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Museums and Inquiry-Based Instruction

Museums are the perfect place for student inquiry!

Do you want to get your students more engaged in active, inquiry-based learning? Museums offer many different types of resources that may be used in multiple ways to support inquiry-oriented instruction. Using museum resources for inquiry can hep you broaden students' experiences with sources and promote deeper student interest in social studies, science, and other content areas. But what are these resources? How can you construct inquiry-based activities using these resources?

Getting Started

A good place to start is with the learning goals you have for your students. Determine the curricular area(s) where what you are designing meets a need. Your goals might include engaging students in historical or scientific inquiry, exploring ways for students with different abilities to participate in inquiry-oriented activities, or increasing student interest. Then think about the questions you and your students might ask. Leave room for your students to work with you to develop good questions that may be investigated using a variety of sources. As your questions evolve, so will your potential collective ideas about the types of sources that will help answer those questions.

What Resources Do Museums Offer?

When people think about museums, the first thing that usually comes to mind is objects. Many people don't realize the breadth of things that museums offer besides objects that you can use for historical inquiry. 

Things: Artifacts/objects (things made by humans), specimens (things found in nature), and documentary records about objects and specimens (such as where an object came from or related research). "Things" include more than what you might expect: non-tangible material culture resources (including music and dance), oral accounts and other documentary evidence (audio and video), works of art (drawings, paintings, and other types), buildings, and landscapes. These resources may be useful as primary or secondary sources. Available in museum or via Internet.

Exhibits: Designed displays created to showcase things related to a particular topic or theme. People often see exhibits as just a series of objects or a story/narrative, without critically engaging with what they are experiencing. The curators who develop exhibits present an argument through the presentation of ideas and objects. This argument is presented through the authoritative "voice" of museum text and labels - often called the curatorial voice. Visitors may analyze this voice as a secondary source. Available in museum or via Internet.

Experts: Curators, collections managers, museum educators, and others are available to answer your questions, for example, students interviewing an expert for content information or tips about how to use resources. Available in person or via phone, email, chat, or video conference.

Using the MSU Museum

Museums provide physical spaces and resources that encourage learners to engage in exploration, hands-on investigation, discovery, observation, and critical thinking: all activities that align with participatory pedagogies, including inquiry-based. Presenting the museum to your students as a "laboratory" or "field study" site offers a different type of experience than a traditional field trip where students visit the museum as a whole. You can use the museum as a place to engage with sources for inquiry, where students "capture" evidence and take it back to the classroom: inquiry notebooks, data sheets, journals, photographs they take, and more. Possibilities exist for using any type of museum resources that align with the historical questions you are investigating. Contact the MSU Museum Education Team for support in designing your students' learning experience!