“Come look over here. This is my favorite area of the museum.” The Director of Transformation beckons the young entrepreneurs on her tour over to a glass wall. They peer down into a room that is bright, tall, and spacious. Sunlight streams into the room through high clerestory windows and illuminates a string of action verbs written around the perimeter of the room:
CREATE, WONDER, QUESTION, TEST, INVESTIGATE, DISCOVER, IMAGINE. SHARE.
“This is one of our warm up studios, where visitors await their Experience. Look in. Don’t worry. We can see and hear them, but they can’t see or hear us.” The observers crowd in closer, some pressing their foreheads to the glass.
The children and adult learners below are scattered around the studio waiting for their Experience to begin. The room buzzes with voices and activities. Some learners view images, video, and data projected onto walls and scrims. Some listen to personal devices, some leaf through books, others talk. A group of children and adults experiment with a collection of creation materials at a large worktable. A few recline quietly against the slanted walls, watching or waiting expectantly.
The director continues, “The lower half of the walls serve as drawing and projection surfaces. As you can see, they we re also designed to function as comfortable backrests. Our furniture is modular and mobile to support both group and individual learning. Everything in the room is able to be moved and manipulated by our learners. After all, they know best how to make themselves comfortable.”
“We want them to have all they need to prepare themselves for learning. We always have a full supply of creation and design materials in each of these rooms so learners can warm up their minds and bodies by testing, playing, making, and imagining. We even have a fridge with drinks and snacks, because no one should learn on an empty stomach,” she says smiling.
A man in a grey suit on the tour points to a woman below in a red t‐shirt and asks, “Is that woman on staff?”
“Yes, that is one of our learning specialists. We call them coaches. We have 20‐30 on duty at any time.
The coach in the red t‐shirt sits at a worktable in between learners. She quietly observes them in action. An older man to her right pokes, prods and pinches a column of clay. She watches him for a moment and then casually asks, “What do you find most intriguing about that material?” He responds, “I like how it feels slippery yet stable.” The coach points to a nearby sink and says, “You might try adding some water to see how the texture of the clay changes. Or experiment with other elements you find in the room.”
With a nod, the coach moves to another area of the room. She sits down on the floor beside another coach who peruses a digital catalogue of paintings with a small group of children. One coach prompts a girl to explore a detail in a picture, while the other answers a boy’s question about the catalogue text. “…Good question! Original means it was the first physical one of its kind made by that particular artist… Like you. You are an original. The works of art in the museum are original, too. Does knowing that change the way you are preparing for your Experience today? How so?”
The director continues, “The coaches are around to provide support, spur their thinking, and recommend new directions during the learners’ Warm Up and Experience. They also explicitly prompt learners to reflect on their learning—to help them become aware of how the Experience is transforming them and their ideas about the world.”
“The coaches also pay careful attention to the choices learners make, observe their responses to various stimuli, and make mental notes about adaptations. At the end of the day, we gather as a team to reflect on our interactions with our learners. We review the film footage we capture of the learners’ activities here and in the other museum spaces. Then we determine the refinements we need to make to our spaces and supports so they are even more responsive to learner activity. We make changes overnight and then assess the impact of those refinements the next day with a new group of learners. In some cases, we wait to act and gather more data before making adjustments.”
A young woman in the group says, “Sounds pretty clinical to me.”
The director smiles and responds, “Yes, it is very clinical on the backend. Like most museums these days, we are an institution dedicated to learning science. Everyone on staff is charged with observing, analyzing, problem-solving, and reflecting. That practice allows us to design and redesign museum environments that respond nimbly to the changing needs and demands of our learners. We try very hard to make the learner experience safe, responsive, personal. Not sterile. We know learners learn best when they’re comfortable and the material is personally relevant. Whether we succeed is another story.” She smiled. “There is always more that can be done.”
In the room below, a door slides open and another coach walks into the center of the room. Her demeanor is open, friendly, and excited.
The Director of Transformation points to the new coach who has entered the room. She says, “That’s Rebecca, our lead coach. They are about to begin. Let’s watch.”
Rebecca addresses the group below:
“Are you ready for an adventure of your own making?”
“The works of art beyond these doors have been created by artists from past and present. They’ve been carefully preserved so you can experience them right here today, in this moment.”
“Each work of art you encounter during your Experience has a unique story to tell you. No one has ever brought the knowledge, response, or connection that you will bring to them today. You and the works of art will be creating something new…together. A new relationship, understanding, or question will be formed today through your interaction.”
“Once you pass through this door, you may determine where you will go, what you will experience, and how you will interact with what you find inside.”
The coach pauses. There is silence and then a young learner offers up a question, “I’ve been here before. What has changed? Is there anything new to see?”
The coach begins to respond: “Very good question. Yes! So much has changed since we saw you last!”
“First of all, you have changed. You are totally different than the girl who walked through this door a few months ago. You have grown taller, wiser, encountered new challenges and discovered new ways of learning and questioning the world around you.”
“Second, our collective understanding of the world has changed since you were here last. These new ideas, questions, events, and data inform how you and I see the works of art and the museum’s role in your lives.”
“Third, the museum has changed in response to changes in you and the other learners in this room, as well as in response to changes in our understanding of our world.”
Another coach chimes in:
“Our awareness about how we learn expands everyday. Each morning we assess our own understanding, seek new challenges, and design unique learning pathways that will help us reach our goals and improve ourselves. Here in this highly unique learning environment we call a museum, coaches like us observe and analyze the changing ways you learn through our collection of art and ideas, and we work together to create new solutions and opportunities daily to support your evolving growth.”
Rebecca motions to her team and adds, “There are 20 of us here today to help you maximize your Experience and provide support if and when you need it. Want to know more about something or experience it in a different way? We are here to provide information or suggest engagements. Not sure where to go next? We can recommend a path that is unique to you based on your personal interests. Want to challenge yourself differently? That’s our specialty! Seek us out or explore on your own. Make this adventure yours, but be thoughtful about what you make it.”
Rebecca pauses and then asks, “Ready?” The learners nod and she continues in a serious tone. “Then it is time to begin.”
Pointing to the string of words on the wall above, she asks, “See those verbs written around the perimeter of the room? Some may be ways you explore the world everyday. Some may be actions that you typically avoid or that make you nervous. Stop and reflect for a moment: how might you experience those pursuits differently here in this unique learning environment? Which might you like to try for the first time today?”
She pauses and look each learner in the eyes.
“In a few minutes, the door will open and you’ll have 2 hours to try out some of those actions inside the museum in any way you like. You can chart your own course and explore at your will.
There are areas for solace and other areas for conversation. The entire space is a safe harbor where all perspectives may be voiced or any question asked without critique, rebuttal, or accusation. Creation materials may be used where and how you like. Information is offered in a variety of modes, but you are welcome to find, supply, and share your own.”
The young girl who spoke earlier interjects, “Why is SHARE written larger than the other words?”
The coach replies, “Ah, good observation!”, and then crouches down and encourages the group of learners to move in closer. She continues in a low, serious voice, “This environment is different from other areas of our world. It requires reciprocality, or give and take. We offer to you a learning environment in which to expand your understanding of yourself and the world around you through art and ideas. In return, we invite you to share an idea, question, response, experience, bit of knowledge, or creation with another learner here or leave a physical trace of yourself on the space itself.”
“Make this environment and the works of art you encounter your own. The museum is ready to be activated and changed by you today.”
Rebecca stands and motions the learners to the door. The door slides open to reveal a brightly lit space beyond that dances with shapes and color. Learners rush in and go their own ways.
A man in the tour group turns to the director and says, “That’s ambitious.”
She smiles and says, “Yes. Yes, it is.”
“Now follow me to the studio. I think it’s time for you to experience this firsthand. I can’t wait to see what we learn from all of you.”