Informal Learning Reflections at The Museum of Ancient Life

This post is made in conjunction with Dr. Rick West’s Foundations of Instructional Design course at Brigham Young University.

This past week, we visited the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, UT with the express purpose of observing informal learning.  It was certainly an interesting experience to visit these exhibits with a new lens.  Specifically we were looking at the ways that learning was structured, and how learners (both children and adults) were interacting with those learning experiences.

Currently, the Museum of Ancient Life has two exhibits.  Both of them take very different approaches to displaying their content, and espouse different learning philosophies.

Constructivist Approaches in the Tinkering Exhibit

The first exhibit that we came across was a Tinkering exhibit.  This exhibit had some strong foundations in constructivism and discovery learning. While I don’t know the specific roots of tinkering, it is currently manifest in the DIY / hacker movement.  Most of the exhibits were based around some sort of manipulable mechanical device.   The exhibit itself was set in a large hall.  There was little perceivable flow to the exhibits, instead being grouped together around a theme of tinkering.  In walking up to one of the exhibits, the viewer is invited immediately to begin to play with the mechanism.  The key being that the devices were crude enough that a participant could quickly get an idea of what was going on.  While, there were instructions for most of the exhibits in this space, the attitude of the exhibits seemed very much to be of the mindset of “play now, ask questions later”.  I found myself consulting the instructions only if I ran into a dead-end of figuring out what I was trying to do.  One of the instructions that I did see often written around the room in marker was this checklist:

The Tinkering Task List

Tinkering Task List

  • Tinker Together
  • Observe
  • Wonder
  • Make Guesses
  • Be Respectful

I also saw on another checklist:

  • Create, Test & Refine

The list sounded an awfully lot like the scientific method (although tinker-fied a bit). What I pull away from all of this is that you need to play to discover, and what you discover might be very different from what another person discovers, or from what the designer of the exhibit intended for you to discover.  An example of this that I saw was a pretty cool stop-motion video booth.  I observed several students playing with this, but none of them figured out what I perceived was the intention of the exhibit (making a stop motion video).  The button interface had a record, a play, an erase, frame forward and frame backwards buttons. There was no instructions in addition to the interface.  I saw one youth filming objects, layering frames on top of each other.  I saw another group of youth focusing on changing background and staging the elements in the frame.  None of them, however, figured out how to create a stop motion video.  In this case, that was okay, as the purpose of the exhibit was playing with the process (the task list) and not achieving a specified learning outcome.

I feel that this constructivist approach worked well for the Tinkering exhibit.  While a learner didn’t come out with specific outcomes, I think that they ultimately enjoyed themselves, and hopefully thought a little bit more about how they could play and tinker with resources that are around them.

Narrative and Layered Approaches in Dinosaur Hall

The dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Ancient Life was very different from its tinkering counterpart.  While the tinkering exhibit took on a more exploratory and constructivist approach, the dinosaur exhibit took more of a direct and narrative approach to its instruction.   While there were no explicit outcomes stated as the learner entered the dinosaur halls, you could definitely feel that there were outcomes that the museum designers wanted to teach the learners.  While there are several things that I could talk about, I would like to talk about 2 take-aways from this portion of the exhibit: specifically the use of narrative, and the use of layers.

Narrative Approach

For anyone, that’s been to the dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Ancient Life,  you will able to immediately remember the narrative elements to the museum.  When you enter the exhibit, you are brought into a paleontology lab filled with tools and fossils.  It is here that you learn about the tools of the trade of paleontology along with seeing artifacts from major excavation sites where we have gained information about dinosaurs.  From this scene, you are thrust into probably what is the most dramatic scene of the museum, a seemingly levitating walkway through a star field.  When you emerge from the other side, you see a mural and bang! — the universe has begun.  This is only the beginning of the narrative that is present in the museum. As you move through the exhibits, you transition from early life forms to the Jurassic period to the Cretaceous period.  Many of the environments are completely immersive — the Jurassic period uses a combination of elaborately built scenery and high-fidelity surround sound to place you in the environment.  Other scenes, such as the one focused on early sea life uses blue lighting and suspended sea creatures to make you feel as if you are in the ocean.  This narrative method is especially helpful in younger learners who might not understand the theoretical divisions between the different areas of the museum.  Even though they may not be able to understand the time divisions, they can still sense the transition by the change of surroundings.

While the content in the Museum of Ancient Life doesn’t hold what Rossett & Hoffman (2012) call “the attraction of authentic objects” (p. 172) in the same way that a museum with famous art does, it is nonetheless still compelling because the material is so far outside our everyday experience.  From my understanding, most of the bones in the dinosaur exhibit aren’t authentic, but their verisimilitude to the original, and their arrangement in a narrative context still hold the attention of learners of all ages.

The museum is serious about their narrative approach. Exhibits even seem to have a sub-story.

A problem that I saw with this narrative structure, however, is that it was often not explicit enough.  An adult learner can see the narrative structure after spending some time with the exhibit (as I did), but I it would be difficult for a younger learner to see that same structure.  I felt that some time could be spent up front orienting the learner, either through video or text to the journey that they were about to take.  Such effort had been put into building the narrative structure, that i would hope more of the audience would notice it outright.

Layered Structures

Layered Activities in the Quarry

The second major observation that I found in the dinosaur hall was the use of layers of instruction.  Museum designers have to take into account a variety of learner ages and abilities. Additionally, designers must make the museum experience interesting for yearly pass holders who come to the museum multiple times. To accomplish this, the designers seem to structur their content in layers.  An example of this was the quarry section of the Cretacious period.  For this activity, museum attendees can mimic a paleontological excavation by placing dinosaur puzzle pieces into embedded spaces for each piece.  This would be an activity that would be appealing to young children (I know my son would love it). To escalate the experience up to a higher level, the learners could then take the puzzle pieces and piece them together on the nearby magnetic “Articulation Station”.  Meanwhile, around this exhibit, there are various smaller chunks of more specific information that would be interesting to adults who may be waiting on their children. This exhibit demonstrates how a layered approach can serve the needs of a wide range of learner abilities.

Another feature of a layered approach is a hierarchy of content.  What I mean by this is that content in the museum ranges from the very broad (such as a section on the Jurassic Period) to the very specific (such as information about a specimen).  By using this hierarchy, the museum experience can be self paced according to the learner.  If a learner has little time or interest, they can move quickly through the exhibit and understand the content in broad strokes.  If the learner has more time, they can dial into more detailed content and understand a specific topic in more depth.  This layered approach allows the museum experience to be customized each time you come as you will undoubtedly learn something that you didn’t learn before.

How Should We Structure Museum Content?

I feel that I gained great insight into informal learning by looking at these two different exhibits.  Was one approach better than the other? I don’t think so.  I think that they were trying to achieve different goals.  The tinkering exhibit sought to connect learners the process, a somewhat tinker-fied scientific method.  It was about interacting with the world in a different way.  The dinosaur exhibit, on the other hand, sought to connect learners with content.  By using a narrative and layered approach, it gave a wide range of learners access to a fascinating body of content.  As I have conducted this observation in informal learning, I don’t think that I will look at museums in quite the same way again.  I have a greater appreciation for museum designers who have a difficult task of keeping a wide variety of learners engaged simultaneously.  I feel that they truly have a job of “trying to put magic in a bottle” (Rossett & Hoffman, 2012, p. 173).

Any thoughts?  Have you found a museum learning strategy that you found particularly effective?  Find something at the museum of Ancient Life that I missed?


Rossett, A. & Hoffman, B. (2012).  Informal learning. in Robert A. Reiser & John V. Dempsey (Eds.) , Trends and issues in instructional design(p. 169-177).  Boston: Pearson.