Building Exhibits on What Visitors Already Know / by Liz Maurer

Kentucky Derby Museum

Kentucky Derby Museum

An effective learning experience starts well before a museum visit begins and continues long afterwards. Learning theory tells us that learning is a process of integrating new information into an existing world view. New information is accepted when it aligns with what we currently believe. Successful museum exhibits first build on what visitors already know and then encourage them to apply new knowledge to new situations.

It’s about building confidence.

When visitors have an experience with the topic, they are better able to confidently engage with the material. Museums that examine popular culture are often quite successful at helping visitors to merge prior knowledge with new information to develop a better understanding of the subject matter. After all, it’s to be expected that we will be knowledgeable of and have opinions about our own culture. Sports museums in particular have proved very successful at reaching fans who have a great deal of knowledge as well as those with only a glancing acquaintance.

The Kentucky Derby Museum does a terrific job of using visitors’ pre-existing knowledge as an entry point into a complex sport with a deep history. The Kentucky Derby is one of the most popular sporting events in the world. An estimated 15 million people watched the most exciting two minutes in sports this year. Yet, despite the race’s popularity, most fans really know very little about the sport of Thoroughbred racing itself. The Museum’s exhibits start with what most people associate with the Derby: fancy hats and the infamous Infield. As visitors go deeper into the exhibits they scaffold information that they’re less likely to know, such as what are the physiological signs of a winning horse? What do bloodlines mean? Why do horses have funny names?

Visitors never feel out of their element because the starting point is what they know.

Successful museum experiences start with where the visitor is and build complexity by answering the natural next question. At the end, visitors have new information to apply to new situations, such as next year’s Kentucky Derby. They may even be motivated to watch an occasional Thoroughbred race other than the Derby. You never know. But the more people feel confident in their abilities, the more they will learn.

Liz Maurer - 2014