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Science you can feel - how authentic objects and hands-on museum exhibits impact learning

Title: Science museum educators’ views on object-based learning: The perceived importance of authenticity and touch

Author(s) and Year: Tirsa de Kluis, Sanne Romp, and Anne M. Land-Zandstra, 2023

Journal: Public Understanding of Science (Open Access)


TL;DR: Science museums typically include interactive exhibits and authentic artifacts, but how do these impact learning? This study profiles science museum educators and their opinions on access to touchable and/or authentic objects, with the majority agreeing that object-based learning positively impacts visitor experiences.

Why I chose this paper: Some of my earliest science-related memories are from museum visits, fostering my interest in science from dinosaurs to mummies. I have also volunteered at my local science center as an educator and this paper made me want to know more about how to best use hands-on activities for science communication.


Ahh, the infamous science museum field trip - odds are if you had one of these buildings within your city, you can still recall that exciting day full of dinosaur bones, tornado simulators, and planetarium shows. However, identifying exactly why certain exhibits resonate more strongly with visitors remains a mystery. Science communication researchers at Leiden University (Netherlands) sought to find out if authenticity and touchable exhibits were key to visitors’ learning experiences.

The Details

Science museums serve as a learning center for visitors of all ages, with many hands-on educational activities and exhibits. Historically, however, science museums were not so interactive- with visitors often standing at a distance and only able to passively look. This is still the norm for prestigious art collections, but science museums have since shifted to housing a number of engaging exhibits. The authors of this study identified two main aspects of science museums that impact visitor engagement and learning: authenticity of the objects and tactile interaction.

Authenticity, according to the authors, has many criteria with “authentic objects” having one of the following aspects: (1) originates from nature, (2) has a long history, (3) is unique, or (4) has belonged to a famous or important person. Replicas, in contrast, would be considered copies of authentic objects.

Tactile interaction, or being able to touch and handle objects, has been shown to increase interest and understanding in science education. Moreover, research has demonstrated that museum visitors retain more of what they learn if they were allowed to interact with the exhibit.

The authors stress that successful learning experiences are influenced by museum educators who often run demonstrations. In light of this, they aimed to answer the following question: “What is the perspective of science museum educators on the role of authentic objects and replicas on visitors’ learning experiences during educational activities?” This study investigated the opinions of science museum educators on authentic objects and tactile interaction during visitor experiences.

The Methods

Using a mixed-methods approach, the authors surveyed and interviewed science museum educators to generate quantitative and qualitative data. In total, 49 surveys and 12 interviews were anonymously conducted with European museum educators.

Data was analyzed through either descriptive statistics (i.e. percentages) for multiple choice survey questions or coding for more open-ended responses. Detailed interview and survey code guidelines are outlined in the study’s supplemental material.

The Results

Most of the educators had differing interpretations of what it meant for an object to be authentic, even compared to the definition first given by the authors (outlined in “The Details” section above). Overall, most of the interviewees stressed the importance of labeling objects in exhibits as authentic or a replica to avoid misinforming visitors; i.e. somebody may believe that dinosaur skeletons are always found as a complete set rather than many of the bones being stand-in replicas. As outlined in Figure 1, many surveyed educators believe that using authentic objects in museum lessons or activities can be more exciting for visitors. Interestingly, interviewed educators also noted that no matter authentic or replica, what really matters is the story with which the object is presented. Surveyed educators find replicas beneficial in instances where visitors can touch the object that they usually would not be able to interact with. This idea of using touch to enhance learning ties into the second theme of this study, tactile interaction.

A bar graph displaying questions on the left asked to museum educators and their response counts, to the right of each respective question. From left to right, the numbers represent the number of surveyed educators that totally agree, agree, feel neutral, disagree, or totally disagree with the question on the left.
Figure 1: Opinions of museum educators on using authentic objects vs. replicas during educational activities.

When asked questions about the effect of touch on the learning experience, All of the surveyed educators agreed that museum visitors are more excited by a lesson when they are allowed to touch objects (Figure 2).Most also believed that visitors can learn more from this sort of tactile experience. Interviewed educators agreed with the above statements on touch, but offered different explanations as to why this can improve learning - visitors get to use multiple senses and may feel like they were scientists themselves. Plus, interacting with exhibits could increase the accessibility for visitors with different learning preferences or disabilities.

A bar graph displaying questions on the left asked to museum educators and their response counts, to the right of each respective question. From left to right, the numbers represent the number of surveyed educators that totally agree, agree, feel neutral, disagree, or totally disagree with the question on the left.
Figure 2: Opinions of museum educators on touching objects during educational activities.

The Impact

The main goal of this study was to determine if museum educators find that authentic and/or touchable exhibits impact visitors’ learning experiences. Overall, surveyed educators agreed that authentic objects in the museum’s collection can enhance the visitor experience. However, they also felt that replicas are just as insightful so long as the educator pairs it with a compelling story. Science communicators can relate to this form of learning, as many articles utilize anecdotes and/or analogies to increase reader comprehension.

While displaying authentic objects has been shown to increase museum visitor engagement, this study also revealed that touching these objects boosts learning. The hands-on aspect allows visitors to really immerse themselves in the science. My own science museum field trips would not have been as memorable or fun if I didn’t hold a piece of a meteor or feel the rush of static electricity.

Science communicators do not typically have access to the authentic objects found in museums, but using props and/or hands-on activities when interacting directly with the public could similarly enhance their message. Interactive lessons have been shown to spark new questions and increase learning success versus passively reading a textbook or sitting in a lecture. With this in mind, science communicators should consider offering activities adjacent to verbal teaching when the opportunity presents itself.

Edited by Sam Ridgeway and Niveen Abi-Ghannam

Cover image credit: Pexels - Marcio Skull


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