Rationale for Study

“Families are the main context of learning for most people. Learning within the family is usually more lasting and influential than any other. Family life provides a foundation and context for all learning.”

Riches Beyond Price: Making the Most of Family Learning, NIACE, 1995

Families are the first and oftentimes most influential learning group in an individual’s life. Through conversations and social interactions, family members young and old learn from each other continuously; they talk about what they see, hear, and read, relating it to their previous experiences and memories, and they model behavior and actions for each other. Museums have long known the significant role they play in facilitating family learning, offering a unique context in which families can spend quality time together, talk with one another, and draw upon individual and collective memories to make sense of the world around them.

As much as family interactive galleries in art museums are heralded for the rich opportunities they offer families in exploring art together, little is known about what families actually learn from their experiences in these interactive spaces or how the art museum experience connects with a family’s larger context of learning together.

In June 2005, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles convened the first U.S. symposium of its kind focused specifically on family-oriented interactive spaces in art and history museums, called From Content to Play: Family-Oriented Interactive Spaces in Art and History Museums. More than 160 museum educators, designers, researchers, architects, and consultants gathered for two days of discussion focused on several key issues, including:

  • How can interactive spaces best respond to the needs of family audiences?
  • What is the role of the objects in such spaces, and how should works of art be used and interpreted?
  • How do the values and philosophies of art museum professionals shape the spaces that we create for families?

What emerged from these discussions was the realization that despite the large number of art museums currently developing or offering interactive spaces for families, there is no clear agreement on learning expectations for these galleries. Furthermore, there was almost no research on the extent to which these galleries actually do facilitate learning amongst intergenerational groups. The closing keynote address at the Getty conference issued a clear call for comprehensive research on what and how families learn from interactive spaces in art museums.

This Family Learning study is a direct response to that call for research. By examining ways in which family-oriented interactive spaces in art museums foster intergenerational learning, this study will build collective understanding in the field about the family experience in art museums, providing practitioners with research-based theory as they build programs in this area.