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EducationLearning: Theory and Practice
The Importance of Place
by Rob Semper

While learning is often thought to be a process of the mind, much of what actually occurs during the learning process is predicated by features of the learner’s environment. The variety of stimuli, the social aspect of the setting, the spatial context, and even the amount of ambient light and sound all affect the learning experience. Even the external architecture of the building sends a strong message about visitor expectations.

Yet museum exhibit spaces tend to be designed (if they are designed at all) by architects who dwell on the large and sculptural or by interior designers who focus on the small and detailed. Museum buildings often contain grand halls, sweeping vistas, and interconnected exhibit spaces with little thought as to their educational functionality. What is missing in these designs is an emphasis on the conviviality of the entire public space as it relates to learning.

The need to develop a better understanding of the relationship between space and learning became apparent to me when the Exploratorium began contemplating extending its public floor space with new construction. Over the years people have had critical comments, both positive and negative, about the cavernous space in the Palace of Fine Arts. The museum staff has had an ongoing discussion about how the building has shaped the museum’s overall development. As we contemplated new construction, I began to ask myself which of the current features of our exhibit floor were critical to preserve and which were incidental and unimportant or even destructive to the educational experience.

My personal interest in the effect of space on learning stems not only from my work as a physicist, exhibit builder, media developer, and science educator but also from an early career in theater as a lighting designer. Theater is about spatial storytelling, and theater design makes significant use of all of the environmental features at its disposal. The formal use of physical space to tell a story or set a mood is old hat to theater directors. It was the potential for dramatic educational storytelling that brought me to museums in the first place.

These experiences led me to ask the following question: What is it about the physical setup of a museum’s exhibit space that is integral to the learning experience?

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A case study
A number of years ago, the Exploratorium was asked to create a temporary exhibition for a museum in Paris. The exhibition consisted of 60 light, color, and visual perception exhibits with associated topical area signs. A local designer prepared an initial floor plan for the Exploratorium’s exhibition in Paris, and when we arrived to install the exhibition we were surprised to find the exhibits laid out in very neat U-shaped rows, one row for each of the eight topics of the exhibition such as refraction and reflection. Each row radiated from a central spine, which was flanked by the area explanation signs. The exhibits all faced the same way in the U, and the visitor was expected to walk down one side of the U and back up the other side before going on to the next subject.

In a very real sense we were confronted by a design that was a book on the floor with the table of contents forming the physical as well as intellectual spine. The design felt very directive and unappealing to us. Since this layout was alien to what we felt the exhibition experience should be, based on our work at the Exploratorium, we engaged in a dialogue with the designer about what we began to call the Cartesian Room. After some compromises and some midnight furniture shuffling, we were able to rearrange exhibits enough to allow some undirected browsing.

This experience stimulated me to think more deeply about how space design affects behavior. I (along with much of the rest of the world) have always been charmed by the city of Paris; much of that charm, I believe, is due to its urban geography. As cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall points out in The Hidden Dimension (1966), unlike American cities like New York or San Francisco with their rectilinear grid of streets running east-west and avenues running north-south, Paris has a varied streetscape defined by centralized points and radiating neighborhoods. San Francisco has such a strong street grid pattern that from the map you would hardly suspect that the city is very hilly, a fact that you soon discover if you try to walk from one place to another. These different street systems lead to completely different navigational behavior and a different sense of environment on the part of the inhabitants.

As I reflected on this exhibition, I was struck by the irony that whereas exhibition design at the Exploratorium in the best case replicates to some extent the style of the streetscapes of Paris, the exhibition design in Paris mirrored the more rectilinear streetscape of San Francisco with its precision of layout and its connection by a metric. Somehow the conviviality of the Parisian cityscape did not extend into this exhibit environment. It was just not an inviting place to be.

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The interior of the Exploratorium is, like Paris, a space formed by association. In its ideal design, there are centralized large and dramatic icon exhibits, which define the overall space, and a set of smaller exhibits, which form a thematic neighborhood. A series of main roads connect the major icons. The exhibits are juxtaposed at many angles to each other, creating a personally scaled neighborhood radiating out from the central space. The paths between exhibits get to be crooked and tight just like the back streets of a town.

The Exploratorium light section contains areas on refraction, reflection, diffraction, polarization, and so on. The exhibits and areas blend into one another in a manner that allows visitors to make connections between exhibits and between observations in one area and another. Because the design of the space does not force a single visitation path, visitors are encouraged to follow their own road map, thereby increasing the potential for them to make personally relevant discoveries. The space design supports a strong inquiry-based experience by providing the richness and flexibility that naturally create the opportunity for visitors to develop their own questions based on their own agendas.

The Parisian exhibition design, on the other hand, presented the exhibits in a sequential curriculum, and I suspect that it mirrored the way that science was taught to the designer in school. It was a layout that minimized free association and maximized logical sequencing. It was a design that was teacher (designer) centered not learner (visitor) centered. And it was a space that fostered isolation rather than group activity.

This experience reinforced for me the notion that the design of the spatial environment plays a significant role in the facilitation of learning in exhibitions. But what is actually known about how space and learning are related? How does the physical and social design of environments such as the classroom, the home, the workplace, the museum, the botanical garden, or the zoo affect the learning process?

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The influence of the spatial environment on learning
Research on the effect of the design of space on learning is much less developed than other investigations in learning theory. Some research results can be found in the relatively recently developed field of environmental psychology, which studies people’s interactions with their sociophysical surroundings. Some specific research has been done on the effects of space on learning in more formal settings such as classrooms and playspaces. Additional clues come from the accumulated wisdom of behavioral anthropologists, environmental architects, and urban designers who study how people utilize real spaces as part of their design process. In many cases, the link between issues of space and aspects of learning is somewhat indirect,that is, the effect of space on behavior is known, and since the connection between behavior and learning is somewhat understood, the relationship between space and learning can be potentially deduced.

Environmental psychology
The first lesson of environmental psychology is the need to treat individuals as active participants in their world. Rather than consider individuals as objects in a fixed setting, environmental psychology presents the case for the study of the dynamic interaction between individuals and their environment, with each having an effect on the other. Proshansky, Ittelson, and Rivlin (1976) provide a compendium of the field at the time in the words of the principal players, a view that has not significantly changed since then. In their book they set out their theory concerning individuality and behavior in the physical setting. It makes the case that "the individual in most instances is an aroused and active organism who defines, interprets, and searches his physical environment for relevant ways of achieving his goals." And, most importantly:

The individual attempts to organize his physical environment so that it maximizes his freedom of choice.B Whatever the primary purpose that brings the individual to a given physical setting, the setting must not only have the capacity to satisfy the primary need and other relevant subsidiary needs, but it must also allow for goal satisfactions that are only remotely related to the major purpose.B Any physical setting that provides many alternatives for the satisfaction of a primary purpose and the satisfaction of related and unrelated subsidiary purposes obviously provides considerable freedom of choice.

Learning is an active enterprise which is supported by providing the learner with the chance to ask relevant questions and make meaningful choices. Different users will have different goals for their experiences, which therefore requires the existence of a variety of alternative settings. Good learning environments are inherently "messy," providing a wide set of choices and options that give learners opportunities to create their own order out of a variety of elements. For museums, this translates into the need to be aware of the diversity of interests and expectations of our visitors and to provide a variety of ways to satisfy these interests. For museum spaces, this can imply providing easy visual access to much of the entire environment so that individuals can organize their own pathways through the exhibitions.

Our experience of space is determined by both personal and cultural expectations. Anthropologist Edward Hall has been a pioneer in studying how people perceive space in different context and cultures. In The Hidden Dimension, Hall (1966) discusses such issues as distance regulation in animals and humans; our perception of space using our visual, aural, and tactile senses; and how attitudes about space vary with different cultures.

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In museums, complex relationships among people as well as between people and objects determine the efficacy of the learning experience. While The Hidden Dimension does not discuss museum environments or education explicitly, Hall’s review of the features of personal interaction between acquaintances and strangers and his cross-cultural studies help provide clues to what is happening in our institutions.

Robert Sommer, another early pioneer in the field of environmental psychology, makes a strong case that far from following the dictum that "form follows function," space designers and architects of our public spaces show a preoccupation with form alone. To break this cycle, he argues that designers must understand the complex human needs that affect the use of space. Sommer began his study of the effect of space on behavior when he was asked to critique a failed design for an elderly women’s ward at a state hospital. His book discusses what is generally known about the social use of space (albeit based on the conventional wisdom of the 1960s) and then examines the use of four specific types of spaces: hospitals, schools, taverns, and dormitories. In Personal Space, Sommer (1969) discusses such issues as human dominant/submissive behavior, social distance, personal ownership of space, and small group ecology as well as experiments with the manipulation of space to study changes in behavior.

Museums are not hospitals, schools, taverns, or dormitories (at least not intentionally), but many of the features of these public spaces have direct parallels in the museum exhibit environment. While Sommer is concerned primarily with the effect of space on human behavior and vice versa, and not explicitly with the effect of space on learning, the connection of learning to the social environment and to the personal comfort of the learner provides the essential bridge between the two. Sommer discusses the effect of what he calls personalization of space including personal distance, social crowding, meeting behavior, and the effect of lighting, sound, and spatial location on human behavior. This personalization of space is a prerequisite for establishing a supportive environment for learner-centered inquiry. For museum designers, an understanding of these social dynamics provides strong clues to the design of a successful exhibition space.

Space and cognitive development
There have been few studies of the relationship between the environment and cognitive development. Focused primarily on the design of day care centers, Spaces for Children: The Built Environment and Child Development reviews the research that has been done on young children and space, including the effect of school classroom and playspace design on cognition (Weinstein and David 1987). While the data is still somewhat sketchy, there is a clearly developing consensus on design issues that affect cognitive development. For example, it is clear that the opportunity to explore rich, varied environments appears related to cognitive, social, and motor development in young children. Physical spaces designed for children must meet the need for social interaction as well as preserving the possibility of privacy.

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In one of the articles in Spaces for Children, Gary Moore reviews what is known about the relationship between space and young children’s cognitive development. This includes a discussion of the results of the study of the open-plan schools that were introduced in the 1960s. One result seems to suggest, for example, that exploratory behavior in young children is significantly more apparent in environments that are made up of visually connected discrete spaces rather than environments that are either completely contained or completely open. Children naturally oscillate in a process of extending their interests into new areas and withdrawing into more contained space for consolidating ideas. This work verifies much of what good museum environment designers have known intuitively concerning the good design of exhibitions. The provision of large-scale views along with intimate environments leads to a space that is enjoyable and intriguing.

Environmental design
The public-space environment of museums has much more in common with the design of urban settings than that of building interiors, and museum designers may have much more to gain from talking to urban planners than to architects and interior designers. The practitioners of design become keen observers of how we use and view space.

Paying attention to our experience of space can teach us a lot about how space works. Tony Hiss (1990) reminds us of the hidden as well as the visible impact that the design of space can have on our lives and on our experiences. Subtle aspects of design can change our experiences dramatically. Hiss also points out that our experience of space is dynamic because of our own movement as well as the influence of others. Much of what he describes as important features of outdoor space applies to interior public space as well. The design of a space can clearly affect the way that we experience the elements within it. Exhibits do not function on their own, but rather are part of a spatial tapestry that includes their neighbors, distant exhibits, and the physical space itself.

For example, transitions in the density of visual stimuli can serve to punctuate a visit and provide opportunities for a shift in thinking. Hiss discusses the experience of walking through a tunnel in a park in Brooklyn. The period of passage in the tunnel with its lack of distractions allows time for reflecting, consolidating ideas, and resting the peripheral vision. On emerging from the tunnel, one’s vision is then stimulated anew. The effect is to refresh the visual system and to overcome the natural course of visual habituation.

William Whyte is an urban planning consultant and a keen observer of human life in the city. Starting in the late 1960s, he began to study the street life of New York and other cities using field recording, time-lapse films, and interviews to determine how and why people behave the way they do in cities. His work formed the basis for substantial modifications of zoning laws for cities as well as an experimental basis for understanding public behavior in public spaces. His work provides interesting insights into museum visitor behavior, including what makes space attractive to people.

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In City, Whyte (1988) points out the features that make us like certain settings and dislike others,features like movable chairs, food, entertainment, and even a "mayor" of the space, a person who provides help and information. His dictum that "people go where people are" provides the key to good public space design. Whyte observed that people are interested in peripheral participation in activities, providing a clue that design of educational spaces should allow for lurking, or looking over the shoulders of other visitors. This brings to mind the familiar museum visitor practice of copying the way the previous visitor uses an exhibit,natural behavior that should be accommodated by the exhibit, and a form of apprenticeship, perhaps, that is a key aspect of educational design.

A careful study of why certain public places are more appealing and comfortable than others can lead to useful tips for museum space designers. For further reading on this subject, Public Space, by Carr, Francis, Rivlin, and Stone (1992), provides a rich series of successful examples of parks and squares that are inviting and functional.

The perception of a space has a lot to do with how we function within it. Kevin Lynch (1966) was a strong proponent of paying attention to something he called the legibility of space, that is "the ease with which its parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern." The critical feature for comprehension of a space is the visible existence of an overall frame with some major organizing elements, or landmarks, to provide touchstones. It is this legibility that makes it possible for us to feel that we can explore an unfamiliar space without getting lost. These same rules apply to our comprehension of ideas. For developing an educational space like an exhibit hall, this idea translates into the need for creation of space with a visible framework that orients visitors to the physical as well as the conceptual space. Landmark exhibits whose form helps to reinforce their function can help to provide structure to a space as well as a conceptual outline of the subject. The visitor’s mental map of the space can then begin to form the core of an internal conceptual framework.

Conclusion
The entire architectural package of a museum, from the outside building design to the interior color scheme, plays a role in visitors’ intellectual approach to the exhibits. Since the unique feature of a museum is its public exhibit space, it is critical that museum developers appreciate the potential linkages between space and learning if they are to create exciting and provocative educational spaces in their facilities.

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