Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Object-based learning in science museums

How do museum visitors interpret the authenticity of museum objects? How can we support visitors' meaningful interactions with real objects?

Anne Land-Zandstra

In a collaboration with the Education Department of Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Museon and other science museums in the Netherlands we are studying how visitors experience the authenticity of museum objects and how we can support visitors' meaningful interaction with those objects.

In a time where most information is available online, science museums still have a unique feature: their large collections of real objects. Many visitors want to know if objects are real and museum developers are convinced that it is important to showcase real objects. However, little empirical research has been done about how visitors interpret objects' authenticity and what the impact is of using real objects on visitors' learning experiences. In this project we are collaborating with science museums in the Netherlands to study object-based learning in museums.

Real versus replica

We are studying how visitors perceive the authenticity of museum objects. For example, in Naturalis we have looked at how children interpret the museum-worthiness of different real fossils and replicas. We asked them how much they thought a real dinosaur toebone fossil, a real dinosaur footprint fossil, an two different replicas belonged in a museum. We found that they look beyond the physical features and think about the underlying history of the object. In a theoretical review, we described how "essentialism" - the fact that we believe some essence is present in an object, related to its unique history - is a suitable psychological explanation for visitors' appreciation of authentic objects. 
If we know what makes visitors appreciate real objects, we can adapt exhibitions and activities accordingly.

Learning with objects

We also want to find out how we can support visitors in their interaction with real objects, so that they can have meaningful experiences within the museum. For example, we are studying if questions on object labels can trigger families to have learning conversations about real objects. We know that family conversations are a sign of a learning experience and we are investigating how we can support these conversations about real objects.

Copyright Marten van Dijl/Naturalis
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