That's edutainment!

Museums are in danger of becoming too like theme parks in their attempts to attract children. Bethan Marshall reports

For "an earth-shattering experience ... travel on an escalator through the centre of a huge revolving globe ... on a voyage of discovery that will take you from the depths of the earth's molten core to the peaks of its highest mountains." No, this is not Disney World but the new, eagerly awaited Earth Galleries at the Natural History Museum in London. Its director, Dr Neil Chalmers, describes them as "blending education with entertainment". But is this spectacular entrance hall just the museum's attempt to get the punters through the gate, in order to survive in an ever more competitive leisure market, or is the idea of entertainment essential to the way people learn in a museum?

"Edutainment", a phrase first coined to describe CD-Roms, computer games and simulations, has recently been broadened to include theme parks, which introduce a smattering of education in with the fun. Mickey Mouse's ninth commandment "One ounce of treatment - ton of treat" makes plain the opposition between education and entertainment in the theme park. Several spoonfuls of sugar are needed to help the medicine go down.

At the heart of the debate about the direction in which many major museums appear to be going is the unease that they have swallowed Mickey's message, and are somehow sacrificing learning to make their exhibits palatable to an ever more demanding public. It is a question that those involved in museum education are asking themselves.

At the annual conference of European collaborative of science industry and technical exhibitors last year, Dr Alan Friedman, the curator of the New York hall of science, was so concerned to address the controversy that he gave a paper on the need for museums to differentiate between themselves and theme parks or commercial science centres. In his speech he argued that part of the confusion lies in the false dichotomy that theme parks have set up between education and entertainment. They operate on the idea that these two elements are at the opposite end of a continuum. Museums, he contends, need to view them as operating on two different axes, where it is important to be educated yet have fun at the same time.

The principle of entertaining and educating, and the controversy it provokes, go back a long way. In 1931, the Science Museum in London opened the first-ever children's gallery, and while the Sunday Times described it as "a playground at once amusing and illuminating," the museums' journal, in the April of that year observed nervously: "We could not help fearing that all this may be going too far and not quite in the right direction."

Gillian Thomas, the current assistant-director of project development at the Science Museum, is confident that they have the balance right. "It is a mistake to assume that learning in museums is the same as in schools. The experience is more like reading a newspaper: they're something you dip in and out of rather than learning in a set sequence." The fact that they are not school rooms is important to the experience. "Visiting a museum is a social event. You learn through the conversations you have about the exhibits. Our job is to give people the means to have those conversations effectively. We need to provide information but we also want to provoke people into asking questions."

Roy Hawkey, head of education of the Natural History Museum, agrees. He sees learning, and particularly science education, "as a process of inquiry rather than the receipt of knowledge. What we aim to do is stimulate people's interest, to capture their imaginations, so that they find out what it is they want to know more about. Enjoying the visit is part of the process. You can't really create an educational experience that you don't enjoy. A museum that was totally inaccessible and had no visitors would have no justification."

His aims are not that different from those of Legoland, on the edge of Windsor, which seeks to stimulate learning through play. The activities are intended for children between the ages of two and 12, and almost all of them are designed to be manipulated by the youngsters themselves. Whether in the Dacta technology workshops, where children can build their own computer-driven Lego models, in the musical squares that they can jump on to make tunes, in the towers that they can build to see if buildings withstand earthquakes, or the chance to pan for pirate gold, children ask the questions.

In this respect the park is closer to a museum than to a theme park. Again, according to Dr Friedman, one of the key differences between theme parks and museums is "who manipulates whom". In the latter the visitor is an active participant, while in the former his or her role is passive and the park effectively manipulates the response. Certainly, the experience for a child in Legoland may be very similar to, and just as educational as, in the Natural History or Science Museum.

Yet the earth galleries allow different levels of involvement. As visitors experience a simulated earthquake in a Japanese shop, a screen shows the real events from the store security camera. The text describes the ways in which seismologists, and the museum itself, used the information from the recordings to learn about the nature of the earthquake. The "ride" is a reminder that museums are also the home of academic research.

As the leisure industry moves increasingly into the education market and public finances are squeezed tighter, the questions about "edutainment" and what learning, if any, is an offer, will always be relevant.

Perhaps the real danger signs that museums have sold out to a commercial market will not be a spectacular entrance hall, or more hands-on exhibits, but when they present only one point of view. As Roy Hawkey explains, "We want to contribute to a culture of learning, of learning how to learn rather than simply to present information. Asking informed questions is, perhaps, the hallmark of education."

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College, London.

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