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Making the Most of Museums: the case for learning through objects

Written by: Kate Noble
12 min read

At a time of increased focus on core subjects and shrinking school budgets (Cultural Learning Alliance, 2018), how can we make the case for taking children to museums and galleries to experience the power of object-based learning? Over the past 18 months, learning teams at the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) and the National Gallery (NG) have been working on the ‘Practical Evaluation’ project with Dr Eric Jensen from the University of Warwick to explore what museums offer to children and young people (Practical Evaluation, 2019). The project has improved the way in which we capture feedback from teachers and students and aims to make programming more responsive to the experiences of our visitors. This article builds on these findings and reviews current research and practice to explore how museum visits can support the acquisition of curriculum-related knowledge and the development of confidence, cultural understanding, creativity and critical thinking. It also considers how museums can also offer wellbeing benefits by providing both students and teachers with a space in which to think, share ideas and be inspired.

‘History and knowledge’: The learning museum

History and knowledge comes to my mind when I think of the Fitzwilliam Museum. I also think of the amazing time I had when I went on a school trip with my school. The experience I had was filled with fun activities and I learnt lots from it.

Feedback from Year 8 student

This young person is clear that the museum is a place to learn ‘history and knowledge’, and curriculum enrichment is often an important starting point for teachers planning a school trip to a museum. A well- planned museum visit can enhance learning in many different curriculum areas. Historical collections afford opportunities to interrogate objects as primary sources. One museum object can be the starting point for many different lines of enquiry. Take, for example, an Egyptian coffin. In the first instance, a group might consider what they can see when they look at it. The teacher might ask, ‘What can you see? What colours and motifs has the artist used? What materials is it made of?’ These prompts will stimulate careful observation and require students to draw on existing knowledge about materials (science, design and technology), artistic styles and techniques (art and history). The group might then move on to discuss their observations in relation to their existing knowledge about Egyptian burial beliefs (history) and relate these to their own beliefs and customs (PSHE, RE). They might finish the session by making a drawing, film or piece of writing about the coffin to record their observations and ideas (literacy). In this instance, the students have both developed their understanding and knowledge of the topic and produced their own creative response. This example demonstrates how museum collections stimulate authentic learning experiences with real objects by encouraging students to apply existing knowledge and to connect with new ideas.

Objects provide a concrete and meaningful context for learning and this can happen both in the classroom and as part of a museum visit. Digital learning resources provide schools who are unable to visit museums with access to high-quality images and expert knowledge. The UCM Polar Museum ‘Objects from Antarctica’ series has been downloaded 39,662 times since it was launched in 2017. There are many other excellent teacher resources available from museums and galleries across the UK and beyond. At the Fitzwilliam Museum, teacher training programmes support the development of object-based teaching pedagogies in the classroom and encourage practitioners to embed the analysis of images and objects within the core curriculum offer (Noble and Wallis, 2019).

‘A magical mysterious place’: What is special about museum learning?

It’s a magical mysterious place where there are different things in every corner!

Feedback from Year 8 student

Although digital resources can provide access to museum collections, the lessons that can be taught as part of a visit to a museum extend outside the confines of curriculum and into the realm of ‘magic and mystery’, as the student above describes so beautifully. Museums are exciting and inspiring places to learn and this makes a difference to people and to the way in which they learn (Arts Council England, 2018). Being in a museum environment, which looks and feels so different to the places that students usually inhabit, enables them to think differently too: noticing, questioning and connecting as they make sense of what they see in this new context. In their review of research investigating the ‘User value of museums and galleries’, Scott et al. (2014) describe how users engage with museums through evaluating, questioning, reflecting, comparing, focusing and discovering. These encounters were found to lead to enhanced wellbeing through positive feelings, an improved sense of self and making connections with others, the past, the place, local community and national identity. The Kings Cultural Institute’s ‘My Primary School is at the Museum’ project tested the benefits of co-locating primary and nursery school classes for extended periods of time within a museum. The project involved three schools and museums in Swansea, Liverpool and South Shields. Student outcomes included increased confidence, improved social and communication skills, greater engagement and a sense of ownership of local cultural places (DeWitt et al., 2018). The schools and teachers involved also reported that they were more confident using spaces outside of the classroom and had a better awareness of creative ways to deliver the curriculum. 

Critical thinking, visual literacy and dialogic learning

The University of Cambridge Museums are teaching around collections created to support students to apply their knowledge and develop essential research skills such as observation, analysis, deduction, empathy, critical thinking and problem-solving within the topics and subjects they are studying. These skills mean different things within different disciplines but are highly valued across the arts, humanities and sciences. Object-based learning can support students to develop their understanding of how meaning is constructed. Authentic experiences with museum collections can enable students to move from what Boyd (2019) describes as ‘knowing that’ to ‘knowing how’, as they explicitly engage with different ways of making meaning.

With the proliferation of images through social media, film and television, visual literacy is fast becoming a vital skill (Noble, 2016). Museum visits offer valuable opportunities to talk to students about how to look at objects and images and to think about and question what they see. This approach supports young people to actively engage with and question the visual world around them. Burnham and Kai-Kee (2011, p. 61) describe the nature of this interaction within an art museum:

The unique charge of museum teaching is to bring people and works of art together face-to- face so that conversation can take place. We invite people into an open-ended dialogue – with us, with one another, and above all, with the artwork – an inquiry whose objective is to find the right terms to express what we feel, see, and want to know about the work of art.

There are many parallels between museum and gallery teaching and dialogic teaching approaches that might be used in the classroom (Alexander, 2004). In her study of a group of Year 7 students investigating paintings as part of a visit to an art museum, English teacher Rebecca Lefroy (2018) found that this dialogic approach supported her students’ understanding and appreciation of symbolism and style in narrative paintings. The museum provided a positive environment for learning about abstract concepts, and the immediacy of the images made these ideas more accessible for students. The challenge she then faced was how to successfully transfer these positive learning behaviours back into her English classroom. 

Museums, aspirations and cultural awareness

Broadening access to young people who might not otherwise visit museums can provide powerful enrichment opportunities. Throughout their history, public museums have been understood to have a social purpose, which is often tied to their educational function (Hooper Greenhill, 1994). Museums can serve as centres for cultural activity within communities and support the development of individual and collective identity and pride through their collections. Over the last five years, Arts Council England has been working in partnership with the Department for Education to make better links between schools, community groups and cultural providers through Local Cultural Education Partnerships (LCEPs). An evaluation of the pilot project (Harland and Sharp, 2015) found that LCEPs increased engagement in culture amongst children and young people, increased confidence and aspirations, and enhanced understanding of local history. Effective partnership projects led to a more coherent, relevant and higher-quality cultural offer, which reached a much broader range of schools. Over 100 LCEPs modelled on these successful partnerships have now been set up across England.

As part of the University of Cambridge Widening Participation programme, the UCM has developed a number of strategic relationships with local secondary schools, which aim to broaden student aspirations in relation to their learning and future choices. Every year, 250 Year 8 students from a local secondary school visit the Fitzwilliam Museum to take part in a workshop planned in partnership with teachers across different curriculum areas linked to programmes of study in school. Over the course of a two-hour visit, students have opportunities to explore the design and function of armour (history, art, design and technology), examine perspective in Renaissance panel paintings (history and maths) and develop their visual literacy skills by looking at narrative art (English and modern languages). Online survey data collected from students as part of the Practical Evaluation project demonstrated that the majority of students were inspired by the visit and that they were able to see links between the museum collections and subjects they were learning about at school. They enjoyed having some time to explore independently, working with handling collections and taking part in the activities. The survey data collected will be a valuable starting point when planning next year’s visit.

Museum and school strategic relationships help to situate museum visits within the core curriculum offer, but they can also be an effective way of providing financial support to schools struggling to raise the funds to pay for coaches. Fabian Society research (2018) reported that 58 per cent of teachers noted a decline in the number of school art trips since 2010 and found that the cost of transport is increasingly prohibitive, particularly for schools in small towns and rural areas. The Fitzwilliam Museum offers a travel bursary for schools most in need, which is funded by local businesses and the Friends of the Museum (Wallis, 2019).

Museums as places of inspiration and creativity

Many museums and galleries offer Arts Award programmes, which provide opportunities for children and young people to develop arts and leadership talents. The UCM runs a Key Stage 3 Bronze Arts Award as a targeted programme with strategic partnership schools linked to different curriculum areas (Shipp, 2018). The project aims to boost confidence and self-esteem and to raise aspirations amongst students facing disadvantage, and there are opportunities for participants to discuss, reflect on and evaluate their learning built into each of the 10 sessions. This encourages students to think about their learning and to consider what they might do in the future, as this quote demonstrates:

I feel I have gained much more confidence in myself and believe I can achieve things, in art, in life and other things I thought I wouldn’t be able to do.

Feedback from Year 8 Arts Award participant

This young person sounds empowered by their experiences of learning outside of the classroom.

It is not just students who benefit from spending time in inspirational settings such as museums and galleries. The teacher enrichment programme at the Fitzwilliam Museum aims to provide more than just improved curriculum knowledge, confidence and skills (Noble, 2019). The INSPIRE2020 CPD programme ( focuses on a 15th-century Italian painting, Cupid and Psyche by Jacopo del Sellaio, as a source of ideas and inspiration for creative and cross-curricular enquiry. After attending the training day, primary schools are then invited to submit their work for an exhibition at the museum. Feedback from teachers demonstrates the value of allowing time to explore their own ideas and to network with other like-minded practitioners in a supportive environment:

Really loved the session and enjoyed the small practical tasks to get us so engaged. The painting has really inspired my creativity and I have already set up my group of children for the project (It’s only Monday!).

Feedback from CPD participants

The project has had an impact on practice back at school, with participating teachers returning to their settings and leading training sessions for the rest of their staff. Many schools have then embarked on whole-school projects, with teachers and students taking part in creative activities linked to the focus painting. Museums can be encouraging and enabling spaces for students and teachers to reflect, imagine and reconnect. 

Final thoughts

A school trip may well be a child’s only opportunity to see what happens inside a museum. Audience research indicates that it is often the most privileged within our society who are the most likely to visit museums (Whitaker, 2016). Schools have a vital role to play in ensuring that these cultural riches are made available for all. Encounters with collections can aid the development of cultural capital by offering opportunities to individuals and communities who have previously felt excluded from museums. If children are supported to develop a positive relationship with museums during their school years, they will discover the potential of collections to support learning, enhance wellbeing and develop curiosity, creativity and imagination. These experiences could plant the seeds of a lifelong interest in museums and what they have to offer. The most effective museum programmes and projects are those that have been devised in partnership with local schools and teachers and are responsive to local needs and challenges. Why don’t you reach out to your local museum today and see what you can create together?


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