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Home > Special Topics > Colloquium Last Updated: 15:15 03/09/2007
Colloquium #63: October 4, 2005

Museum Education: Part 4 - Examples of the Role of Museum Education and the Problems Raised

Jack Hiroki IGUCHI (Professor, Graduate School of Environmental Science, Aomori University, Japan)

In this final section of the museum education some examples of the role of museum education and projects in the UK will be looked into in order to grasp recent general trends in museum education services. Also some problems concerning museum education will be examined using the relevant literature and interviews undertaken by this author. The main objective in this section is to discover some good ideas to solve these problems in order to improve the values and popularity of museums.



The British Museum is the largest in the UK, concerned with cultural history from prehistoric times to the present day (Press and Public Relations Office, ND: 1), (NOTE ND: no date given). It has received public funding since 1762, and today receives over 13 million pounds per year (Reeve J. 1988: 65). Its education service often undertakes the task of teaching the staff of other museums. This mission statement states:

"the British Museum Education Service aims to make the museum more accessible for specific groups, as well as providing advice and materials that contribute to a better experience for all visitors".
(British Museum Education Service, ND: 1)

Needless to say, these educational activities are planned for all the public, such as "holiday events" and "family days" for families; "touch exhibitions" for disabled people; "study days" for sixth formers and GCSE students (junior and senior high school level in Japan and US) - over 2000 students a year; "adult education" including teaching in the galleries; slide lectures and films - 50,000 adults a year; "further and higher education" for museum studies students at undergraduate and postgraduate level, especially from the Institute of Education, University of London.

Extensive resources for schools include video, teacher's packs, worksheets and trails for children and students - 50-60,000 school children visit the museum annually in pre-booked groups. The Education Service also provides educational advice to staff of the museum management and curators, and contributes to the design of all exhibitions and galleries, and organizes educational traveling exhibitions (Ibid).

In addition, recently the Japanese arts have been getting popular. For Japanese exhibitions the education service in the British Museum invariably organises teachers evenings with the Japan Information Centre (The Education Section of the Embassy, which produces the very useful Japan Education Journal and organizes workshops all over the country), and there is now a network of teachers in schools and colleges, who take part in such events (Reeve J. 1987: 27).


The Science Museum, London, at the heart of the National Museum of Science and Industry, is a unique institution. Its collections record an event of outstanding importance in human history, that is the emergence of the first industrial society made possible by the blossoming of science and technology (Cossons N. 1988: 1).

The Education Unit provides a service for over 250,000 educational visitors each year in more than 5,000 groups. The Education Unit supports the teachers of these groups by providing resources, teachers' courses and INSET sessions. It also runs the three interactive areas in the Museum: "Launch Pad", "Flight Lab" and "Food for Thought". As part of this work, this unit runs a series of demonstrations for all visitors. Especially "Guide to Galleries and Themes" has been prepared to help teachers select and locate, amongst the many thousands of items displayed in the museum, the ones which are of particular interest to them and their students (Science Museum Education Service, ND: 2).

In 90', one of the successful educational events was "Robotics Japan" in 1991 as part of the Japanese Festival. Japan has become famous for its use of robots and they are utilized in a wide variety of contexts. More than twenty industrial and domestic robots were displayed and visitors to the exhibition could see the robot engaged in such activities as climbing a wall with the aid of suction pads; accurately putting golf balls into variously placed holes; precision welding using carbon dioxide lasers (Japan Festival, 1991).


The Natural History Museum (NHM) - the home of the national collections of living and fossil plants and animals, minerals, rocks and meteorites ─ first opened to the public in 1881. Today, the museum is one of the most popular museums in the UK, housing over 67 million specimens. In 1979, for example, almost 2.8 million people visited the public galleries (British Museum - Natural History, 1987: section 1,2; The Natural History Museum, 1992a: 2; 1992b: 42). The key objective of education is "to complete the development of an educational programme tailored to the needs of the National Curriculum (1) and stimulate interest in natural history "(The Natural History Museum, 1992a: 4).

This museum is a resource for pupils of all ages and abilities. Permanent exhibitions include "Story of the earth"; "Time in the rocks"; and "Treasures of the earth" in the Earth Galleries, and "Creepy-crawlies"; "Discovering mammals"; "Ecology"; and "Human biology" in the life galleries (The Natural History Museum, ND3: 1). The Discovery Centre is a "hands-on" natural history exhibition especially designed for years 4,5 and 6. Staff in the Centre guide and encourage observation and experimentation, posing questions to stimulate discussion (The Natural History Museum, ND 1).

Also the Natural History Museum Teacher's Centre offers valuable services to any teacher who:

    - is bringing a group to the museum;
    - needs to know what resources are available for teaching earth and life science topics; and
    - wants to consult a good, up-to-date resource library concerning the earth and life sciences (The Natural History Museum, ND 2).

In 1990-91, the schools service dealt with 220,000 children who visited in organised school parties. Adult education has also expanded during that year. 20 evening and day lecture courses were run, giving a total of 3,500 student lectures; 21 field study tours took place with a total of 1,200 student field days. In addition, the traveling discovery centre continued its full and successful schedule across the country (The Natural History Museum, 1992a: 9).

(1) These programmes of museum education for pupils follow the National Curriculum for England and Wales. The Natural Curriculum in England and Wales is a frame work for the school curriculum defined by law, the Education Reform Act in 1988. It is made up of core and other foundation subjects which all pupils must study from 5 to 16 years of age. The core subjects are: science; mathematics; English; and other foundation subjects are: technology; geography; art; music; physical education and modern foreign languages (11-16 years olds). The NCC (National Curriculum Council) provided "a guide of the National Curriculum for staff of museums, galleries, historic houses and sites" (NCC 1990: 2).


In spite of the efforts of museum education units or departments, there are still many serious problems which reduce the popularity of museums. These are caused not only by funding problems but for a variety of reasons which arguably might come from inappropriate concepts or ideas of museum education.


According to the panel discussion by John Reeve, Head of the Education Department, the British Museum in London, some of the main policy problems in running the Education Service for a museum in the 1990s seem to be in:

    1. "deciding how much staff time should be devoted to live teaching as opposed to the production of resources",
    2. "balancing the demands of adults and families, and those of schools and teachers",
    3. "deciding how much staff time and energy should go into contributing to the preparation of exhibitions and galleries".
(Reeve J. 1990: 1)

"1" can be a function of funding. When this author attended the museum education conference for the "Japanese festival" in 1991, he asked John Reeve why all conferees except Reeve and the author were women. He suggested that "education services are still regarded as unimportant jobs". Of course those women are all excellent, but men seem reluctant to take on such careers. In addition, the budget for education sections tends to be less than for other sections.

"2" is concerned not only with educational activities but also with exhibition policy if interpreted broadly. Except exhibitions for special purposes like museums for children, touch exhibitions for disabled visitors and professional exhibitions for specialists, general exhibitions for people generally seem to be difficult to make all the visitors understand. Robert M Bloomfield, Exhibition Research and Design Manager in the NHM, London, speaking of the Ecology Exhibition, suggests that it is impossible to make all visitor understand all the concepts portrayed. So the staff decided that the minimum target age for the exhibition is 16 (this author's interview, Jan 1993 in the NHM).

"3" can be also not only the problem of the shortage of staff, but importantly how educators incorporate their ideas into the exhibitions. In some large museums, curators' ideas differ much from educators' in terms of their views on exhibitions. It is one of the most serious problems.

In addition, John Reeve emphasizes that the visitor profile of the British Museum still shows a marked absence of British working class families. There are still many fewer school children visiting the museum than for example the NHM. Many of the collections are very difficult for teachers, children, families and tourists to relate to without background information and help (Reeve J. 1990: 4).


What is museum education ? This author has already discussed the Museum Education: part 2 - Role of Museum Education. It can be divided into two: direct and indirect education services; and educational exhibitions. However many museums still see the educational activities as more important than the planning of educational exhibitions.

This author emphasizes that the most important role of museum education is to create educational exhibitions and some other museum education services should be of a lower priority. The reason is that most of the images of museums come from not educational activities but exhibitions themselves, because the purpose of the majority of museum visitors is to see some exhibition, for example the number of visitors in the British Museum a year in 90's was 5,410,422, and only 2 percent of all visitors attended for educational activities or school groups using educational resources such as video, work sheets and trails (Press and Public Relation Office, ND: 2, British Museum Education Service, ND: 1). Consequently museum must create effective educational exhibitions, and these exhibitions also can reduce the burden on education staff for live teaching in galleries. This matter was discussed already in the nineteenth century.

However, even the British Museum for example still runs old-fashioned exhibitions such as the Mummy Gallery using small labels with small letters near the floor. Naturally the mummies themselves can attract many children and even adults without intelligible information on them. However the more these exhibitions are displayed using the method of educational exhibition, the more visitors can be attracted and educated. Also in the Science Museum in London, some galleries are very old-fashioned such as the medical history gallery. One of the typical examples is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, one of the world's great ethnographic collections (Museum and galleries Commission, 1993: 41). In this museum, there are many glass-case displays and no directions to see them. All these museums run excellent educational activities. But museums exist for not only educational activities but most importantly for educational exhibitions. If a museum is not aware of this, its popularity will suffer.

In this paper, museum education in general through a historical analysis has been looked into in order to give a background to the main research focus that is "environmental education through museums". It is vitally important to define some technical terms and examine some examples of museum education, because they must be used the main research. Firstly the term "museum" has been defined, secondly the role of museum education in general has been examined, thirdly in order to pick up some useful ideas from the past, the history of museums and museum education has been studied, and in the last part, some examples of the actual condition of museum education and problematic issues have been investigated.


- British Museum Education Service, ND. British Museum Education Service: 1.
- British Museum (Natural History), 1987. The Natural History Museum (catalogue): section 1, 2.
- Cossons N., 1988. Introduction, The Science Museum: 1.
- Japan Festival 1991. Robotics, Japan-as Never Seen Before.
- Museum and Galleries Commission, 1993. Museums Matter: 41.
- NCC (The National Curriculum Council), 1990. A Guide for Staff of Museum Galleries, Historic house and Sites: 2.
- Press and Public Relations Office, ND. The British Museum, A Brief Introduction: 1,2.
- Reeve J., 1987. Multi-Cultural work at the British Museum, Journal of Education in Museums No. 7, Sep 1987: 27.
- Reeve J., 1988. The British Museum, Culture, Education and the State, ROUTLEDGE: 65.
- Reeve J., 1990. Current Perspective in Museum Education: 1, 4 (from a panel discussion in Canada House, London, 26 Apr 1990).
- Science Museum Education Service, ND. Guide to Galleries and Themes: 2.
- The Natural History Museum (London) 1992a. Corporate Plan 1992-97. 2, 4, 9.
- The Natural History Museum (London) 1992b. The Natural History Museum (Catalogue) : 42.
- The Natural History Museum (London) ND 1. Visitor Resources, Discovery Centre.
- The Natural History Museum (London) ND 2. Visitor Resources, Teacher's Centre.
- The Natural History Museum (London) ND 3. Visitor Resources, Teacher's Information: 1.

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