Fellowships  
in Museum 
    Practice

Lifelong Learning in Museums: In Pursuit of Andragogy

Andrew Jay Svedlow, PhD

"Lifelong Learning in Museums" is a qualitative study supported by the Office of Museum Programs Fellowships in Museum Practice and conducted under the sponsorship of Zahava Doering, Director, Institutional Studies Office, Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Svedlow's work is an initial step in the investigation of the nature of adult learning behavior in the museum environment.

The research for this project, undertaken in the fall of 1993 through the summer of 1994, is structured into three sections. The first of these unfolds the verbalized reflections of the developers of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service's exhibition, "Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington" in regards to their intentions for the exhibition as a learning environment. A retrospective history of the development of the exhibition is presented as a backdrop to the exploration of adult learning behavior in the unique environment of the museum exhibition. Through interviews with the organizers of the exhibition a picture of the intentions of the developers unfolds. Csikszentmihaly and Robinson (1990) refer to these types of informants as "experts whose familiarity...indicated that they would give us an idea of what" the phenomenon of adult learning behavior might be in this environment.    

A bracketed framework of four dimensions of adult learning behavior is presented within this retrospective history. These four theoretical learning behaviors provide a window to view the behavior of adult learners within the chosen museum exhibition. "Beyond Category" provides a wide range of exhibition display techniques in which to observe learning behavior.

An older adult audience, defined as museum visitors born before 1945, are the primary focus of the study. Observation of this audience and selected interviews with representative informants were conducted in the second phase of the research. Younger adults, born after 1960, were also observed and interviewed as a comparison group.

This section of the study uses observational notes and transcriptions of a select number of interviews with informants to analyze the manifestation of the four dimensions of adult learning behavior outlined in the study. These behaviors are expounded upon with the intent of revealing some of the phenomenon of older adult learning. The unfolding of this phenomenon is further analyzed in relationship to age. Pre-Baby Boomer informants' responses are compared and discussed in relationship to post-Baby Boomer informant's behavior and responses.

The four adult learning behaviors are labeled in the study as Social Learning, Theoretical Learning, Inquiry Learning and Intuitive Learning. Social Learning is noted as a behavior that is based on the manifestation of receptivity to actual concrete experience with one or more people. This surface representation of the dynamics of making sense of an experience is fully elaborated upon in the study. Theoretical Learning belies a comfort with structured, text-type learning and more academic approaches to assimilating information. Inquiry Learning behavior in museums assumes that visitors are making choices that represent a more challenging approach to the exhibition environment. The Intuitive Learner, it is theorized, apprehends the object within an exhibition, as opposed to thinking about it and making conscious choices of intent to seek out. It is, of course, difficult to mechanistically reduce any learning experience into discreet blocks of behavior. None of the perceived learning behaviors noted above exist in a vacuum. They are necessarily interwoven in the complexity of human behavior.

These observed and theorized aspects of adult learning in a museum exhibition are further discussed in a final section of the study. In this section, an analysis takes place of the field work findings and puts these into the context of existing studies, as well as attending to a more generalized discussion of adult learning behavior.

The four dimensions of learning postulated in the study are pragmatic lenses used to interpret the phenomenon of adult learning behavior. This personal and idiosyncratic behavior has been broken into these constituent parts as a matter of discourse and for critical analysis. A visitor's behavior, of course, is mediated by the a priori conditions of their inquiry. The pursued interpretation of the visitor's experience in this study reflects the historical and idiosyncratic perspective of the writer as well, whose interpretation is informed by this transaction.

The study holds the assumption that the U.S. population is graying in proportion to its youth and that it is becoming increasingly clear that educational institutions, such as museums, must make a dynamic shift toward incorporating older adult learners into the foundations of their programming and exhibition design.

(Andrew Jay Svedlow is Director, Manchester Institute of Arts and Sciences, Manchester, New Hampshire. Dr. Svedlow is the Smithsonian's sixth Fellow in Museum Practice.)

Lifelong Learning in Museums: In Pursuit of Andragogy

Reading List

Brookfield, S.D. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1986.

Csikszentmihaly, M. and Robinson, R. The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter. Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, 1990.

Erikson, E. The Life Cycle Completed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1982.

Mezirow, J. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1991.

Return to start of Fellowships in Museum Practice

Go to start of Center for Museum Studies

Smithsonian Home Page