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EducationScience Centers as Learning Environments

Science Centers as Learning Environments
By Colin Johnson

The process of informal learning: from attraction to engagement to ownership
What do we mean by learning?
What's so special about learning in informal settings?
What do we know about learning in science centers?
Engagement and dialogue: science and the citizen
Measuring long-term impact
References and resources

The process of informal learning: from attraction to engagement to ownership

Observers and critics of science centers sometimes ask: "They're having a great time, but are they actually learning anything?" (See, for instance, Friedman, 2001.) This question reflects the culture of schools, where performance, as registered by the many different testing regimes in use around the world, is essentially geared to the achievement of predetermined targets and driven by a pre-imposed curriculum.

Science centers, in contrast, typically impose no such curriculum, and the learning pathways to be followed are normally determined by the learners themselves. Mapping learners' achievements thus depends on recognizing the destinations that are reached along this pathway. It also depends on an understanding that the journey and the destinations are equally significant.

Every learner starts and finishes the science center experience at a different point on the pathway. The simplest language with which to describe the informal learning process is
                         attraction engagement ownership

Researchers have elaborated this sequence in a number of ways, for example:

  • Knowledge, understanding, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation (Bloom & Kratwohl,1956)
  • Initiation, transition, breakthrough (Barriault, 1998)
  • Immersion, imagination, intuition, intellect (Claxton,1999)
  • Motivation, progression, independence, interaction (Williams & Wavell, 2001)
  • Generic learning objectives (Hooper-Greenhill & Moussouri, 2003)

Some argue that "Learning is learning, whether acquired formally or informally." It's therefore important to be clear that the term "informal learning," as opposed to "classroom learning," describes a process, as well as an outcome.

The informal learning process mirrors everyday life much more closely than the formal teaching/learning situation, and—if only on the evidence of what the small child learns in infancy—it is a process which human beings undertake not only very willingly, but with conspicuous success. The work of science centers (and other informal learning settings) mirrors this natural path, and not merely in its unpremeditated and exploratory nature: Early childhood learning is closely tied to the development and use of language. The science center, in similar fashion, provides a social learning environment, in which people gain new understandings through articulating their experience. "Talking through" a problem or a puzzle is an everyday strategy which may be seen in constant use during a science center visit, whether among members of a family or a peer group.

Documenting learning in the science center environment is challenging because the evidence for learning outcomes is not often seen at the same time as the experience provided by the center. Rarely does that "Aha!" moment take place at the time of the visit. Much more frequently, some later situation provides the context within which the learner sees the relevance of the science center experience and makes sense of it.

However, this is not, as some might argue, a limitation for the work of science centers, but rather an indication of its power. Science centers offer a unique range of life-enhancing experiences and potential insights through which each visitor is able to assemble a personal databank for later consultation.

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What do we mean by learning?

"Learning is a process of active engagement with experience. It is what people do when they want to make sense of the world. It may involve the development or deepening of skills, knowledge, understanding, awareness, values, ideas and feelings, increase in the capacity to reflect. Effective learning leads to change, development, and the desire to learn more."
Campaign for Learning in Museums & Galleries,
quoted by Hawkey (2004)

Educational institutions have traditionally defined learning as the retention of factual information. The approach to education based on this view of learning emphasizes delivery, rather than engagement, on the assumption that the learner will take on board an appropriate selection of what is offered.

However, science centers and museums (and even some schools) have moved a long way from the narrow "transmitting teacher/passive learner" ethos of the past. Adopting a view of the learning process which regards the learner as an active participant in the construction of new knowledge and understanding, science centers celebrate the individual, provide opportunities for each individual to construct his/her own learning pathway, and allow for a multitude of outcomes from each encounter.

In order to understand and explain the significance of the museum or science center as a learning environment, therefore, it is vital to pay attention to the range of learning processes, as well as the possible learning outcomes.

Speaking of "Personal Technologies and Education," Sharples (2000) strikes a close parallel with the science center and museum world when he says that "Learning is a continual conversation: with the external world and its artifacts, with oneself, and also with other learners and teachers. And the most successful learning comes when the learner is in control of the activity, able to test ideas by performing experiments, to ask questions, collaborate with other people, seek out new knowledge, and plan new actions."

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What's so special about learning in informal settings?

The terms "informal" and "non-formal" are used interchangeably in what follows, and in many of the references. They refer to learning situations, contrasted with the formal school classroom or the workplace, in which the learners are

  • encouraged to move freely around the learning environment, which is generally full of stimuli or many kinds—physical, three-dimensional, and audiovisual
  • dependent only to a limited extent on listening to or reading verbal messages
  • free from the disciplinary constraints applied by a classroom teacher, though remaining under a degree of social control
  • allowed to make their own decisions about their route and pace of learning
  • frequently working together in peer groups or family units to develop their experience, knowledge, and understanding

Non-formal learning can be seen happening from an infant's earliest exploration of the surroundings to every visit to a library, a symphony concert, or even a football game. Its choices inform the whole world of play.

Thus, in the language of Dierking & Falk (1994) and Falk & Dierking (2000), science centers and museums may be described as "free-choice learning environments." Personal, sociocultural, and physical contexts contribute to and influence visitors' interactions and experiences.

Personal contexts for learning include the learner's
  • existing motivation and expectations—and the climate of positive expectation which the center can create
  • prior interest—the level of curiosity and persistence needed to achieve "engagement"
  • knowledge and experience—relevant to the experiences offered in the center
  • level of choice and control—there being evidence that choice of learning activity affects both motivation and outcomes positively
Sociocultural contexts for learning allow
  • people to make meanings for themselves as members of social groups—exploiting the benefits of the process of "talking in order to learn"
  • teachers, exhibition explainers, and peer group members to act as mediators in the learning process
  • cultural meanings of learning to be reflected in the contents and activities of the science center
Physical contexts for learning recognize
  • the benefits of advance planning, preparation, and organization for new learning experiences
  • the value of exhibition trails, learning pathways, advance organizers, etc.
  • the need for learners to feel comfortable in their new surroundings before effective learning can take place
  • the importance of an orientation phase at the start of an educational visit
  • the need to design and reinforce the learning experience itself.

The individual visitor's experience, and consequent learning, results from the interactions between these three overlapping contexts (see Falk & Dierking, 2001).

As Falk (2002) reports, "Research suggests that nearly half of the public's understanding of science derives from [the informal and free-choice learning] sector, which supports the on-going and continuous learning of all citizens."

For an authoritative text on "learning in the museum," see Hein (1998), and for a synopsis of the "experiential learning cycle," see Atherton (2002). A usefully different approach—that of an environmental psychologist—is taken by Bitgood (2002). For a wide-ranging introduction to the science communication field, see Stocklmayer et al. (2001).

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What do we know about learning in science centers?

The educational system, both within schools and in the wider community, has spawned a great deal of research into learning. Some of the research relevant to science centers and museums is summarized in a resource developed under the auspices of the UK's Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council (see also Hooper-Greenhill & Moussouri, 2003):

Inspiring Learning for AllInspiring Learning for All
Drawing on the learning research, MLA proposes a set of five "generic learning objectives" for museums and galleries:

  • Knowledge and understanding
  • Skills
  • Values and attitudes
  • Enjoyment, inspiration, and creativity
  • Activity, behavior, and progression

These objectives are the most recent in a series dating back to Bloom & Kratwohl (1956), who proposed a taxonomy of learning objectives in which the domains of learning were classified as: cognitive (knowledge with understanding), psycho-motor (practical skills), and affective (motivational and ethical aspects).

Museum Learning CollaborativeMuseum Learning Collaborative
This comprehensive annotated literature database aims to generate "a common research focus, one that builds from two substantial bodies of knowledge—on learning and on museums—to create a clearer understanding of how learning occurs in museum environments." Although not updated since 2003, the archive remains online and should be a first point of reference for anyone studying this field.

Environmental Psychology in Museums, Zoos and other
Exhibition Centers
| Need help?
by Stephen Bitgood, 2002
In this chapter of the Handbook of Environmental Psychology, Bitgood summarizes other areas of investigation that have nevertheless been explored:

  • Observational studies which concentrate in some detail on the behavior of individuals and small groups
  • Sampling studies, in which snapshots of visitor behaviours are obtained throughout an exhibition at fixed time intervals
  • Tracking of individuals, noting how their time is spent and how they interact with other people and with elements of the exhibition
  • Convening focus groups to provide advice both prior to the establishment of a new facility and also to evaluate it once open
  • Surveys of all kinds—before, after, and during visits—including surveys of those who choose not to visit
  • Feedback from science center staff. Many science centers employ explainers to work with visitors on the exhibition floor. Unlike museum custodians, they are true facilitators of learning. Their reports of conversations with visitors carry a high level of authenticity.

The Science Centre Learning Experience: a visitor-based framework The Science Centre Learning Experience: a visitor-based framework
by Chantal Barriault, 1998
Work at Techniquest and Science North, for example by Barriault, identifies three phases in the informal learning process:

Initiation behaviors:

  • Watching others engaged in the activity
  • Receiving information offered by staff or other visitors
  • Doing the activity
Transitional behaviors:
  • Showing a positive emotional response
  • Repeating the activity
Breakthrough behaviors:
  • Relating the new experience to past experiences
  • Seeking and sharing further information
  • Becoming fully engaged and involved in continued investigation

A visit to a science center is much more than an encounter with physical phenomena. It is an opportunity for social interaction and self-expression, both of which are routes to learning. People generally visit science centers in groups (families or pre-arranged parties). The visit involves a good deal of shared experience and conversation. Articulating an experience, together with the associated ideas which flow from it, is an important mechanism for understanding. It is widely recognised that talking around a situation is an important route to the making of meaning (Perry, 1981)—"a thought expressed is a thought possessed." There is a further step, however. Subsequent conversation among group members provides a hierarchy for learning, which builds from

  • Observation — "Did you see … happening?" via
  • Contextualisation — "That reminds me of …" to
  • Interpretation — "I think that's because …"

There is a need for well-validated methodologies and rigorous research in this area.

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Engagement and dialogue: science and the citizen

Much of what has been written about learning in museums and science centers has been concerned with exhibits, and little account has yet been taken of the much wider educational menu which most institutions now offer (see, for instance, Cross & Fensham, 2000).

In laboratories and workrooms, weather stations and computer labs, discovery rooms and demonstration theatres, libraries and planetariums, and a wide range of other spaces, science centers accommodate a variety of activities and interactions. These include

  • debate and discussion—whether formally constituted or spontaneous
  • consultative and deliberative enquiries—formally undertaken over a lengthy period, leading to opinion surveys or consensus conferences
  • theatrical encounters—for example, with character actors and demonstrators
  • meeting a scientist—professional researcher or amateur enthusiast
  • real-time observation of a scientific process (for example, surgery, space travel, sea bed exploration) and subsequent interaction with scientists
  • science clubs—and related activity, such as the production of scientific magazines by young visitors

Science centers have much to offer in the field which is variously called "science in/and society" or "science and/for citizenship" through the processes of engagement and dialogue. Worldwide, there now seems to be an adoption of the Café Scientifique idea: guests meet in a non-science environment such as a bar or café to hear an introductory talk on a scientific topic, and then to engage in debate with the speaker and one another. Many science museums now animate their galleries with "people to talk to," whether they be hobby scientists, professionals (perhaps retirees), or even costumed character actors with a well rehearsed brief. Examples of such programs include the following:

The Cardiac Classroom
Through two-way audio and video links with surgeons at a nearby hospital, mediated by Liberty Science Center educators, Cardiac Classroom enables participants to talk to the operating team during live surgery.

Meet the Scientist
A program based in a number of UK science centers in which the science center becomes a forum for researchers to engage in dialogue with the general public. Each series of events is preceded by a training workshop for scientists and center staff.

Darwin Centre Live
A daily public program at London's Natural History Museum. Together with trained science communicators, museum scientists openly discuss their work with visitors and online audiences. The aim is to encourage dialogue between scientists and the public about current science issues and to open up public access to collections.

Lest it be thought that this is a straightforward process, advocates should bear in mind a significant range of research that has been undertaken. In the UK, the most cited reference to "science and society" is an influential report with this very title:

Science and Society—the Jenkin Report
Commissioned by the UK's House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, this 2000 report is widely regarded as a landmark in the developing field of "public engagement with science." Maintaining that "Society's relationship with science is in a critical phase," but that science is exciting and full of opportunities, the report identified key problems, among them: the difficulty in communicating uncertainty and risk, current trends and demands in school science education, and relations between science and the media.

For important insight on how scientists themselves view their public communication, see this paper presented to the Sixth International Conference on Public Communication of Science and Technology, Geneva, which sets the scene for more recent thinking:

How Scientists View Public Communication
by Brian Trench and Kirk Junker, 2001

More recent work from New Zealand also can be found online:

Involving the public in science and technology decision-making: A review of national and international initiatives | Need help?
by Will Allen et al., 2003

Science Dialogues: The Communicative Properties of Science and Technology Dialogue | Need help?
by Juliet Roper, 2004

A report from the British think-tank, Demos (see Wilson & Willis, 2004) reminds us of two earlier phases of thinking:

  1. Public understanding of science (PUS)
  2. From deficit to dialogue and advocates that for the 21st century we must turn our attention to:
  3. Moving engagement upstream

The argument is that researchers (and their government sponsors) have a responsibility to carry out "upstream" consultation with the public about research directions. Public debate about the likely implications and applications is critical — both for democratic reasons and because of the political requirement to carry public opinion with the ways in which public money is spent.

The whole area of public understanding of research (its content, methodology, and implications) has been studied most thoroughly in the United States, starting with a conference at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and leading to a publication by Chittenden et al. (2004), which deals comprehensively with a wide range of aspects.

Following are further examples of activities and agencies in this field:

AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology
Through the activities of this center, the American Association for the Advancement of Science aims "to address the need for increased public participation in the decisions made by scientists and policymakers, and to create a forum for real dialogue among policymakers, the general public and the scientific community."

The BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science)
The BA is the UK's nationwide, open membership organisation dedicated to connecting science with people, so that science and its applications become accessible to all. The BA aims to promote openness about science in society and to engage and inspire people directly with science and technology and their implications."

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation
This Vermont-based organization provides networking and support for individuals and institutions engaged in dialogue and deliberation. Useful material for beginners appears on the website, e.g. "What are Dialogue and Deliberation?"

Public Agenda Foundation
This New York-based organization's mission is to help American leaders understand the public's point of view, and citizens know more about critical policy issues so they can make thoughtful, informed decisions.

Sense About Science
A British charitable trust that works "to promote an evidence-based approach to scientific issues in the public domain. The trust works with organizations, experts and opinion formers to encourage this approach, particularly in areas of controversy, of which the debates surrounding genetics, hormones, and vaccines are current examples."

London Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology
Public Dialogue on Science & Technology. Postnote Number 189, November 2002
Handling Uncertainty in Scientific Advice. Postnote Number 220, June 2004

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Measuring long-term impact

Science centers have exceptional potential, but to measure their long-term impact is complex. The key difficulty is that there will always be an indeterminate time period and physical distance between the science center experience and the context within which it is subsequently assimilated and applied. What is more, we know little about the starting point from which individual visitors acquire their science center experience, given that they are not necessarily members of a school class which has followed a known curriculum.

An important baseline study in the UK by the Office of Science & Technology, OST/Wellcome Trust (2000), has identified a range of underlying attitudes within the British population, and described them in terms of six categories. These attitudinal groups are described as follows:

Confident believers
Not sure
Not for me


Long-term research is needed to track changes in the size and nature of these groups and to make reference to international comparisons, such as the Eurobarometer (see European Commission, 2001)

The impact of science centers on their communities has been discussed and documented by two ASTC Presidents (Persson, 2000, and Witschey, 2001) in papers which provide brief but important insights.

Science center networks throughout the world are addressing this important issue. Quantifiable data are already collected and monitored by the science centers in the UK and reported via the website of ECSITE-UK.

The UK Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council has developed a 4-point framework to set standards and measure impact, to serve as the yardstick against which museums, archives, and libraries are measured:

  • Providing effective learning opportunities
  • Creating a welcoming environment that enables access and supports learning
  • Working creatively with others to provide learning and access opportunities
  • Ensuring that the organization has learning at its heart and that the work contributes to broader learning and access agendas.

The framework will require museums to collect

  • Indicators — outputs, quantifiable data
  • Evidence Examples — what users say in visitor books, focus groups, surveys etc, qualitative descriptions of learning outcomes

There remains, nevertheless, a largely un-researched and hard-of-access area of human learning and understanding in which there is a long time interval between 'having an experience' and 'making sense of it'. Much non-formal learning is like that: whereas in the classroom situation you typically receive a pre-considered presentation, linked to practice and reinforcement, in the non-formal situation you gather experience more randomly, like an infant—and make use of it all later.

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There is strong evidence that:

  • Museums and science centers provide motivating and enriching environments for learning. Immediate impact can be exciting, but the "slow burn" effects on learning and motivation are more significant.
  • This "free-choice" environment strongly engages the attention of learners and allows for responses in relation to their individual backgrounds.
  • Museums and science centers also support the educational role of parents and teachers.
  • An important opportunity provided by science centers concerns "talking to learn." Conversation, whether with family members or peer groups leads to that articulation of ideas which is at the heart of assimilating them. Such social learning opportunities cannot readily be achieved in schools.
  • Learning in museums and science centers takes place in a wider world context which begins with the learner's prior experience, takes in the interactive opportunities and—very importantly—the related programming activities provided by the center. Teachers as well as students learn from this process.
  • Science centers provide venues for discussion, consultation, and deliberation which are widely perceived as neutral—in relation to political adherence and even in relation to the scientific community as a whole.
  • Governments and major educational trusts across the world are becoming increasingly aware of these potential benefits.

Colin Johnson

Colin Johnson was the Director and CEO of Techniquest in Cardiff, Wales, from 1997 to 2004. Prior to joining the Techniquest staff in 1990, he had taught high school science, worked with pre-service and in-service teachers, authored a popular textbook, and worked in curriculum development. Johnson has been active in both ECSITE and ASTC, including serving on the ASTC Board of Directors.

References & resources

Black and Minority Ethnic Engagement with London's Museums: 'Telling it like it is'. London: Archives, Libraries and Museums, 2004.

Atherton, J.S. Learning and Teaching: Learning from Experience. 2002.

Barriault, Chantal. The Science Centre Learning Experience: a visitor-based framework. University of Glamorgan/Techniquest MSc dissertation, 1998.

Bitgood, Stephen. "Environmental Psychology in Museums, Zoos and other Exhibition Centers" (PDF). Eds. R. Bechtel & A. Churchman. Handbook of Environmental Psychology. John Wiley & Sons, 2002.

Bloom, B.S. and D.R. Krathwohl. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York: Longmans, Green, 1956.

Chittenden, D., G. Farmelo, & B.V. Lewinstein, eds. Creating Connections: Museums and the Public Understanding of Current Research. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004.

Claxton, G. Wise Up — The Challenge of Lifelong Learning. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.

Cross, R.T. and P.J. Fensham, eds. Science and the Citizen: for Educators and the Public. Melbourne: Arena Publications, 2000.

DCMS Evidence Toolkit — DET (Formerly, the Regional Cultural Data Framework) Technical Report (PDF). London: Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2004.

What Did We Learn This Time? (PDF). The Museums and Galleries Lifelong Learning Initiative (MGLI)2002-2003. London: Department for Education & Skills, 2004.

Dierking, Lynn D. & John H. Falk. "Family Behavior and Learning in Informal Science Settings: a Review of the Research." Science Education, 78(1994): 57-72.

European Commission. Europeans, Science and Technology. Eurobarometer 55.2 Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2001.

Falk, John H. & Lynn D. Dierking. Learning From Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000.

Falk, John H. & Lynn D. Dierking. "Learning from Science Centers: A Broader Perspective." ASTC Dimensions (January/February 2001).

Falk, John H. "The Contribution of Free-Choice Learning to Public Understanding of Science." Interciencia (27): 62-65.

Friedman, Alan. "They're Having Fun — But Are They Learning Anything?" Forum on Education of the American Physical Society (Spring 2001).
(Reprinted with permission of the Parents League of New York, Inc.)

Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years. Invited Address, American Educational Research Association, April 2003.

Garnett, Robin. The Impact of Science Centers/Museums on their Surrounding Communities: Summary Report (PDF). International Science Centre Steering Group, 2002.
A study commissioned in 2001 by an informal group of 13 science centers and conducted by Robin Garnett (2002) at Questacon, Canberra, Australia, pulled together 180 reports of completed research on the outcomes of visits to science centers. Of these, 87% focus on aspects of "personal impact," defined as "the change that occurs in an individual as a result of his/her contact with a science center." Included are science learning, changed attitudes to science, social experience, career directions, increased professional expertise, and personal enjoyment.

Hawkey, R. "Learning with Digital Technologies in Museums, Science Centres and Galleries." Report 9: NESTA Futurelab Series. London: National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, 2004.

Hein, George E. Learning in the Museum. London & New York: Routledge, 1998.

Kolb, D.A. et al. "Experiential Learning Theory: Previous Research and New Directions." Eds. R.J. Sternberg & L.F. Zhang. Perspectives on Cognitive, Learning, and Thinking Styles. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000.

References and links. "Museums, Libraries and Archives." United Kingdom.

Inspiration, Identity, Learning: The Value of Museums. London: National/Regional Museum Education Partnerships, 2004.
The full research can be downloaded from:

OST/Wellcome Trust. Science and the Public: a Review of Science Communication and Public Attitudes to Science in Britain. London: Wellcome Trust, 2000.

Perry, W. G. "Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning." Eds. A. W. Chickering and Associates. The Modern American College: Responding to the New Realities of Diverse Students and a Changing Society. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1981.

Persson, Per-Edvin. "Community Impact of Science Centers: Is there Any?" Curator: The Museum Journal, 43 (2000): 9-18.

POST (2002) Public Dialogue on Science & Technology. Postnote Number 189. London: Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, November 2002.

POST (2004) Handling Uncertainty in Scientific Advice. Postnote Number 220. London: Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, June 2004.

Sharples, M. Disruptive Devices: Personal Technologies and Education. (PDF). Inaugural Lecture of the Kodak/Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Educational Technology. University of Birmingham, UK, 2000.

Stocklmayer, S. M., M. M. Gore, and C. Bryant, eds. Science Communication in Theory and Practice. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001.

Trench, Brian & Kirk Junker. How Scientists View Their Public Communication. (Word Document). Paper presented to the Sixth International Conference on Public Communication of Science and Technology, Geneva, February 2001.

Williams, D. & C. Wavell. The Impact of the School Library Resource Centre on Learning. Aberdeen: The Robert Gordon University for Resource/The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, 2001.

Wilson, J. & R. Willis. See-Through Science: Why Public Engagement Needs to Move Upstream. London: Demos, 2004.

Witschey, Walter. "Many Roles to Play: The Science Center as Community Powerhouse." ASTC Dimensions (January/February 2001).


Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS).
A formal/free-choice research program developed jointly by the Exploratorium, the University of California Santa Cruz, and Kings College London, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The Library Advocate's Handbook (PDF). American Library Association, 2000.

Arts Advocacy: Tips and Strategies for Artists, Arts Organizations, Board Members and Cultural Supporters. Canada Council for the Arts, 2004.

The detailed research carried out by the Visitor Studies Association, included in the collected papers of Hood (2002).

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