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Informal Learning in Museums: Opportunities and Risks

Gina Koutsika on how a volatile environment in the informal learning landscape creates a great deal of opportunities for museums, while at the same time, it holds some risks. The informal learning landscape is changing due to a number of interconnected and interrelated drivers, such as digital and technological advances; system disruptions, including the latest economic recession and the ecological challenges; the intrinsic and economic value of knowledge; the impact and value of cultural experiences; the needs and demands of learners and academic research in neuroscience and on learning. 

Our museums are publicly trusted names and often have international reputations that attract external partners in a variety of fields. Collaborating with the leaders, the trend-makers and the innovators in areas, such as digital, and with relevant gatekeepers would enable us to complement our resources and skills and influence existing and new trends. We can also capitalize on our knowledge and expertise and work with a range of individuals, networks and communities to develop outstanding, relevant, meaningful programmes and establish ourselves as a key player in the field of cultural learning.

These opportunities require us to reinvent our ways of working. Therefore, resistance to change is a main risk. This can be manifested by continuing, even covertly, silo working; planning unrealistically or inflexibly; not being able to redistribute resources and up skill staff to meet the new needs; having processes that are too bureaucratic and prevent innovation; not investing in partnerships and recognizing others as equal players in the development and delivery of our programmes and not encouraging and allowing the workforce to experiment and innovate.

This think-piece discusses how the informal learning landscape is changing for museums today and is looking into the opportunities and risks. This is not a paper presenting findings based on academic research. It is an amalgamation of thoughts and ideas, formed by knowledge from academic research in a variety of fields; museological journals, online sites and blogs; my experience as a practitioner and a great deal of “common sense”. There is an indicative bibliography at the end.

Learning can happen anywhere and at any time, intentionally or unintentionally. In the last eighteen years, the term “education”, which is considered traditional, and passive, has been being replaced by the term “learning”, which is thought of as active, participatory, learner-centered, democratized and accessible.

Museum practitioners and educators refer to learning as formal, non-formal and informal. The following definitions, even though not universally accepted, are a useful starting point.

Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective, is typically provided by an education or training institution, has specific structures (learning objectives, specified learning time or learning support) and is often leading to certification.

Non-formal learning is also intentional but typically provided outside formal settings (e.g. school, university). It very rarely leads to certification, but it most often has some kind of learning objectives or outcomes. Most museums’ learning programmes and events, including outreach and exhibitions fall into the non-formal learning category, as they have visitor outcomes and as, more often than not, participants expect to learn something.

Informal learning is in most cases not-intentional. It results from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification.

The terms non-formal and informal learning appear in literature and in conversations as interchangeable, and both opposing to the dominant formal education system. In this paper, I have assumed the term informal learning to include both informal and non-formal learning, because in my experience our publics have a different kind of learning experiences, regardless of whether it is intentional or unintentional, outside formal learning settings.

The Informal Learning Landscape
Informal learning in the UK and internationally is changing. This is due to a variety of drivers, such as technological advances and digital possibilities, systems’ disruptions such as the recent economic recession and its consequences, the economic value of knowledge and the changing needs of learners. Furthermore, neuroscience provides us with more information of how the human brain works and we increasingly get a better insight of the learner’s brain. In addition, research findings, and reviews offer a slightly better picture of the informal learning ecosystem, especially in science and also spark ideas of how we, the museum practitioners, can improve current practices.

In 2011, the Wellcome Trust, commissioned two reports to review informal science learning in the UK and in the USA. These reports give evidence of the informal science learning state which, in my experience, has a lot of similarities to the wider cultural and heritage learning landscape.

Unsurprisingly, the Informal Science Learning Review revealed that informal learning providers differentiated themselves from the formal learning sectors, despite being very dependent on them. It also disclosed that audiences were not all equally served. Children and young people between five and sixteen years of age were best served, while under under-fives and adults were relatively underserved. Similarly those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and urban settings were better provided for than those from lower socioeconomic groups and rural communities. Academic studies looking at children and young people from different socioeconomic backgrounds support the above findings.

As mentioned previously, there are a number of drivers of change for the informal learning landscape. They are interrelated, but I have divided them for ease, under the following headings:

a. Digital
Digital learning is not just replacing books and notepads with tablets and smart phones. Digital learning enables us to connect our different facets of life (home, education and/or work and leisure) and to connect friends, families, schools, communities and organizations together to accelerate opportunities for inner fulfilment, deeper engagement and learning.
Through the World Wide Web, learning is no longer defined by time and place. Initiatives, such as online courses, webinars, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and digital badges democratize learning for societies that have access to the internet, and enable learners to choose and shape their learning experiences, create learning “playlists”, and even control their credentials. This globalization of open learning systems offers new forms of cooperative resource creation and evaluation.

Digital innovations are often led by gaming. Partnering with established companies, start-ups and gamers can complement a museum’s skills and resources and enable it to engage with existing and new audiences and to reach new markets.

Data records on learners’ preferences, habits, online contributions and activities will enable deeper personalization and truly learner-centered experiences and products.

A possible negative outcome of all this freedom is that there are too many choices, making it impossible for learners to navigate through. Our museums can capitalize on this by leading for a better managed informal learning ecosystem. Digital technologies and platforms enable us to spread ideas, stories and research across the globe. Digital technologies also offer good platforms for personalized learning to be recorded and positively used to augment each learner’s experience.

Digitization of our artefacts, artworks and specimens makes the collections more accessible to a much wider international audience while at the same time can invite particular communities to complement our museums’s research and knowledge.

Often there is a gap between the relatively rapid technological transformation of society and the relatively slow way that museums change their ways of working, up skill their staff to become digitally competent and upgrade equipment. This is a real risk for our sector but it can be mitigated through partnership working and combined efforts.

Finally, we need to remember that despite all the digital opportunities, there are audiences and learners that choose to use museums as spaces for escapism, where they can “disconnect”. This is another opportunity for us to ensure that it provides the circumstances and choices for learners to either digitally “connect” or digitally “disconnect” during their engagement.

b. System disruptions
Disruptions in a number of areas such as finance, ecology, health and energy, change and shape society, including informal learning.

The latest economic recession in the UK has been felt in a number of ways. There are increasing and continuous cuts in government grants, a greater difficulty in securing corporate sponsorship, a new low of individuals’ donations to culture and changes in the spending power of most households.

In relation to the recession, the main risk that the museum runs is trying to maintain the status quo and resisting disruption. Another risk is not being able to adapt quickly. Our volatile economic environment requires flexible, open and adaptive infrastructures – which are not what, traditionally, characterize our large organizations.

Luckily, changes in society from disruptions, such as the recession, can create opportunities. For example, post-recession the trend to contest “authority” alongside the emergence and success of the “gig economy” of networked groups and freelancers, instead of full-time employment for life; pop-up factories, workshops and shops; maker-spaces, hacker-spaces and crowd sourcing can be used to co-develop, co-deliver and promote informal learning at our museums. Being educational and cultural organizations, museums are publicly trusted and have credible authority but are not necessarily considered “The Establishment”, in the way (often derogative) that formal education is. Therefore, by embracing these trends and forging inter-disciple, cross-cultural, intra-community, diverse and unorthodox partnerships, museums can influence and shape existing and new trends.

In relation to major disruptions in nature, some of our institutions’ scientific research (e.g. natural history museums, university museums) is crucial. It helps address challenges, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, sustainable use of natural resources, food security and spread of parasitic diseases. This body of research provides a unique opportunity for high-quality, relevant and impactful informal learning programme, which possibly no other type of organization has the knowledge and mechanisms to lead.

c. Value of knowledge
In a post-manufacturing Britain, knowledge is considered to have an economic value, which is cherished by policy-makers and funders. A great deal of our museums create new and relevant knowledge, add to existing knowledge and can, as a result, capitalize on the economic value of its informal cultural learning.

Informal cultural learning has intrinsic value for individuals, for organizations and for humanity and our relationship to the world. The need to advocate for the value of cultural learning could pose a risk for our museums, especially if there are stakeholders and representatives that fundamentally oppose the notion of economic value of knowledge as they contemplate scientific, artistic and historic research and learning to be invaluable.

d. Impact and value of cultural experiences
In recent years, academics, policy-makers, practitioners and the media have tried to explore and understand the value and impact of cultural experiences. Research initiatives and reports include the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Value Project, the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, the Arts Council England report on Understanding the Values and Impacts of Cultural Experiences among others.

Despite a significant body of research, there is neither agreement nor clarity as to definition of culture. The Cultural Learning Alliance in the UK is driving a movement, already successful in the US, to expand STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) to STEAM in order to include the Arts.

Some museums are already recognized players in policy and in out-of-classroom learning, but this is something that we could collectively play a greater role.
We run the risk of being excluded from key discussions and as a result the opportunity to lead and influence cultural learning policy.

e. Learners
Our learners, may they be visitors, participants, spectators, readers, listeners or digital users, are very diverse and are changing. They range from under-fives to senior citizens, from those that have a one-off engagement to volunteers, friends and supporters, from our neighbours, special-history interest groups to non-visitors that solely depend on long-distance engagements. Each group and each individual has unique requirements and expectations.

Learners are increasingly recognizing their rights and claim more power in what they learn and how they learn it. They seek individualized experiences that are relevant to them and meet their needs. They, consciously or unconsciously, create learning “playlists” that are available to them on demand. They expect and request to be knowledge creators, rather than knowledge recipients, to move seamlessly across many kinds of learning experiences and to choose providers that match their wishes and styles. In the western world, research and evaluation studies have shown that 21 Century audiences expect experiences that are authentic, relevant, personalized, one of a kind, surprising and dynamic.

One risk for museums is that they offer vestiges of a transactional model by creating informal learning propositions on its own and then presenting them to audiences. Not only one size does not fill all, but also a series of set menus – very successful in the early 1990s – are no longer enough. Increasingly individuals are unwilling to adapt to organizations and the opportunity lies for our museums to work with audiences and adapt to them. Our museums can invite individuals to explore and learn from our collections, ideas and research in their own ways. This requires a change in practice and more vitally a change in mindset – an honest appreciation and a practical recognition that our learners bring skills, interests and attitudes that form and inform their own learning.

Another risk is the identification, recognition and prioritization of our learners. Who are the current and the potential museums’ communities and how do we engage with them? The temptation to do everything for everyone brings unsustainable results. Audience development plans are vital in enabling the Museum to focus its informal learning activities and a strategic diversification of learners and programmes is essential. Some of our mission statements include “access, learning and enjoyment for all”. This is particularly difficult at a time when the rich informal landscape might increasingly not be equitably accessible to all, because of social or digital marginalization, lack of access to opportunities and resources. Again, a clear focus and prioritization strategy will enable our museums to maximize our potential and create maximum outputs.

Fragmented communities, due to an increasing number of physical and digital networks and an unwillingness of some leaders to compromise and cooperate are both a risk and an opportunity. Our museums can fill in potential gaps, facilitate connections and collaborate with community gatekeepers, the media and other organizations to provide opportunities that both benefit communities and augment and extend our effectiveness and reach.

f. Research on learning
Advances in neuroscience and the dissemination of the relevant findings enable practitioners to understand more about how the mind works and provide insights into how we learn. Similarly, academic long-term studies into informal learning help us develop better informed programmes.

Collaboration with universities and research centers, in the form of Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDA), combined research projects and providing opportunity for academic researchers to carry out their field work at our spaces, can help us better understand our learners. There are of course the risks of duplication (especially by copying and repeating research existing in other countries) and lack of continuity of interest in a line of enquiry due to a change of focus within public programmes or a change of staff. However, careful planning and long term commitment can mitigate them.

Concluding thoughts
Our learners, ourselves and our institutions need to prepare for a future that is hard to imagine. Even though our basic needs, instincts and behaviours have been very similar for thousands of years, our ways of thinking and models of working are not sustainable. However, the future is ours to create. This requires us to be imaginative, willing to take risks and learn from mistakes. It requires us to disrupt conventional dialogues, promote ideas that are fresh and that enable us to see the world and our practices in different ways. Our museums’ success heavily depends on their volunteer, staff, friends and supporters being change-makers and seeing through problems to solutions. Fear-based reactions to change can only limit innovation and the Museum’s opportunity to lead and excel in the field of informal learning.

Most museums recognize the importance to work internally across divisions, departments and teams and to form partnerships locally, regionally, nationally and internationally is clearly stated. This has been manifested by the creation of new roles (e.g. national and international programme managers) and by the competencies required in most roles (e.g. cooperating, working across teams).

The moving informal learning landscape, as briefly described above, requires us to reinvent our roles and our institutions. There are increasingly more unclear boundaries between functions, organizations, providers and as a result a need of a seamless formal and informal learning infrastructure.

The distinctions between different team members are more blurred than in the past and our museums need to develop a flexible workforce that is agile and inspirational so that it meets and exceeds the shifting expectations. These changes in the culture need to be reflected in its structures – both internal and external ones. Changes also need to incorporate how and why public programmes are developed, how they are innovative, relevant and sustainable, public opening hours and charges, the development of commercial initiatives, new ideas around the “working day”.

Major risks for our sector, especially our larger institutions, are internal competition and confused or conflicting priorities. A clear vision and mission and a transparent and agreed delivery plan are vital. This needs to operate in parallel with a motivated and competitive workforce that both understand how their work fits in the bigger picture and feel ownership and pride in the institution’s work.

Delivery plans around informal learning can vary. They might include going deeper in fewer areas and lighter in the majority. They might include capitalizing on external initiatives and interests (e.g. young people), filling in the gaps (informal learning for adults) or create opportunities across all channels and platforms that cater for most.

Regardless of the specifics of any informal learning delivery plan, our museums needs to invest systematically in building new partnerships, including learning networks across institutions and community gatekeepers; in leveraging digital learning and collaborative technology and in embracing creativity and positive change.

Gina Koutsika
Head of National & International Programmes & Projects, Imperial War Museums



Ainsworth, L., et Eaton, S., 2010, Formal, Non-formal and informal Learning in the Sciences, Onate Press, Canada.
American Alliance of Museums, 2014, Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning ecosystem, AAM
Cairns, S., 2013, Think-piece: Future of Museum Learning for Children and Young People Enquiry, Arts Council England
Cutler, A, 2010, What Is To Be Done, Sandra? Learning in Cultural Institutions of the Twenty-First Century, Tate Papers Issue 13
DCMS, 2013, Taking Part: Statistical Releases,–2
GHK Consulting, 2012, Review of Informal Science Learning, Wellcome Trust
Hodkinson, P., Colley, H., et Janice, M., 2003, The Interrelationships Between Informal and Formal Learning, Journal of Workplace Learning 15
KnowledgeWorks, 2008, 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning, Institute for the Future
Watson B., et Roseinstein-Werb, S., 2013, One Hundred Strong: A Colloquium on Transforming Natural History Museums in the Twenty-first Century in Curator volume 56, number 2
Wellcome Trust, 2012, Informal Science Learning Review: Reflections from the Wellcome Trust, Wellcome Trust
WolfBrown, 2014, Understanding the Value and Impacts of Cultural Experiences: A Literature Review, Arts Council England

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