My thesis investigated adult museum visitors’ learning identities. Here’s some of what I concluded in my thesis about identity based on my extensive doctoral research.

My doctoral study looked at identity in a museum visit. One finding was that adult visitors played three roles—the “visit manager” by directing and organising; the “museum expert” in explaining, clarifying and correcting; and the “learning-facilitator” through questioning, linking, reminiscing and wondering. These roles are interchangeable, occur simultaneously and are dependent on both the social context of the visit and the group composition, particularly the ages of any accompanying children.

Identity can be influenced by visitors’ interactions with museum objects (Morrissey, 2002). Paris and Mercer (2002) noted that visitors recalled and responded to objects in exhibitions that resonated with their personal identities. The present study found many examples of visitors relating objects they were seeing to other shared experiences and using objects to recall experiences that were meaningful to them and to their group. Worts (1996) suggested that individuals have two kinds of identity—personal which made an individual unique, and collective in what types of groups they belong to. The present study found similar results to Worts—although sharing was important through linking to past, present and future experiences (collective), there were still defined roles for an individual (personal). Sfard and Prusak (2005) proposed that learning was an integral part of a person’s identity. In my study I found that a museum visitor’s learning identity is expressed through a combination of:

  1. person: their life experience, the roles they play, as well as age and gender
  2. purpose: why they visited
  3. process: the ways they learn as well as the objects and interpretive tools such as texts, film and interactives provided in an exhibition
  4. people: the visiting group
  5. place: linking back to prior experiences such as group holidays and travel, social occasions and the natural environment
  6. product: the outcomes of their learning.

Educational psychologists have mentioned how enduring a person’s identity can be over time (Atchley, 1989; Vander Zanden & Pace, 1984). Examples from my study demonstrate that learning identity is enduring for some people and not others—it ebbs and flows depending on the sociocultural context of the museum visit. Leinhardt and Knutson (2004) suggested that identity was participatory and changed in response to a museum visit, which is supported by results from this study – participants gained insights into their learning identity in three ways, with the exhibition experience:

  1. Influencing their learning identity through identifying new ways that they learn from their exhibition experience or becoming more confident in their learning.
  2. Resonating with, or matching, their learning identity.
  3. Conflicting with their learning identity, reinforcing in their minds the ways they do not like to learn.

Both Paris (1997) and Morrissey (2002) noted that visitors learned more about themselves and others through their museum experiences. My study found that adult visitors were aware of how they like to learn, how they can learn differently, as well as how they do not want to learn and were adept at articulating their learning preferences. It also emerged that participants in both stages of my study want museum learning experiences that are both educational and entertaining.


  • Atchley, R. (1989). A continuity theory of normal aging. The Gerontologist, 29, 183-190.
  • Leinhardt, G., & Knutson, K. (2004). Listening in on museum conversations. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
  • Morrissey, K. (2002). Pathways Among Objects and Museum Visitors. In S. Paris (Ed.), Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums (pp. 285-299). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Paris, S. (Ed.). (1997b). Understanding the Visitor Experience: Theory and Practice, Part 1. Washington: Journal of Museum Education
  • Paris, S., & Mercer, M. (2002). Finding Self in Objects: Identity Exploration in Museums. In G. Leinhardt & K. Crowley & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 401-423). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling Identities: In Search of an Analytic Tool for Investigating Learning as a Culturally Shaped Activity. Educational Researcher, 34(4), 14-22.
  • Vander Zanden, J., & Pace, A. (1984). Educational Psychology: In Theory and Practice (2nd ed.). New York: Random House.
  • Worts, D. (1996). Visitors Make Their Own Meaning. In G. Durbin (Ed.), Developing Museum Exhibitions for Lifelong Learning (pp. 123-130). London: The Stationery Office for the Group for Education in Museums.