Along with other organisations in the informal science learning infrastructure, they have a key role in supporting engagement with science.1 They are also hugely popular with schools, families and adults with attendance figures for these institutions growing year on year.2 Although research has been conducted in natural history museums on topics such as visitors’ understanding of evolution,3 family interactions4 and school trips,5the vast majority of the research has been conducted in the United States, leaving learning in the UK natural history museum context under-researched and under-theorised. A major part of the problem is that a coherent, theoretically-informed research agenda has yet to be developed which has hampered the field’s ability to influence policy and satisfactorily address concerns around impact.

Understanding the impacts of informal science settings is a topical and challenging issue. As the United Kingdom government continues to adopt an evidence-based policy agenda – questions have been raised over the value and impact of museums. In 2009, a report by Frontier Economics entitled Assessing the Impact of Science Centres in England examined the impact these institutions have on their visitors in order to assess whether they should continue to be publically funded. Although the report’s findings were inconclusive, they highlight a sector that does not yet have a sophisticated understanding, or evidence of, their impact on audiences. The report found,

We have not been able to assess whether science centres are good value for money relative to other comparator programmes. This is because there is insufficient evidence on the long term outcomes of science centres or comparator programmes.6

As a consequence, museum practitioners and academics have come together to debate and discuss these issues. In 2011 the science centre At-Bristol held a roundtable to explore definitions of impact, how to obtain evidence of impact and scope future research opportunities. Similarly in 2012, King’s College London and the Science Museum held a one-off seminar with international academics and practitioners to foster collaboration around common research questions. Although interventions have occurred, the search for impact has yet to be resolved, or embedded into museum practice. Lloyd, Neilson, King and Dyball have noted the sector still lacks a medium and long term understanding of impact. Although small scale evaluation occurred across these settings, these often explored visitor satisfaction and delivery processes. They recognise,

‘providing robust and ‘nationally credible’ evidence of the benefits of informal science learning is a requirement for the sector looking forward’.7

The Wellcome Trust’s Analysing the UK Science Education Community: The contribution of informal providers have signposted new directions - strongly emphasising the need for a collaborative research agenda and a systematic approach to evaluation in informal science education, including natural history museums.8 The review also highlighted the lack of a knowledge base among practitioners in the informal science learning sector. The analysis showed that there is a substantial body of knowledge of learning science in informal settings, as well as an established and much bigger scholarship of learning science in formal contexts. There exists also literature on knowledge of learning in museums and about how people learn – all of which can inform practice and develop the profession. However, when the twenty most cited elements of this existing literature were tested with key providers of informal science learning,

…the modal (most common) value for how many individuals had read each publication was zero … The most read article had been read by less than 50% of these key practitioners.9

This raises interesting questions about what knowledge underpins practice and what theories inform practitioners’ thinking.

In order to combat some of these issues, the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) alongside Bristol University, King’s College London and the Economic and Social Research Council are working to build a collaborative and theoretically informed learning research agenda for natural history museums.10 Through a series of six seminars museum learning practitioners and cross-disciplinary academics from across the UK have begun to unpick the complexities of learning in rich natural history environments. The aims of the seminar series are manifold. They include

  • Develop a network of academics and natural history museum learning stakeholders
  • Promote the potential contribution of natural history museums to academic learning research and theorisation
  • Develop a tailored learning research agenda to be reflected in both professional and academic publications
  • Support collaboration between academics, natural history museums and UK funding agencies
  • Foster international collaboration with overseas researchers and stakeholders

Building on international momentum

The seminars build on work in the sector, particularly from the US, that has already begun to develop supporting frameworks aimed at understanding the impact of informal learning experiences. For example, in February 2012 the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History convened over 100 colleagues from forty-three organisations at a National Science Foundation-funded conference that examined important areas for innovation in natural history museums and resulted in an emergent learning research agenda.11Also the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education is tracking emerging research agendas across the broad field of informal learning.12 Taking advice from key actors in these initiatives has ensured that we are building on the initiatives to date, we continue learning rather than ‘reinventing the wheel’ and we further develop international collaborations through the seminars.

The seminar series

Four seminars have taken place with the final two occurring in 2015. Whilst the seminars were planned to cover set criteria this has evolved and changed to meet participants’ needs.

Seminar 1: The Research Landscape (November 2013)

In the first seminar we examined the Wellcome Trust’s Analysing the UK Science Education Community: The contribution of informal providers. The finding that the knowledge-base of the sector was low concurred with the experiences of the seminar’s participants. They described a culture of newness or ‘short-term-ism’ in museums, i.e. practitioners move on to the next project bound by budgets, time and resources, leaving little time for reflection or reading research findings. Benefits and barriers of adopting a research culture were identified and are summarized below.


  • Evidence of impact
  • Institutions valuing learning research
  • Enabling organisational change
  • A common language
  • Research can take practice somewhere you hadn’t considered


  • Time
  • Access
  • Priorities
  • Value of carrying out research (not written for a practitioner audience)
  • Complex language of research papers
  • ‘Short-term-ism’

Participants described their relationship with research as consuming it, taking part, and/or driving it. A number of suggestions for capacity building were proposed including peer reviews, master classes, collaborations between researchers and practitioners such as to co-design exhibitions and programmes, and professional development. A key point was that to embed research into practice needs a culture change to encourage the valuing and commissioning of research. Participants discussed the categories for research that arose from the Smithsonian conference and their relevance to the UK situation. Critical content,is a research theme to explore learning aboutcurrent topics with high relevance to audiences that are at the heart of natural history museums’ content universe such as climate change, biodiversity loss and evolution; authenticity focuses research on the role of ‘real’ (scientists, objects, data) on visitor learning; mediation, explores learning with and across different platforms including exhibitions, face-to-face programmes and the web; audience, researches visitors increasing identity with museums, the diversity of audiences, participation, and non-visitors; organisational change, looks at the influence of learning research on change in practice, exploring  findings from any of the priority categories or their overlap.13 It was agreed that this was a useful starting point to develop a collaborative learning research agenda for natural history museums in the UK.

Seminar 2: Adopting a Research Culture (March 2014)

Following the issues raised in seminar one, the second seminar focused on implementing a learning research culture in museums hearing from representatives from cultural institutions who have incorporated research into their working practice. A number of researchers and practitioners shared their experiences of working with each other. Professor Kevin Crowley (from the Learning Sciences and Policy Center, University of Pittsburgh) explained that key to successful collaborations is the development of relationships between individuals from the museum and from the university so that thinking and ideas can be safely shared, ‘common conversation about big ideas and important little bits’.14 At the heart of this is understanding what you both want from the collaboration (and why) and in working out a way of working together that is mutually beneficial. It follows, therefore, that funding might not necessarily be the best place to start a research and practice collaboration! Developing a learning research culture will occur where there is institutional value for exploration and risk-taking, where actors can be opportunistic and nimble as well as patient, although, as agreed by Emily Pringle from Tate and Linda Conlon from the Centre of Life, the culture needs constant nurturing.15 Of course, it helps if the collaborating institutions are synergistic, occupying non-competitive places in the community.

Seminar 3 and 4: A Research Study on Authenticity (July and November 2014)

The third and fourth seminars focused on developing, conducting and sharing mini-research studies around issues of authenticity in informal contexts with the purpose of combating fears around conducting research within museums. The purpose was to highlight the difference between evaluation and research and to explore how research on authenticity can be of value to museums. Exploring the theme of authenticity the mini-research projects focused on:

  • ‘Real’ objects (significant, unique, old, everyday/usable) in comparison to replicas and models.
  • The role of digital objects and experiences.
  • The notion of place – exploring objects in real or created contexts.
  •  Interactions with ‘real’ experts (e.g. scientist or other subject area specialist) as opposed to actors or science explainers.
  •  Engaging in ‘real’ science (citizen science, working with a scientist) as opposed to a workshop or similar activities comparable to what scientists do.

In order to develop a shared understanding of authenticity – participants explored different aspects of the Natural History Museum’s public offer. This included a behind the scenes tour of the zoological collection, participating in Investigate – a hands-on science centre, viewing the Sensational Butterfly exhibition, and exploring digital objects in the Cocoon.

From here, participants worked with academics in small groups to develop research questions and methodological approaches to explore back in their own settings. When participants returned in November – findings were developed and shared amongst the wider group; and discussions were held over the implications around doing such work within museums.

Developing benefits

With two more seminars to go the benefits of such an undertaking are already beginning to show. The seminar series has taken place during a time of considerable change at the NHM and discussions and outputs are informing the museum’s approach to learning research and evaluation. As a result the NHM will be developing a Learning Research Framework that builds on the agenda developed through the seminars and involves internal stakeholders to hone research questions of most value to the museum itself.

Furthermore as a result of the seminar series new relationships are beginning to form. Critical friendships are beginning to emerge as practitioners and academics from other disciplines share their work and expertise. As a sector we are somewhat insular – however bringing in voices from art galleries, science centres and social history museums has enabled us to see our work differently, expand our understanding of learning research and develop a network of practitioners and academics committed to developing understanding of visitor learning in informal settings. Bringing practitioners’ and academics together for a sustained period of time has also led to new partnerships with some participants now part of successfully funded research collaborations. Together we have deliberated on how to embed a learning research culture in our institutions and this thinking is being shared widely with learning research practitioners at conferences globally.


Emma Pegram is the Learning Research and Evaluation Manager at the Natural History Museum, London. The team carry out and commission research to understand the impact of the museum’s public engagement activities on visitors’ learning. We are currently working to better embed this knowledge within museum practice.

Brad Irwin is the Senior Learning Engagement Manager at the Natural History Museum, London. He is responsible for all front facing learning staff – which includes Science Educators and Learning Volunteers. He is currently completing his doctorate at King’s College London on the role of the informal educator.