My thesis investigated adult museum visitors’ learning identities. Here’s some of what I concluded in my thesis about identity based on my extensive doctoral research.
My doctoral study looked at identity in a museum visit. One finding was that adult visitors played three roles—the “visit manager” by directing and organising; the “museum expert” in explaining, clarifying and correcting; and the “learning-facilitator” through questioning, linking, reminiscing and wondering. These roles are interchangeable, occur simultaneously and are dependent on both the social context of the visit and the group composition, particularly the ages of any accompanying children.
Identity can be influenced by visitors’ interactions with museum objects (Morrissey, 2002). Paris and Mercer (2002) noted that visitors recalled and responded to objects in exhibitions that resonated with their personal identities. The present study found many examples of visitors relating objects they were seeing to other shared experiences and using objects to recall experiences that were meaningful to them and to their group. Worts (1996) suggested that individuals have two kinds of identity—personal which made an individual unique, and collective in what types of groups they belong to. The present study found similar results to Worts—although sharing was important through linking to past, present and future experiences (collective), there were still defined roles for an individual (personal). Sfard and Prusak (2005) proposed that learning was an integral part of a person’s identity. In my study I found that a museum visitor’s learning identity is expressed through a combination of:
Educational psychologists have mentioned how enduring a person’s identity can be over time (Atchley, 1989; Vander Zanden & Pace, 1984). Examples from my study demonstrate that learning identity is enduring for some people and not others—it ebbs and flows depending on the sociocultural context of the museum visit. Leinhardt and Knutson (2004) suggested that identity was participatory and changed in response to a museum visit, which is supported by results from this study – participants gained insights into their learning identity in three ways, with the exhibition experience:
Both Paris (1997) and Morrissey (2002) noted that visitors learned more about themselves and others through their museum experiences. My study found that adult visitors were aware of how they like to learn, how they can learn differently, as well as how they do not want to learn and were adept at articulating their learning preferences. It also emerged that participants in both stages of my study want museum learning experiences that are both educational and entertaining.