How schools can ‘Emulate Museums’ for engaging learning? (and it’s not how you might think)


The spatial challenge is to use space dynamically as possible.”
Montgomery (2008)

Four strategies we can learn from museums:

  1. Define the entry and exit experience for students
  2. Create ‘stoppages’ and maintain ‘flow’
  3. Design ‘circulation patterns’
  4. Curate the narrative, deliberately shape the learning experience

file_000-1What are your experiences of a museum as a user? Sometimes we are  captivated, amazed and inspired to learn more after the visit. At other times, from the moment we walked in ‘we knew’, an underwhelming experience awaited.

The concept of space as the ‘third teacher’ came from the Reggio Emilia tradition, when designed deliberately, space can inspire young minds. In 2010 VS Furniture/Cannon Design/Bruce Mau Design/ compiled a collection of ideas, The Third Teacher, encouraging fresh thinking around the context of school and learning. This publication quickly became an inspiration for many educators, with ideas such as: everyone can be a designer, make peace with fidgeting, think hands-on and emulate museums.

#16 Emulate Museums:  An environment rich in evocative objects  – whether it’s a classroom or museum – trigger active learning by letting students pick what to engage with.

In his paper “Space Matters: Experiences of managing static formal learning spaces”, Tim Montgomery (2008) looks the museum as inspiration for places of formal learning, within in the context of universities, but the ideas can equally be relevant to schools. The paper begins with looking at the seminar room, “four walls, desk and chairs”. When thinking about the opportunities inherent in a space, Montgomery cites Chism (2006):

Because we habitually take space arrangements for granted, we often fail to notice the ways in which space constrains or enhances what we intend to accomplish.

What can we learn from museums? The focus here isn’t necessarily the consideration of the artefacts, students displaying museum-quality outputs of their learning, rather the foundational thinking around engaging learners in self-motivating, curated learning experience.

file_000-2On entering a museum, or even prior to the visit, we receive or seek preliminary information, where will we go, what will we see and how should we navigate our way through. “In the museum and the classroom, entering can be disorienting, and yet ignored as not a ‘real part’ of the exhibition/seminar proper” (Montgomery 2008). Consider how important our arrival experience is, at anything we attend, even the classroom space. Often this is the make or the break of a successful event.

The exit is also as a spatial and pedagogical moment, and needs to be planned to finish well. In between, the museum experience itself is carefully curated, deliberately creating the environment to bring the visitors in and engage them.

The strategies of engagement are created through the notions of ‘stoppages’ and ‘flow’. Stoppages as the decision-points, providing choice as their interest takes the visitor, ‘conceptual, unhurried, exhibition pieces’ that capture attention.  Deliberate circulation patterns reinforce the narrative of the curated learning experience, recognising that people people move and learn in different ways – there can be similar flow patterns curated in the classroom.

Space reinforces the narrative. Space management is a question of how the museum guide, or the teacher, through the spatial context enables the learning process by including: paths and subdivisions, enabling choice around the physical process and determining the focus – is it sequential or thematic.

The priority of the museum is the visitor, and at the school, the student.

In spatial terms, it is implied that the student/gallery visitor is primary in the relationship; the teacher/curator’s job is to enable learning”. Montgomery, p.129



The third teacher : 79 ways you can use design to transform teaching & learning. (2010). New York : Abrams

Montgomery (2008) Space Matters: experiences of managing static formal learning spaces. Active Learning in Higher Education, v9 n2 p122-138 2008

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