Learning is one of life’s great adventures. The discovery that there is more to the world then one originally perceived is at once a truly humbling and incredibly empowering experience. Museums, regardless of their content or intended audience, foster this experience. They create spaces that engage visitors with new images, objects, experiences and ideas and allow for them to be discovered at each individual’s own pace. Driven by their own interest, visitors to museums are free to go where they please. They can linger when they are intrigued, hurry past what doesn’t catch their eye and take a break when they’re feeling tired. This freedom cultivates the self-motivation that drives lifelong learning and makes museums an integral part of any well-rounded education.
The concept of free-choice learning has a counterpart, which is quickly gaining traction in our industry: hands on learning. While this idea may be more evident in science centers and children’s museums, even art museums where the primary focus is on objects that cannot be touched are incorporating tactile interactive exhibits. A good example is the Wonder Room found in the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity. Here visitors can build a blanket fort, carefully assemble and balance a mobile or rearrange animal models to create never-before-seen creatures. Why are informal learning centers so keen on the concept of hands on? It is the logical next step to free-choice learning. There is great deal that people can learn and understand from static graphics, text and video, but there is something very special about manipulating a physical object. Real objects provide feedback as diverse as the world itself and allow for experimentation in way that static exhibits cannot. The physicality of hands-on interactives give people tools to explore the real world and this coupled with the openness of a free-choice environment creates experiences that are intensely personal. These are the kind of experiences that create memories and learning.