In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Museum Education

  • Introduction
  • History
  • General Works
  • Education Theory
  • Practical Guides, Handbooks, and Manuals
  • Education for Art, History, and Science Museums and Centers
  • Museum Audiences by Age
  • Why Visit Museums?
  • Visitor Studies
  • The Inclusive Museum: Reaching Out to Communities
  • Museums and Health and Well-Being
  • Social Justice Issues
  • Decolonizing Museums: Addressing Colonization and Racism
  • Journals
  • Museum Education Professional Associations

Anthropology Museum Education
George E. Hein, Kimberly H. McCray
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0247


Education has been associated with museums from their earliest days, back to the famous Hellenic Mouseion of Alexandria, a resource for scholars. The modern Western public museum’s origin is usually attributed to the 18th-century Enlightenment, when public institutions began to replace religious powers, guilds, and nobility in providing public services. By the mid-18th century the term museum referred to any kind of collection that was open to the public in theory, although admission was often restricted to upper-class visitors or scholars. Education frequently remained a minor activity compared to collection, preservation, research, and exhibition. Early efforts to reach broader audiences include Charles Willson Peale’s American Museum, which opened around 1800, and the British Victoria and Albert Museum, which opened in the mid-19th century. Museum education as an organized activity carried out by dedicated, trained staff did not arise until the 20th century and has come to prominence with its own professional associations, journals, and degree-granting academic programs only since World War II. Responsibilities of museum educators have shifted dramatically, going from mainly direct instruction to school pupils or lectures for adult visitors, to providing means for all visitors to interpret and make meaning of their museum experience. More recently, museums have reached out increasingly to communities to engage underserved populations and remain relevant at a time of dramatic social upheaval. These developments, described by some as a paradigm shift, have been influenced by increased recognition of 20th-century educational theories, criticism of traditional classification of objects, and increased recognition of the significance of people from different cultures as museum visitors. The results of museum visitor research (visitor studies), a field originally begun in the United States in the 1920s and heavily influenced by behaviorist educational theory, has also expanded over the past four decades to provide a larger range of methods to understand learning in and from museums. In the first two decades of the 21st century, museum educators have increasingly emphasized community engagement and broad accessibility to welcome an ever-wider range of visitors. Museum education has also expanded to include emotional responses, health, and well-being as desired outcomes of museum experiences. Advances in technology, especially the ability to greatly extend the possibility for visitors to rapidly gain information, interact with exhibitions, and share information or experiences, are also expanding our understanding of learning in museums and providing tools for museum educators to improve visitor experiences.


Human interaction with objects has always been recognized as educational; museums and galleries were understood to be educational institutions. But the structure of museum staff and the activities carried out did not necessarily include any educational plan, nor did museums have staff dedicated specifically to education. The classic work Wittlin 1949 devotes early chapters to the private museums in the Western world that evolved into the public museums of the late 18th century. While these museums had purposes—to show the social prestige of their owner, expressions of group loyalty, stimulate curiosity and inquiry, etc.—they seldom had educational staff. Later chapters emphasize the educational efforts of the public museums that began to emerge starting in the 17th century, but still often without dedicated education staff. Many essays in Preziosi and Farago 2004 ask the question “What are museums for?” They include talk of education, but there is little mention of educational staff. Formal recognition of museum education as a profession only emerges in the early 20th century. Alexander 1983, a work about important museum directors from the opening of the British Museum to the public in 1859 to the early days of John Cotton Dana’s Newark Museum, opened in 1909, notes the change in museums toward an increased emphasis on education. The emergence of museum education as a profession is a 20th-century phenomenon. Low 1942, by an art museum educator, argued that every museum employee should be engaged in education. A 1966 Smithsonian conference on museums and education, documented by Larrabee 1968, was novel at its time. Since 2000, the significance of museums’ relationship to its visitors and the larger community has constantly increased. This change was succinctly described in Weil 1999 as “from being about something to being for somebody.” A focus on museum education as national policy was outlined by Anderson 1997, and the significance of this impact on developing exhibitions was described by Roberts 1997. Increased significance of education as a core function of museums can be seen in changes of definitions of museums by national and international museum associations. More recently, the terms “museum experience” or “visitor-centered museums,” used in Samis and Michaelson 2017 and other works, have begun to be favored to describe visitors’ activities, but these labels cover more than what traditionally is known as “education.” Packer and Ballantyne 2016 discusses the difficulties of defining these terms. Also, the whole concept of “education” and the responsibilities of museum education staff have expanded, as will be described in various sections below.

  • Alexander, Edward P. 1983. Museum masters. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History.

    Examines the work of twelve museum directors, from the founders of the Louvre to Mt. Vernon. Alexander states, “The . . . museum as an encyclopedic collection of miscellaneous curiosities . . . had been transformed . . . the museum has become a powerful teaching medium” (p. ix).

  • Anderson, David. 1997. A common wealth: Museums and learning in the United Kingdom. London: Department of National Heritage.

    An influential document, it “is the first comprehensive report to examine [museums’] educational role in full” (p. iv). Anderson proposes that museums represent a “common wealth” for public education, and that government should increase support for this vital function as the United Kingdom increasingly becomes a learning society.

  • Larrabee, Eric, ed. 1968. Museums and education. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

    The proceedings from a Smithsonian Institution conference that brought together museum and education professionals to discuss the “enigma” that museums are educational, but not pedagogic. It includes a fine bibliography of early visitor studies.

  • Low, Theodore. 1942. The museum as a social instrument: A study undertaken for the Committee on Education of the American Association of Museums. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.

    A commissioned report including information from 1870 on concerning the status of education in art museums, by an art museum educator who argues that all museum staff should be engaged in education.

  • Packer, Jan, and Roy Ballantyne. 2016. Conceptualizing the visitor experience: A review of literature and development of a multifaceted model. Visitor Studies 19.2: 128–143.

    DOI: 10.1080/10645578.2016.11440

    A thorough review of the literature on the “visitor experience” and an effort to define this complex term as used by museum educators and in the tourism and leisure research literature.

  • Preziosi, Donald, and Claire Farago, eds. 2004. Grasping the world: The idea of the museum. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    An encyclopedic, 800-page collection analyzing museum practices from medieval times to the present. Its overarching theme is that museum exhibitions are not neutral but represent current cultural values of their times.

  • Roberts, Lisa. 1997. From knowledge to narrative: Educators and the changing museum. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

    A detailed description of the development of one exhibition that illustrates a gradual shift from a focus on efforts to impart knowledge to telling a story that would interest visitors. It illustrates the consequences of introducing an education perspective into traditional museum practices.

  • Samis, Peter, and Mimi Michaelson. 2017. Creating the visitor-centered museum. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    Extensive case studies of ten US and European museums that have undergone dramatic change to become “visitor-centered,” mostly offering active experiences to visitors, with summaries of what was required to accomplish this transformation.

  • Weil, Stephen. 1999. From being about something to being for somebody: The ongoing transformation of the American museum. Dædalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 128.3: 229–258.

    One of Weil’s many informative essays challenging traditional museum practices and promoting greater public access and focus on opportunities for visitors to learn in museums.

  • Wittlin, Alma S. 1949. The museum: Its history and its tasks in education. London: Routledge.

    A richly illustrated, thorough survey of museum education in Europe and the United States, with a description of the author’s own educational efforts to make exhibitions more accessible to visitors.

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