Intern Hattie McLean has taken the Norman Rockwell Museum by storm this summer! A gifted young scholar from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, she has immersed herself in life in the education department, from working with school and camp groups to assisting with special programs for all ages. “Being at the Norman Rockwell Museum has inspired me to explore ideas I’ve developed while studying the artwork here, giving school group tours, working with outreach students and observing the museum environment,” she has commented. Her blog, which appears below, offers fascinating insights into her experience.  Thank you, Hattie!


Norman Rockwell Museum intern Hattie McLean. Photo ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.

Learning through the Arts: Experiential Learning and Museum Education 

Today, art education ranks low in the increasingly standardized turf of education instigated by government programs that prioritize tests, lecturing and “college readiness”. Amid this lack of support for art—an enriching, communicative learning tool—educational programs through centers like museums remain ever important in sustaining access to art for students. Through such institutions, experiential learning best allows students to develop as critical, imaginative thinkers.

Learning through the arts, whether through music, dance, fine art or theater, results in a better, wholesome educational experience for students. Various studies demonstrate that involvement in art helps students improve visual analysis skills, think creatively and learn from mistakes, among many other benefits. Expectedly, the public typically agrees that students’ exposure to art is beneficial. But despite the general approval, art programs fail to get the real backing they need when competing for funding with other school programs or subjects whose progress, marked by superfluous state and nation-wide tests, determines the ranking of schools. Even schemes like the No Child Left Behind Act, which designates art as a core academic subject, fails to shore up support for the arts. Art funding outside the educational sphere isn’t strong, either—government funding for the arts has decreased by 18 percent since 2008 (Stubbs). In light of this unfortunate trend, places like museums that bear opportunities to learn through art must be preserved.

Museums provide resources for art education when other institutions cannot. But there’s more to the type of learning they can offer, like supporting thought that doesn’t develop as naturally in other spaces like schools. Marit Dewhurst, the Associate Educator for Teen Programs at the Museum of Modern Art, states: “Since art has long been a site for influencing or instigating social change, I think it makes perfect sense that young people can learn about how other artists have impacted society throughout history, while also learning how to use those same creative tools themselves” (Zwicky). This kind of mindset exemplifies the best possible approach to museum education—the creation of available programs that build opportunities for students to learn and understand how art and society connect. When that connection is acknowledged, exposure to art can open conversation about related contemporary issues or events, leading to a general expansion of cultural awareness in students. In this way, museums have the opportunity to benefit both the students they educate and the general public—George Hein, a leading scholar and influence on museum education, quotes: “For me, the question is not just, “does the museum engage in educational practice?” but rather, “does it engage in progressive educational activities that are connected to improving society?” (Portner).

Museums, as intersections between art and the world, also create opportunities to learn interactively, or as the education reformer John Dewey would call it, “learning by doing” (Gentry 9-20). Thinking critically about art or other art forms then expressing and acting on those thoughts offers perhaps the most effective way to learn, more so than lectures or memorization. Attempts to integrate interactive learning in museums can be seen in the upsurge of responsive technology-clad exhibitions and kid-friendly group tours, even in fine arts museums where opportunities to learn hands-on may be restricted. Ever-present limitations and barriers between visitors and artwork in museums seem to highlight the value of museum education programs, which generally allot students more freedom to explore and reflect than available in a formal museum setting during, for example, a typical lecture-style tour. Effort by museums to create engaging rather than passive learning experiences reflects the worth and attraction of interactive learning.

Auxiliary museum education opportunities such as outreach programs further typify the most exemplary breed of museum education. For communities that can be enlivened by exposure to art, outreach programs have potential to provide learned experiences for students, which often introduce or prompt future interests in classes or other groups. After-school programs through museums may include anything from writing about artwork to creating art, offering real-world connections between museum exhibitions and passions students might carry outside the classroom. Through programs such as these students have the freedom to express themselves creatively, learning along the way that there is often more than one solution or approach to a problem.

Learning through the arts offers a valuable way to gain knowledge. Museums prove the most consistent in defending this claim— despite the decline of federal support, museums spend more than two billion dollars per year on education nationwide (“American Alliance of Museums”). While not all these institutions are devoted solely to the arts, the message remains clear: museums provide important educational resources for students. When they can provide opportunities to learn experientially, the resources become even more significant. The arts enrich lives, impel the development of important skills, and provoke new ways of thinking. They should be an integral component of any student’s education.


Works Cited


Gentry, James. Guide to Business Gaming and Experiential Learning. 9-20. Web. < is Experiential Learning.pdf>.


“Museum Facts.” American Alliance of Museums n.pag. Web. 12 Jun 2013. <>.


Portner, Jessica. “The Museum as Classroom: Q&A with Guest Scholar George Hein .” Getty. (2011): n. page. Print. <>.


Stubbs, Ryan. “Public Funding for the Arts: 2012 Update.” Grant makers in The Arts. (2012): n. page. Web. 11 Jun. 2013. <>.


Zwicky, Calder. ” My Life in Museums: The Importance of Community Outreach and Teen Programs.” The Museum of Modern Art, 15/03/2010. Web. 7 Jun 2013.