In principle, in practice: Museums as learning institutions
John H Falk, Lynn D Dierking and Susan Foutz, Alta Mira Press, Maryland, 2007
ISBN 978 0 7591 0977 3 (pbk), 338 pp., RRP A$52.99
review by Louise Zarmati
In principle, in practice: Musuems and learning institutions

Most museum professionals would be familiar with the prolific body of research produced by John Falk and Lynn Dierking since the 1990s. A search on Google Scholar reveals hundreds of citations of their work and confirms their international reputation and profound impact on museum education. Their names have become synonymous with the application of constructivist learning theory to museum learning in the forms of social learning and 'free-choice' learning. Published in 2007, In Principle, In Practice: Museums as Learning Institutions is a collection of 17 papers presented at the 2004 conference held by the American non-profit museum research organisation, the Institute of Learning Innovation. Conference organiser Susan Foutz joins Falk and Dierking as editor of the collection.

The purpose of the conference was to discuss the nature of museum learning and explore the 'explicit connections among research, evaluation, and practice' that had evolved since the first national conference held in 1994. The conference also had a forward looking perspective with a plan to launch investigations into the long-term impact of learning on museum visitors. They visualised a future with 'museums shifting from a focus on collecting and preserving to one of educating the public'.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I, 'How people learn in museums', comprises five papers that focus on informal, free-choice learning, predominantly in science museums. Topics address a range of perspectives: John Falk uses the metaphor of film-making to propose a multifaceted approach to visitor research; Kirsten Ellenbogen, Jessica Luke and Lynn Dierking use a socio-cultural framework to examine the efficacy of survey methods to investigate family learning; Janette Griffin offers a practical approach to teaching school students using what she calls a 'learning circle', the intertwined strand of relationships between students, teachers and museums; Sue Allen grapples with 'a constructivist dilemma' faced by museum designers charged with designing 'self-guided' interactive exhibits that may or may not enhance learning; Leonie Rennie and David Johnston provide a useful summary of changes in approaches to personal learning in museums.

Part II is devoted to 'Engaging audiences in meaningful learning', with papers that tackle a range of controversial issues in museum education. Mary Ellen Munley, Randy Roberts, Barbara Soren and Jeff Hayward examine the pros and cons of individual customisation in the context of free-choice learning in museums. Gretchen Jennings bravely tackles the 21st-century challenge of catering to multiple perspectives, such as creationist visitors in science and natural history museums. Emily Koster and Jerry Schubel offer advice on how to choose content that makes aquariums and science centres relevant to contemporary environmental issues. Erminia Pedretti reports on how a number of 'issues-based exhibitions' challenge conventional exhibitions by dealing with complex controversial issues.

In Part III, 'Fostering learning-centred culture in our institutions', Robert West and David Chesebrough use the 'business model' to identify strategies museums can use to ensure their survival in the twenty-first century. Janette Griffin and six others use Conner Prairie Interactive History Park and the Museum of Science Boston to show that when traditional, didactic museums shift their approach to learning from 'experts' to 'communities of learners', positive outcomes can be achieved that are evidenced in increased visitor numbers. Jeffrey Patchen and Anne Grimes Rand use the examples of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis and the USS Constitution Museum to argue that integrated models of theory, research, practice and policymaking are critical to the future success of free-choice learning institutions. Beverly Sheppard sees collaboration between public institutions, such as museums, schools and libraries as a transformative process that will enrich free-choice learning capabilities.

The final section, 'Investigating museum learning in the next ten years', gathers four papers that advocate 'longer-term investigations, a better understanding of the social nature of museum experiences, and investigations that better accommodate the complexity of the museum experience'. David Anderson, Martin Storksdieck and Michael Spock explore the multiple variables involved in studies of the impact of museums on long-term learning. Tamsin Astor-Jack and four others focus on the socially mediated processes of learning and recommend that researchers need to broaden their scope of research to include underrepresented groups, such as children in after-school and youth-based programs. Sue Allen and seven others recommend two useful study designs that will help researchers cope with the complexities of museum research. Laura Martin analyses recent advances in research on informal learning in science centres and proposes further research that considers student learning as a cultural practice that operates at the sometimes blurry interface between school cultures and museums.

While we can no doubt learn a great deal from a decade of research in these predominantly American science museums, it is unwise to simply assume that what works in science museums will transfer successfully into all museums, in particular history museums. Unlike science, which benefits from 'free-choice' and multiple pathways to learning, history as a knowledge domain works best when it tells a story, usually one linked by a temporal and spatial narrative. For this reason, there is a great deal of potential for research into how visitors learn in history museums.

As an educator who has worked in the contexts of museums, schools and universities, I also have to admit disappointment in the limited suggestions for research in the next decade. In spite of the existence of an extensive body of research in education, this group of museum educators (who on page xiii define themselves as a distinct 'community') still present no plans to engage with the theories of pedagogy that have dominated the broader sphere of education since the 1990s. This holistic approach provides a more balanced approach to education that encompasses not only learning, but critical evaluation of the methodology of teaching and the constructions of knowledge. Museum educators, especially curators, would benefit from more critical analysis of the methods they use to construct knowledge and communicate information to visitors. This in itself might deliver more appropriate learning outcomes for visitors in the next decade, especially those who rely on FaceBook, YouTube and SMS messaging to access multiple interpretations and constructions of knowledge on a global scale.

Louise Zarmati is currently completing a doctoral thesis at Deakin University on pedagogies for teaching history in Australian museums.