a major audience in the 1970s. The research done
in the 1980s offered insights and made recommendations on how to work
effectively with families. The 1990s offered some changes with respect
to research on shared languages, beliefs, values, and assumptions
within the family unit, and developed a consensus on research methods,
questions, and the criteria of evidence. Getting museum educators to
consider the family as a learning unit, rather than focusing solely on
children, has been a problem.
The first section also focuses on the importance of well-designed
educational exhibits and works with the notion of a three-part
learning cycle comprised of students, teachers, and the museum, with
the third chapter defining four contexts (factors) of museum learning.
These are the personal context (motivation, prior interest, choice,
and control); the sociocultural context (cultural background and
upbringing); the physical context (large-scale environment, design,
reinforcing events, and outside experiences); and time. Time affects
all these factors.
The second section, "Engaging Audiences in Meaningful Learning,"
addresses museum learning in terms of social, economic, and political
change and points to technology as an important tool in engaging
audiences in a meaningful way. The chapters discuss the need to
provide individual, customized experiences for visitors while
maintaining the museum's authoritative role as teacher. Methods
suggested include collaboration with the customer's needs; an adaptive
program that allows the customer to change the product; a cosmetic
alteration that gives a standard product an individualized package; or
a transparent customization in which the customer remains unaware of
the tailoring done by the museum.
The last two chapters of this section discuss controversial topics and
museums. Although much of the emphasis here is on history and science
museums (including aquariums), the authors make sure that we
understand the universal principles at play: socially relevant goals
versus academic perspectives. The authors do provide some advice to
museums seeking to become more socially relevant or desiring to mount
exhibitions on controversial topics: reach out to the community, host
a preview with potential adversaries, and learn from museums who have
hosted such exhibitions in the past. A useful addendum to this chapter
on controversial issues is the Journal of Museum Education (vol. 23,
The third section, "Fostering a Learning-Centered Culture in Our
Institutions," offers several chapters, each of which suggests
guidelines for change based on different business models tailored to
create a "culture of learning." These chapters propose methods of
combining theory, practice, research, and policy, both inside and
outside of the museum.
The first chapter uses case studies to define current challenges
facing museums and the methods needed to build learning-centered
relationships with visitors. The second chapter addresses how that
relationship can be affected by the museum's organization, examining
and comparing successful examples from both the museum and for-profit
worlds. This section also discusses the elements needed museum-wide to
create effective free-choice learning: committed human and financial
resources, internal and external policymaking centered on an identity
of free-choice learning, and the integration of theory, research, and
practice. Chapter 12 suggests specific implementation steps using two
types of model museums: a large children's museum and a smaller
free-choice learning museum. Here the collaborative process is
dissected, with emphasis on the museum's need to gain and maintain
such external partnerships.
The final section, "Investigating Museum Learning in the Next Ten
Years," attempts to propose a research agenda. The main focus of this
section is the need for research into long-term effects of museum
learning. The authors generally suggest that an approach to future
research should include larger time frames and more focus on the
processes of learning than on its outcomes. If we can identify and
learn to control the elements of the learning process, especially the
social factors, we can better control the outcomes. The authors,
however, also indicate that in order to move into the future, museums
must embrace the complexity of the learning process in free-choice
learning, view it from as many perspectives as possible, include
potential audiences in the research and design, and create a
transparent community feedback loop.
The series represented by In Principle, In Practice is important
because it is one of the first to look critically at museums as
serious institutions of learning, and this first book is an excellent
beginning. It should prove to be a valuable tool for museum
professionals because it has designed a good framework, based on
research about learning in science and museums, for studying
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Christopher Whitehead. Review of John H. Falk; Lynn D. Dierking; Susan Foutz, In Principle, in Practice: Museums as Learning Institutions.
H-AfrArts, H-Net Reviews.
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