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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Des Griffin  is currently Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow, Australian Museum, an honorary position commemorating one of the early directors of the Museum. More about Des Griffin

Introduction: learning, the visiting experience and the art museum as educator
by Des Griffin

Education in most museums has come to mean lifelong learning, expanding well beyond merely providing visits by children in school groups. Janette Griffin reviews the shift in focus of school group visits from just another lesson, often unrelated to what is happening at school and setting tasks such as filling in worksheets, to learning opportunities that include emotional, aesthetic and interactive experiences. The visit is enhanced when it has a clear and relevant purpose, when students choose appropriate parts of the museums suited to the purpose of the visit, and when they are in control of their learning agenda.

In her review of family visits to museums, Lynda Kelly notes that during museum visits family members talk about previous experiences and memories, thus developing shared understandings. Visits are centred on learning rather than primarily for social interaction.

Positive interventions in childhood have extremely important impacts on later life. Several museums in Australia, including the Australian Museum, the Melbourne Museum and the National Museum of Australia, have paid special attention to younger children. Some countries, notably the United States, have developed specific museums for children such as the Boston Children’s Museum, Indianapolis Children’s Museum and the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. However there are no such museums in Australia.

Barbara Piscitelli points out that there were very few programs for young children in museums in Australia before 1990. Several museums now have special programs. With a focus on the Queensland Art Gallery, she shows how very young children gain from their visits to museums.

Prior to the 1970s the orientation of education programs in Australian art museums was towards supplementing the school curriculum through introducing students to original works of art. Government administrative links and, in some states, the policy of seconding teachers to museums, tended to confirm this focus. However, post-Second World War optimism regarding what the visual arts might contribute to the welfare of both the individual and to society in general nurtured a wider context in which Australian museum educators contributed to an international movement in art education, locating art not only at the centre of the curriculum but also as a vital aspect of adult education. [1] The Art Gallery of New South Wales pioneered an extensive touring exhibition program to country areas which also brought lecturers to present interpretative programs designed to be of direct educational benefit to children and adults. [2]

Victoria also toured exhibitions. However, when that state meanwhile became a leader in formal art education, art museums were active participants. The National Gallery of Victoria hosted the respected National Gallery School and close links were formed with Melbourne University and with schools.

Art education was still influenced by modernism’s exploration of the relationships between self-expression, concepts of mental age and psychological development, with an inevitable reduction of interest in forms of objective analysis and the more social bases of creative endeavour. Self-directed expression was seen as providing a balance to the general orientation of education towards rational analysis, which tended to foster the ‘suppression of the instinctual and emotional components of the human personality’. [3] From the 1970s, however, there was a move to balance self-expression with a greater attention to art as a learned language, involving symbolism, acquired reference and contextual meaning.

In the latter part of the 1970s major exhibitions, including biennial and triennial contemporary art exhibitions, became major generators of change. Australian and foreign curators and artists were increasingly involved in shaping a range of public programs around special exhibitions. The subsequent progressive growth in year-round attendances at state galleries created a demand for further and more diverse public programs; gradually this encouraged increased investment in the idea of education for lifelong learning. Expanded wall texts, room brochures, audio tours, film and video screenings, lectures, curators’ and artists’ talks, have been complemented by children’s events, children’s exhibitions and workshops — including tailored activities for the very young — and new programs for previously disadvantaged persons unable to gain access to cultural institutions.

Meanwhile art museums over this period expanded their support of school art education, with specialised programs for teachers, symposia for art educators, online education resources, education kits for downloading, and a variety of online ‘interactives’.

Art museums increasingly supplemented exhibitions and collections through material on the Internet and social media. The much-discussed contemporary role of the museum as a multifaceted civic space and community meeting-place has generated a plethora of new programs, including numerous evening events.

An indication of the strong links that have long existed between art education in Australian museums and art education in general is the fact that a number of senior art museum professionals, including three of the four directors of the National Gallery, began their careers in art education. Community outreach programs have been an essential factor in engaging interest, including the attraction of generous private donations to complement meagre government funding for acquisitions.

Just as young children show extraordinary interest in their museum visits, so do many other groups once considered to be marginally interested at most. Adolescents, including adolescents at risk, and other people on the margin of society are well able to articulate what they want from their visits. All people want to be treated as intelligent human beings, albeit with particular wishes in many cases.

The digital environment

At the 2007 ‘Museums and the Web’ conference in San Francisco, Sebastian Chan from the Powerhouse Museum recounted the history of a project that offered visitors to the Museum’s website additional ways to interact with the museum and its collections. In June 2006, the Museum had launched a new means for browsing and searching its collection database in order to optimise usage. The site offered ‘folksonomies’: ‘visitors’ no longer required familiarity with collecting and museological practice to locate objects of interest to them.

The advance of ‘social media’ through blogs, wikis, and sites for sharing views and images has attracted great attention and new adaptations seem to appear every week. These include using social media to promote the museum and its events and applications for iPhone, BlackBerry and similar devices allowing tours of exhibitions.


1 In the post-Second World War period art became a compulsory subject throughout the whole of primary, and the first four years of secondary education in state schools in Victoria and a significant core subject in other states.

2 Pamela Clelland Gray, Public Learning and the Art Museum: Future Directions, Master of Arts Hons. thesis, University of Western Sydney, Nepean, 2002.

3 Herbert Read, Art and Education, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1964, p. 11.

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Cite as: Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien, 2011, 'Museums and education: learning, the visiting experience and the art museum as educator', in Understanding Museums: Australian museums and museology, Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6