Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

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One of the most poignant discussions in the museum world, has been on issues of inclusion and access. Prolific museum figures like Nina Simon presenting in the recent Museum Next Conference in London, shared the vision behind OFBYFOR ALL, a new global initiative to help civic and cultural organisations become OF, BY, and FOR their communities. However, what is it that can help take the next step in terms of inclusion and learning within and out of museum grounds? 

This article draws on a doctoral research study to investigate museum’s democratic potential, through transformative approaches to pedagogy aimed at meaningful cultural participation.

Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

The ‘meaningful’, stands for a degree of competence in reading, interpreting and constructing meaning from the existing multiple forms of language (Stapp, 1984: 112; Mitchell, 2007: 3). ‘Participation’ involves an ability to negotiate the complex dialogic relationship that exists between the written word, the spoken word, images, objects, time and space (Mathewson-Mitchell, 2007: 3).

Consideration of issues of access in relation to the significant literacy requirements of museums, suggests that increasing focus on the explicit teaching of museum-based literacies, could be the way through which to expand museum visiting opportunities for the less 'conventional' audience.

It is actually proposed that museum-based literacies could act as the means to the development of cultural competence in museum environments. This evolution in theory and practice of, and about museums, has been notably part of radical changes in the museum world since the 1970s, mostly known as new museology.

Museums as Agents of Change

The development of a “new museology” (Mayrand, 1985: 201), is a concept used to describe the focus on the potential of museums as a positive social force. Golding (2009) suggests the museums should act as frontiers, places where learning and identity are produced and developed for all, while new ‘bridges’ are raised between non-dominant communities and their own histories (Philip, 1992 in Golding 2009).

Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

It became profound that if museums accept their educational role, “they must also accept their social responsibility to work towards supporting a participatory democratic society” (Hein, 2005: 50). We need to “take advantage of the current context, as ‘opening new educational and social possibilities’ (Cope and Kalantzis, 2000: 18), to promote democratic education and human needs...” (Early, 2007: 67).

Changing Times, Changing Literacy 

Ever since the 1960s, the nature of literacy practice and needs is changing; Hall (1989) suggests this is thought of as a consequence of New Times. New Times is an era of internalization, characterised by the breaking down of borders between local and global contexts resulting from rapid change in communicative practices (Gee, 2000: 183; Luke and Elkins, 1998).

One common element that has changed is that literacy has become inherently plural; thus researchers have problematized the very notion of literacy as a discrete set of skills. Luke and Freebody (2000) provide one of the more recent and useful definitions of literacy: 

"Literacy is the flexible and sustainable mastery of a repertoire of practices with the texts of traditional and new communications technologies via spoken, print, and multimedia"

(Luke and Freebody, 2000: 9)

In such a perspective of literacy, the literate person is one who develops capacity to respond to emerging and communicative needs, a literate person who is a sophisticated user of texts. The individual engages with literacy practices as a decoder of text, as a maker of meanings, as a purposeful user of information and as a text analyst who employs critical thinking skills in the literate work (Luke and Freebody, 2000; Liddicoat, 2007: 20). 

Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

Figure 1: Evolution of the concept of literacy over fifty decades

Although acknowledging contemporary, 21st century demands of ‘literacy’ and education, this definition does not incorporate the social context of literacy. Literacy is, as Gee (1996: 22) has aptly described, “a socially contested term”. To this respect, literacy is a social practice rather than merely a means to an end. 

Such a consideration draws on the paradigm of New Literacy Studies (NLS) and recognises literacy as a set of socially and culturally constituted practices enacted across and within social and institutional spaces. It acknowledges literacy as a social and historical construction that evolves dynamically (Giampapa, 2010: 4; Potvin, 2009; Garcia, Bartlett and Kleifgen, 2006). 

Literacy is seen as a social responsibility including a critical or transformative emphasis in which literacy is a tool to understanding social structure in which we live so we can transform it in meaningful ways (Gee, 1996: 58; Street, 1995). The social perspective of literacy, implies more than superficial contacts with print; it icorporates an understanding of how to manipulate words and concepts through complex daily social interactions in an accepted manner (Giampapa, 2010; Potvin, 2009; Reid, 1998; Kern, 2000) through cultural apprenticeship (Rogoff, 1990).

The ‘New’ in Literacies: Multiliteracies

Following the NLS paradigm, ‘multiliteracies’ have emerged. The term “Multiliteracies” immediately shifts us from the dominant written print text to acknowledge the complexities of practices, modes, technologies and languages with which literate people need to engage in the contemporary world.

The “New London Group” (a team of ten academics including James Gee and Allan Luke) came together in 1996 concerned about how literacy pedagogy might address the rapid change in literacy due to globalisation, technology and increasing cultural and social diversity. They employed the term ‘multiliteracies’ to address these issues (The New London Group, 1996).

Since then, The Ontario Ministry of Education has come up with a number of literacy initiatives, some of which are characterized by a critical and social view of literacy, where literacy is conceived of as "the ability to use language and images in rich and varied forms to read, write, listen, speak, view, represent, and think critically about ideas" (Expert Panel on Literacy Report, 2004: 5).

Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

Figure 2: Multiliteracies and their design elements (Adapted from The New London Group, 2000)

Luke and Luke (2001: 92-94) echo this idea, and argue that new technologies have facilitated the emergence of new kinds of artefacts, such as digital storytelling, requiring new levels of engagement and development of higher and different mental faculties (i.e. new multiliteracies). Luke (2000) also talks about the critical multiliteracies - being able to understand, debate, and act upon the material, political, and social consequences of technological change.

An alternative view of literacy calls for a reconceptualization of literacy as reading and writing the world (Freire, 1970). This conceptualization foregrounds critical thinking in both teachers and students, and looks beyond functional literacy (reading and writing skills), to the knowledge and power relations in literacy discourses.

Agnello (2001) refers to this approach as postmodern literacy, and argues that through this approach “reading and writing become enhanced methods for exploring the democratic self and its formation through ideological exposure to knowledge and power relations formulated by educational policy texts. Through such exploration, literacy becomes a tool for self-, student, and social advocacy rather than commodity to determine whether one measures up satisfactorily on test scores” (Agnello, 2001: 24-25).

Museum Learning as a Multiliteracy Practice

Museum-based literacies or museum literacy, refers to the competence in drawing upon the museum, its space and collections using certain skills and practices. In 1984, Carol B. Stapp observed that “museum literacy” was then a newly emerging phrase that articulated the older idea of a philosophy of museum accessibility.

Museum literacy goes beyond ‘reading’ objects; which may be understood as visual literacy; it requires a deeper level of process and understanding of the multiple and interacting languages and modes of communication found in the museum. 

By broadening the view of museum literacy, it is acknowledged that the language that is involved in the museum is diverse and incorporates multimodal literacies including: linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial patterns, technological and print-based (see for instance, Cope and Kalantzis, 2000: 160,203; Giroux, 1992; Hooper-Greenhill, 1999).

Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

Figure 3: The multimodal literacies in museum-based pedagogy (Savva, 2016)

This view of museum learning redefines the goals and strategies of educators and the museum curricula. The idea of education in museums is seen as exploratory, broad, experiential, complex and multi-layered; museum strategies are now audience driven (Russo et al., 2007, Hein, 1998; Falk and Dierking, 2000).

To this discussion fits the incorporation of museum learning into the multiliteracies concept; this is facilitated by the realization that a display of material culture conveys messages about the people who created them and the times in which they were used (Pearce, 2003). 

Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

The act of creating an exhibit is parallel to the act of producing knowledge. Exhibits are not simply displays, but systems of signs that express messages about culture. Museums and their exhibits reflect the ideology of those who create them.

In the same vein that “There is no such thing as ‘reading’ or ‘writing,’ only reading or writing something . . .” (Gee, 1999: 93), the same would hold true for creating exhibits. There is no such thing as displaying an artifact without displaying something about that artefact. Also, the interpretation of messages is similar to the deciphering of text, using the signs, symbols, objects, etc., of a museum exhibit as part of the process of creating meaning (Roberts, 1997).

Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

Griffin (1999: 8) identifies the unique learning opportunities offered by museums as: opportunities to closely examine objects or specimens; opportunities for comparison that allow trends and patterns to be deciphered; natural learning processes that incorporate the sharing and communication of ideas and the raising of questions; and opportunities to develop perceptual skills that teach how to gather information from objects and experiences. 

Because museum exhibits make meaning through multiple media, multiple modes, and multiple symbol systems, the literacy practice of museum visiting is a multiliteracy. 

An interesting project exploring the latter, is the ‘Museum Literacy Project’ in 2008-2010, involving nine different museums, administrations and training institutions based in five European countries, supported by the EU programme Lifelong Learning - Grundtvig Learning Partnerships, 2008. The project focus was on museums and audiences with low schooling level, and how museum literacy can be reached and maximize the museum experience for these audience.

Dimensions of a Pedagogy of Multiliteracies for Museum Learning - The Research Framework

Taking into consideration the unique characteristics of the museum environment, I undertook an empirically-based doctoral study involving the design, enactment and evaluation of the Living Museum Partnership (LMP), a museum-school partnership that unfolded in 13 weeks for the construction of a student-generated virtual museum to support environmental education curriculum (Savva, 2016). 

Specific focus was on developing virtual learning environments and applying augmented reality to enhance culturally and linguistically diverse students' repertoires of literacy practices. This design-based research, draws from the field of New Literacy Studies, the proposed Museum Multiliteracies Practice (MMP) framework derived from the multiliteracies pedagogy of the New London Group, the Learning by Design Model adapted from Cope and Kalantzis and Schwartz’s museum based pedagogy.

Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

Figure 4: The pedagogies interacting in the Museum Multiliteracies Practice framework (Savva, 2016)

It is proposed that museum educators and learning professionals undertake an approach for teaching and learning in the museum setting which incorporates multiliteracies pedagogy. Identification of museum literacies requires thorough examination into the interaction of modes that are evident, the incorporation of multiliteracies implicated, the various sign systems that are employed, and the unique nature of the museum learning environment (Mathewson-Mitchell, 2007: 7-8).

The focus should be not only on literacies as communication (meaning for others, as supports for social interaction). My doctoral research for instance also emphasized on literacies as a form of representation (or meanings for ourselves, as supports for thinking).

Cope and Kalatzis (1996, refined 2000, 2009) elaborate on the potentials of a ‘Pedagogy of Multiliteracies’ in fulfilling these aspirations. Two important ideas brought in a multiliteracies pedagogy are Learning by Design and Multimodality.

Learning by Design, is building into curriculum the idea that not every learner will bring the same lifeworld experiences and interests to learning, as well as acknowledging that every learner is not on the same page at the same time; pedagogies of learning are re-configured to construct learning as “a dialogue of difference” (Cope and Kalantzis, 2005: 31). The idea of Multimodality discusses learners’ movement between written, oral, visual, audio, tactile, gestural and spatial modes of meaning-making (Cope and Kalantzis 2005, 2009). 

On this basis, the New London Group (1996) has proposed a multiliteracies pedagogy consisting of situated practice, overt instruction, critical framing, and transformed practice.

 Situated practice includes learners’ prior and present experiences in a community of learners (composed of experts and novices). 

 Overt instruction involves the teacher’s or expert’s interventions to scaffold (Bruner, 1983) or support learning and increase the learner’s consciousness about learning. Scaffolding is a metaphorical concept that refers to the visible or audible assistance that a more expert member of a culture can give to an apprentice (Bruner, 1983, 1986). You might also note Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), that relates to Bruner’s notion of the scaffold here. 

 Critical framing refers to learners interpreting the historical, cultural, political and ideological contexts of learning.

 Transformed practice includes implementing new understandings through reflective practice in other contexts.

Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

Figure 5: The Multiliteracies Model and Learning by Design (Adapted from Kalantzis and Cope, 2000)

Also identified within the Learning by Design Model are four knowledge processes (See Figure 5 above). The knowledge processes identified are:

(a) Experiencing the known and the new

(b) Conceptualising by naming concepts and theorising 

(c) Analysing functions and interests 

(d) Applying appropriately and creatively.

Findings and Implications for Museum Learning Practice

Stapp (1984) had argued that schools do not address the knowledge, skills and attitudes for museum literacy. Recent observations of the characteristic use of museums by school-based teachers suggest that a relatively passive, idealist approach to museum experiences, as identified by Stapp, has continued, with teachers lacking confidence and competence in the museum setting (Mathewson-Mitchell, 2006). 

Based on the findings of my doctoral research, it is suggested that addressing museum-based multiliteracies leads to effective museum-school partnerships and meaningful museum learning practice. Research data suggested that students’ repertoires of literacy were enhanced as they engaged in the learning process as active designers and multimodal learners (Savva, 2016). It was found that students gained opportunities to:

Infusing Multiliteracies Into Museum Learning Practice for Inclusive Cultural Participation

Figure 6: Findings of Museum Multiliteracies Practice research (Savva, 2016)

It is proposed that any museum education programme or museum-school partnership or collaboration pays attention to the following key principles:

1. Teaching children, especially digital natives of our time, to be literate in any setting is not just a set of skills that can be transferred. Rather, education needs to enable them to participate in social situations using the required literacy practices.

2. Museum visiting is seen as multiliteracy practice; as such it requires specific museum-based literacies that are rarely identified or explicitly taught by museums or schools.


Ultimately, this brief review and presentation of the proposed empirically based, research framework for museum learning practice, forms a pathway to follow for inclusive cultural participation at any level and age. The London New Group’s (1996) ideas further developed by Cope and Kalatzis (2000; 2005; 2006) for a Pedagogy of Multiliteracies, could inform the development of the specific literacy requirements of museums, in a way that could lead to full museum literacy and a transformative cultural engagement and participation for diverse audiences.

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