Learning, education, entertainment in museums

entertainment modelOne of the research areas in my thesis was how learning, education and entertainment were described and whether there was a relationship between them, as it had been suggested that the word “learning” may be confused with “education” and therefore be negatively perceived. I found that although the concepts of learning, education and entertainment shared some similar characteristics, there were five major differences between them.

The first was that responses to the word learning were more varied than for education and entertainment. Second, the general language used to explain each concept differed. More active words were used to talk about learning, such as discovering, exploring, applying and experiencing. Museum visitors described education in more concrete ways, including words and phrases such as “structured/formal” and “something you are told to do/tell others to do”. Third, previous research established that people had generally negative views of education as a passive process over which they had no control (Taylor and Spencer 1994). Across my samples I found that the negative views of education emanated from the perceived lack of choice it offered. Fourth, although there were differences in the language used to describe these concepts, there was still an appreciation of the role that education played in both acquiring facts and information, and in delivering learning. Education and learning were closely linked in people’s minds, with education leading to learning and learning being a part of education. Education was not seen as necessarily negative, just different—something we all have to experience at some stage of our learning lives.

The fifth difference emerged when comparing entertainment with learning. Entertainment was described as fleeting, short-term, a good time, with the recognition that the medium or delivery mechanism (such as film, videos and multimedia programs) formed an important part of the entertainment experience. In contrast, people felt that learning used your brain, built on previous knowledge, was long-term and could be entertaining as well. A strong finding was that descriptions of entertainment included words and phrases that were based on feelings and emotions in contrast to learning and education.

Compared with other literature that has discussed entertainment in museums (Combs 1999; Moore 1997; Roberts 1997; Roberts 2001; Witcomb 2003), I found that learning, education and entertainment were related in positive ways.

I suggest that it is the museum experience which links the three concepts. Museums have a strong learning focus, with the educational role being one way to deliver museum learning, and entertainment representing the enjoyment, leisure, emotional and sensory aspects of a museum visit.


  • Combs, A. 1999. Why Do They Come? Listening to Visitors at a Decorative Arts Museum. Curator 43(3): 186-197.
  • Kelly, L. (2007). Visitors and learners: Adult museum visitors’ learning identities. Unpublished PhD, University of Technology, Sydney.
  • Moore, K. 1997. Museums and Popular Culture. London: Cassell.
  • Roberts, L. 1997. From Knowledge to Narrative: Educators and the Changing Museum. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Roberts, L. B. 2001. Outcomes and Experience: New Priorities for Museums. Curator 44(1): 21-26.
  • Taylor, S. and E. Spencer. 1994. Individual commitment to lifelong learning: individuals’ attitudes: report on the qualitative phase. Research series No. 31. Sheffield: Employment Department.
  • Witcomb, A. 2003. Re-Imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum. London: Routledge.

One thought on “Learning, education, entertainment in museums

  1. Regan says:

    Hi Lynda,

    Interesting how entertainment is still (after all these years of research!) being contested by museum professionals. I’ve been watching some of the tweets from the AAM 2014 conference, and there are still a few saying variations of the sentiment that museums should “rise above” all this entertainment stuff.

    But I’m wondering whether part of the problem is how entertainment is being defined. As you say, the “anti-entertainment” proponents seem to suggest that entertainment is by definition unchallenging, passive, and so forth. The corollary is that soon as something challenges you it ceases to be entertaining! But what about TV series where you need to pay close attention in order to follow the plot and character arcs? Are they not entertainment? Or online games with complex narratives?

    I wonder whether such a conception of “entertainment” leaves just a bland, narrow but worthy diet, a bit like if our definition of “food” comprised little more than bran flakes and broccoli.

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