Transformative Learning in museums: some examples


Talking learning with students at the Pop-up museum

This is the second in a series of blog posts about Transformative Learning (TL). The first post introduced the theory behind TL and how it might be measured. This post cites some examples of transformative learning in the museum context as a starting point for further discussions around what this may look like in civics and citizenship education (and maybe even STEM – more on that to follow…).

Life-transforming learning experiences may be evoked by a range of activities, including reading a book or poem, engaging in discussion, watching television, experiencing a painting, travelling, observing, reflecting, and doing (Mezirow, 1990). There is certainly a lot of evidence from museum workers themselves about a transformational experience that usually led to their lifelong love of museums (see for example, Pitman, 1999, Samis and Michaelson, 2017), but what about visitors?

My doctoral research found that:

… participants [in the study] strongly associated learning with change, both deep and surface, as well as products such as learning new facts and engaging with ideas. When reflecting on their museum experiences, participants in the study were able to express changes made to deeply-held attitudes, as well as thinking differently about concepts, ideas and their own learning processes (Kelly, 2007, p.215).


… all those sampled could clearly state something they had learned from an exhibition—from ‘simple’ facts or aesthetic appreciation; to deep change in attitudes, behaviours or self-perception. Participants also felt that learning new facts was important, as well as both asking questions and finding answers (p.215).

Over my long career practicing audience research (around 30 years now…) I have come across many examples of what I consider ‘transformative learning experiences’. These range from visitors reporting learning new facts to a change in or a questioning of deeply held attitudes and opinions, and therefore, transforming themselves in the process. Some examples follow.

Body Art Exhibition, Australian Museum

  • I’ve got my eyebrow pierced and have three tattoos. After walking through the exhibition I feel like getting more piercings and tattoos. I’ve been inspired.
  • I waited until I was 53 to break free of a strict Catholic upbringing and a formalised military life-style. On my 53rd birthday my daughter paid for me to have a tattoo on my hip. I love it.

Bats Exhibition, Australian Museum

Of the visitors to the exhibition, 43% said that their views about bats had changed – they liked or understood them more after visiting the exhibition:

  • [I’m] not so afraid, they’re gentler than I thought, only usually see them overhead.
  • [I have] more knowledge and understanding of their role in ecology.
  • [there is a] bat colony at home I disliked, now I’ve changed my perception.

Spiders! Exhibition, Australian Museum

  • We only have two deadly spiders in Australia.
  • They’re marvellous – ten different types of web for each spider!

Indigenous Australians Exhibition, Australian Museum

Participants in the Indigenous Australians exhibition research reported doing the following things after their visit:

  • buying a Aboriginal book/diary, purchasing Aboriginal artworks
  • recommending the exhibition to others
  • returning to the exhibition with others
  • thinking differently
  • gaining more respect for and understanding of Indigenous people

Six months after visiting the Indigenous Australians exhibition, a range of visitors were asked what they remember doing afterwards:

I’ve been interested [in Indigenous issues] for probably about six years. [When] I went to school it was Captain Cook who discovered Australia. I read the Fatal Shore and then I remember [my daughter] did a school project and I rang up Aboriginal Affairs and they sent me out this information which I read and then became appalled and shocked. Horrified, mortified. And then I saw the exhibition and had the same response to the photographs, the people in chains. I must say I was aware of that but it really coalesced those images in the Fatal Shore – just to see those photographs. I really couldn’t walk past, I read the information, but those photographs, those people in chains. And I remember trying to get the family to go through it to show them these things.

I thought differently. I’ve met Aboriginal people … the ones I have met … didn’t click with the way that, as a child, when you grew up and everything you heard [was negative] and then you see an exhibition like this, well then you see a lot more of the story…

Action Stations, Australian National Maritime Museum

declan 1Declan, aged 10 was so inspired by the museum’s submarine and warship he went home and made them himself from Lego – then sent pictures of these to the museum.

We’ll be gathering more stories / evidence / data like this over the next little while and, in the spirit of democracy will be sharing as we go – feel free to share your experiences too!



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