Understanding (in) a museum

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Modern museums enable us to feel and experience. They also teach us to listen, watch, and draw conclusions. However, the most important thing is that they are fun!

Not long ago, a museum was thought of as a place where visitors had to be serious, move slowly without touching anything, watch, contemplate, and admire. Generally, museums were perceived as places only accessible for a select few and, in a way, boring. Museums in Poland have been dynamically changing in recent years, and the activities of museologists, educators, and scientists have led to a dramatic change in the public perception of museums. This has been proven by long queues at the Underground Market in Kraków and the Kopernik Science Centre in Warsaw. A visit to a museum is not associated with felt slippers and "Do not touch!" signs anymore.

Education, fun, and participation

A museum aiming to evoke interest must not only display, but also educate. "The objective of the research I am conducting is to enable the audiences to ‘have serious fun' through which they develop interest in the world and in other people. This is called edutainment — a combination of education and entertainment," comments Renata Pater, PhD, from the Institute of Pedagogy at the Jagiellonian University. However, in order to successfully involve visitors in discovering the world, a museum has to offer more than simple fun, and has to be a challenge for the viewer. This emphasizes active participation and even the co-creation of exhibitions, i.e., participation as defined by Nina Simone, the author of The Participatory Museum. In order to achieve this goal, not only educational programmes for school trips are created, but first of all detailed projects and targeted classes for varied audiences (e.g., for people with various health impairments, for families, for the elderly, or for mothers with small children).

"In a well-designed exhibition, every viewer will find a message for themselves. My research deals with the needs of the audience, the creation of such message, and preparing staff for museum education, i.e., people who will be able to combine various abilities to formulate the message of the museum and to design and create conditions that enable the participation of the audience. Apart from that, I am planning to find out what we really learn in museums and what contemporary museums offer us," Pater explains.

Classes for children with disabilities from primary school
No. 44 in Kraków, taught by students of the Institute of Pedagogy.
Photo: R.Pater

Pleasure at the museum

Research conducted among the youngest museum visitors, children and school pupils, shows that they enjoy their own activity the most. What they remember is a feeling of pleasure combined with their own involvement and intellectual effort, like the satisfaction of solving problems, working in groups, and participating in discussions. It is connected with the admiration of exhibits and works of art, and results from the gradual process of learning and understanding history, techniques, content, or values. The atmosphere of a well-designed museum space combined with an attractive personal message (e.g., of a guide)creates an environment where the motivation to discover the world and humanity in various contexts is enhanced and cultural history becomes an attractive, engaging narrative.

Specialists must care for the museum so that it is not only associated with historical knowledge and objects, but is also audience-friendly. Museums are not just exhibitions; they are comprised of exhibits and objects that require reasonable protection, preservation, and display. In 2011, the National Institute for Museums and Public Collections was created. It cooperates with the Institute of Pedagogy and carries out interdisciplinary research projects and a seminar on "Museum Education," conducted by Reneta Pater, within the strategy of museology development in Poland. Studies on museum education are also conducted by the Forum of Museum Educators, with which Pater also cooperates. The Forum organizes, among other things, seminars and training courses for museum educators and animators. Its activities include the development of the "Report on the state of museum education in Poland."

Currently, educational activities are not only conducted as additions to exhibitions; more often, they are created during the concept-designing process for the exhibition or whole museum (e.g., the interactive exhibition called "People, Ships, and Harbors" at the Maritime Culture Centre in Gdansk). The digitalization of collections enables the introduction of new technologies for the purpose of conveying a message or narration in an exhibition. Some examples of good practices can be seen at newly opened or renovated museums or exhibitions, including the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Museum of Polish History (currently in the design phase), and many others.

Everyday life and problems which are interesting for all viewers, such as love, death, and housing, are becoming both the context and the topic of the organized exhibitions. Modern artists enter museum spaces, enabling the audience to interpret the presented subjects on their own. Museum installations are often a kind of "scenography," or background for a story (e.g., exhibitions of the new branches of the Historical Museum in Kraków and the Museum of John Paul II in Wadowice). The analysis of exhibitions, programs, and educational projects shows that they are multi-contextual, multi-threaded, and that they attract a varied audience.

Nowadays, the task that museums set for themselves is not only to attract new audiences, but also to encourage their viewers, to keep them in the museum for a longer period of time, and to make the museum a place of constant returns—not only a one-time attraction.

Experimental site

Research conducted by Renata Pater shows that interdisciplinary cooperation between three institutions — the university, the school and/or preschool, and the museum — brings positive results. The combination of theory and practice allows not only the training of cultural animators, but also influences the quality of education. When analyzing the content of a painting, children are not working with a reproduction the size of a postage stamp in their textbooks; they are confronted with the original and learn in the direct presence of the work of art. They become involved and learn about history and culture through action and experience so that they remember the content better and are able to understand cause and effect relationships.

"We cooperate with the School Complex in Bibice near Kraków and the Gallery of the 19th Century Art in Sukiennice, and the House of Jan Matejko (an outstanding Polish painter, best known for his works documenting historical events) branches of the National Museum. Significant benefits resulting from the cooperation are new methods and formats, proposed topics such as class scenarios included in school methodology, and Polish, history, and English classes, and used by museum educators," Pater points out.

One of the essential tasks is to prepare staff for the purposes of museum education and animation. "At the Institute of Pedagogy we also prepare cultural animators for activities carried out at museums. To this end, I have developed a module called ‘Museum education.' Students of pedagogy may not only learn about educational work and functioning of museums in theory, but also participate in practice in the activities taken by education departments of Kraków museums, e.g., the National Museum in Kraków or the Wawel Castle," the scientist from Kraków points out.

Also, students are satisfied with the "experimental site," as the first practical activities conducted in the environment of a school or museum may be described. An example of their success is the organization of a museum game for adults and children accompanied by parents, which took place during Museum Night in 2014.

Research conducted by: Renata Pater, PhD

Cooperating institutions: the National Museum in Kraków and the General Education Secondary School Complex in Bibice.