Thursday, October 25, 2012

Place-Based Learning in Museums


By Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London


Many museums use place-based learning to keep their offerings unique and closely linked to their communities. But what is place-based learning and how can place-based learning ideas be incorporated into overall institutional planning?

Place-based learning is an educational approach that involves the use of the local community and environment as the central content in the development of institutional learning goals, programs and exhibitions. Place-based education promotes learning that is rooted in what is local - the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place – to benefit both the community and the learners. Using this approach, an institution begins with its “place” as a starting point to connect concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education has proven to increase academic achievement according to researchers at the Orion Society.


Why chose this local and place-based focus? One of the main reasons is to promote the uniqueness of the institution within its community so that it does not resemble any other museum in any other part of the world. A unique mission and vision based on a particular place can help with fundraising and audience development as the Museum can clearly articulate why it is different from other Museums of their type as well as how the organization is tied to the community. Another important reason is that people have connections to specific places and learning is stronger if new ideas presented by the Museum link with emotions or knowledge that visitors bring with them.

Many museums of all types are using their unique locations to present place-based learning that can only happen right in that location and draw on the resources found only there. Here are some examples of Museums of different types that use their “place” as a central theme.

History Museum Example:


The Mill City Museum in Minnesota focuses very specifically on the story of the mill that existed at that site. Looking out the windows, visitors can see the mill’s foundations, the river beyond, the transport ships and the city that grew up around that place. Exhibitions focus on how the building was used, but then radiate out to address issues that affect everyone, no matter where they are from.


The site is used to address the topic of the intertwined histories of the flour industry, the Mississippi River, and the city of Minneapolis.

Children’s Museum Example:


Underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco Area, The Bay Area Discovery Museum has created programs and exhibitions that use the unique site and historic buildings to address the natural, built and cultural environments of the people, plants and animals that make their home there. One of the reasons the Museum chose this local approach was that childhood experts advised staff that by getting children to care about one plant, person or animal that the child was more likely to come to care about the overall environment and the living things that shared the habitat with them as they grew older. Exhibitions focus on art, science, and the built and natural environment of the San Francisco Bay area in order to build empathy and stewardship toward their communities no matter where they visitors are from.


The Museum’s mission is focused on place and staff developed an interpretive framework that guides exhibition and program development around this idea of place.

Science/Environmental Museum Example:

Another place-based institution is the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. Built on the site of a former mine, his collection of biomes was built using sustainable building techniques and served as a catalyst for economic regeneration in the area.


The location itself tells a dramatic story of renewal and regeneration while inspiring visitors to care for their world and gives hope that even the most polluted environment can be turned around. Exhibits and programs focus on gardening, people and learning, the environment and climate change all with the aim of influencing the everyday choices we make and how those affect the world around us.


The Eden Project addresses issues of environmental recovery and the relationship of the buildings with the landscape and the landscape with the people. Visitors can engage with the plantings, art works and exhibitions or engage with programs about planting and connections to local towns. A video is available if you are interested in learning more about the Eden Project.

You can learn more about place-based learning at:
The Center for Eco-Literacy
The Promise of Place
Place-Based Learning UK

Tell us about how your Museum is using place-based learning!

3 comments:

Bodhibadger said...

This emphasis on "uniqueness" for the sake of being different has always bothered me. Why should I care if my local museum is substantively the same as the museums other little towns across the country? I'll patronize my local museum because it's local, and serves my community. If they copy an excellent program from a colleague half way round the world, I'll be happy they shared it with me.

Sometimes I suspect museumers value "unique" for the professional satisfaction of doing something different.

That said, I do think programs and exhibits built around the specific local attributes of place are often more effective and more interesting. That's a better reason, to me, for place-based design, rather than a desire to be unique per se.

Steve Tornallyay said...

Many of the museums we work with desire to offer a unique experience to visitors. One of the best ways to achieve this is to look locally (place-based). The local look makes for an inherently different and unique experience that can be balanced with shared experiences from other places. Achieving a balance is essential for museums.

John said...

Many museums use place-based learning to keep their offerings unique and closely linked to their communities.........
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