What did you un-learn at the museum today?

In Museums on October 28, 2015 at 1:25 pm

Museums spend a lot of time thinking about ‘learning’.

Learning is a loaded word, of course, with connotations of school, teachers and exercise books. And there has been plenty of good work done in the last decade or so to overturn that.

In a heritage setting we now think of learning as something much more than simply acquiring new knowledge or facts. The question ‘what did you learn at the museum today?’ has been almost eradicated from audience research questionnaires, at last.
Instead we think of learning as more holistic. The imparting and receiving of new knowledge and information, yes. But also of the exploration of understanding, insight, values, feelings and attitudes. Museums are places we can be inspired – to act, to create, to take on new skills, to dream. And all of this, I reckon, is learning.

So I was intrigued to see the word ‘un-learning’ the other day – the idea that we can change the way we think about something we already claim to ‘know’ and to re-learn it as something else.

I wonder whether un-learning ought to be something we add to the museum agenda?

Of course the museum can be an agent for helping people to think differently. Visitor outcomes – the objectives we set ourselves for what people will experience as part of a visit – are often written in a way that affects some form of attitudinal shift. Using objects with powerful emotional, historical or scientific stories, we can seek to alter the way people think about a subject.  Visitors might ‘un-learn’ in this scenario.

And we can also un-learn behaviours and attitudes towards heritage and history. I love it when I see a visitor who didn’t really intend to have a good time in a heritage setting, engaging to a high level and clearly enjoying themselves. Challenging preconceptions of a museum visit is just as much un-learning as is addressing misconceptions.

Some will debate whether ‘un-learning’ is learning. But I think I might start adding it to my checklist of visitor outcomes when I’m planning how to engage with visitors in the future.

How we evaluate what people have unlearned? That’s a different matter …


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