‘Seeing it for real?…?’—Authenticity, theatre and learning in museums

Jackson, A., & Leahy, H. R. (2005). ‘Seeing it for real?…?’—Authenticity, theatre and learning in museums. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 10(3), 303 - 325.

Abstract:

Researchers used a naturalistic and case study model to examine and compare the museum theater-based and non-theater -based learning experiences of students in two United Kingdom history museums: the People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester and the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London. Specifically, the researchers investigated whether and how museum theater experiences enhanced children’s understanding and recall of historical narratives, along with students’ ability to make connections and relate personally to historical events. Eight classes of ten and eleven year old students from varying economic and geographical backgrounds participated in the study. Four classes experienced museum theater, a short dramatic performance or interactive drama experience at a museum that is intended to facilitate understanding of the museum content, while the other four classes participated in other hands-on learning experiences during museum visits. The researchers collected qualitative data through student and teacher interviews, student artwork and writing, and observation records. Findings indicate that museum theater can enhance students’ ability to remember content and help students make personal connections to and empathize with subject matter. However, museum theater can also narrow student conceptions of an overall historic period.

Key Findings:

Active participation in role-playing and museum theater events contributed to students’ increased engagement with and recall of museum content. Students also demonstrated personal connections with subject matter and cited that enjoying the museum theater or role-playing experience helped them to learn.

Students in the museum theater group had more vivid recall and showed a more empathetic grasp of information when it was presented to them in the theater narrative. In contrast, the non-theater groups had a harder time remembering and piecing together the elements of their museum visit and the information presented to them, especially two months after the museum visit.

Students in the museum theater group displayed a better ability to empathize with experiences from the museum’s period of focus, often by identifying with the characters they encountered at the museums, than did the other students. Museum theater students expressed that learning from a character made information about the period easier to remember and many felt a personal connection to the performers. However, in some cases the use of characters to relay information inhibited museum theater students’ abilities to make connections with the broader picture, and more students in the non-theater group were able to link their museum activities to a larger historical understanding.

Significance of the Findings:

The findings suggest that the use of theater and role-play within the museum setting can be an effective means through which educators can facilitate particular types of learning and affective experiences. In particular, museum theater appears to enhance personal connections, students’ empathy with historical figures and recall of subject matter. At the same time, there is a downside to the use of museum theater; it may narrow student conceptions of an overall historic period.

Methodology:

In order to determine benefits and outcomes of various museum-based learning methods, researchers tracked the experiences of eight classes of ten and eleven year old students who visited one of two history museums in Manchester and London, United Kingdom. Researchers took a qualitative naturalistic approach to this study, and therefore did not alter pre-established museum experiences in any way.

Before visiting the museums, students took part in teacher-led class discussions. During their visits some of the classes experienced museum theater while the other classes experienced alternative forms of learning activities. The theater programs at both museums were similar in that they both used single character storytelling in the museum setting (not in an auditorium setting with a stage and rows of chairs). Students in the non-theater group participated in role-play, listened to broadcasts, and learned how to manufacture boxes, or studied a model house.

The researchers employed semi-structured group interviews and drawing and writing activities following the museum visits to determine students’ recall of information and feelings regarding the visit. They also conducted observations and teacher interviews. Researchers refined the interview protocol and conducted follow up interviews two months later to assess the longevity of the museum learning. Researchers categorized student interpreted responses based on experience, recall, understanding, connections, surprise, ownership and empathy, and inspiration.

Limitations of the Research:

This study looked at the museum-based education practices specific to two particular history museums. Therefore, findings may not generalize to other museum theater practices or types of museums. Also, it is difficult to determine students for whom these findings generalize; although the researchers share the age of student participants (ten and eleven) and note that they were from varying economic and geographic backgrounds, there is little detailed participant or school background information provided. The use of a pre-museum lesson on the same information presented in the museum visit and pre-and post-test assessments would provide a clearer picture of the museum visit’s impact on recall and engagement with the subject matter.

Questions to Guide New Research:

To what extent are the findings of this study replicated when other museum contexts and other samples are considered? How does museum theater affect long-term retention of information and understanding? Why does museum theater narrow students’ conceptions of an historic period and how if at all, can this be avoided?