Museums are jumping in the creative space bandwagon and we have to wonder: how much of this is movement in skin deep and how much shows an deep change of mindset in our beloved institutions?

Matt Richards, founder of Hīnātore, Te Papa Museum’s recently open Learning Lab, tells us about his first museum lab building and how museums are actually key places for lifelong, meaningful and empowering educational experiences.

Classroom to lab: creating the possibility of change

“Te Papa wanted to replace its old classroom space with an innovative Learning Lab for school students and the general public. It wanted to increase engagement with collections, make learning experiential, utilise educational technologies and expand its learning community. I was contracted by Te Papa 11 months ago to lead the design and creation of the Learning Lab and its programmes. I’ve worked in education for the past 10 years as a teacher, director and technologist. I’ve created innovative learning centres, learning labs and makerspaces for schools and social enterprises in Australia and New Zealand. This is my first museum. What an adventure! Te Papa Tongarewa is an amazing and unique place. It’s the national museum and art gallery of New Zealand. Its mission to “change hearts, minds & lives” resonates in its exhibitions and willingness to innovate. Te Papa is currently undergoing a renewal process. The whole museum is evolving and changing. In 2016 it launched its new innovation incubator Mahuki to help create world leading digital experiences for the cultural sector. Hīnātore Learning Lab is the second innovation cab off the rank in Te Papa’s current evolution.

Hīnātore Learning Lab is a place to test and experiment. The exponential changes occurring in learning and technology have created a need for agility in museums. The Learning Lab is a place to try new ideas, technologies and learning experiences. What we are learning in the Lab is helping inform and catalyse change for the whole renewal process.

We created the Learning Lab in record time. This was due in large part, to the small (but high powered) team of specialists working on the project. The Hīnātore team are learning innovation specialists, educational technologists and (most importantly) lifelong learners. We reflect on and improve learning programmes daily. This level of agility requires stamina, growth mindsets and a capacity to pivot quickly. We were lucky enough to contract a couple of my former colleagues who I knew had the required skillset and mindset.

We ran a think-tank early in the development process. We invited school principals, students and teachers from across New Zealand to come and brainstorm what a museum Learning Lab could be. This consultation process informed our approach to the learner-centric and technology supported educational experiences we are offering.”

Learning with collections and technology (c)Matt Richards 2017

Learning first, technology second

“We utilise the 21st Century core competencies (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication and Critical Thinking), SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition) model and a modified Lean canvas as frameworks for programme development. We use a learning first, technology second approach. Once we clarify the learning objectives we experiment with emerging technologies to create exciting learning experiences not previously possible. We look for ways to extend access and deepen learning by combining collections, exhibitions and technology. 6 months ago we had some teachers from Auckland visit the museum to see the Pacific exhibition and collections. Their students were studying Pacific migration histories. We took them back of house into the Pacific collection to look at vaka (traditional Pacific sailing vessels). This visit highlighted how underutilised the collections are for learning purposes and inspired one of our current programmes, Pacific Explorers. We 3D scanned the vaka from the collection and 3D printed versions the students could handle and play with. Students design and 3D print their own vaka using web based cad software. They also make vaka with hands-on materials and craft. We import the digital 3D vaka into virtual reality (VR) and provide students the opportunity to sail on a vaka on a virtual Pacific Ocean. Using Google Earth and Google My Maps on touch tables, students collaboratively map their own personal migration stories. We provide students with smartphones to explore Tangata o le Moana: The story of Pacific people in New Zealand exhibition. They digitally gather evidence to explore migration stories and collaboratively discuss their discoveries. Students learn how to navigate using star compasses in VR and making traditional stick charts. We want to extend and enrich object based learning with technology.”

Lego drone from our upcoming Flying Machines Programme
(c)Matt Richards 2017

Tech made easy

“I choose technologies for the lab that support development of 21st Century core competencies. We use VR so learners can create and collaborate in real time with people who are geographically remote. We use 3D scanners attached to iPads so learners can easily scan collection objects and learn through the process. We chose touch tables because they are collaborative and support self-directed learning (the touch tables we chose respond to collection objects placed on them using fiducial markers and a tangible engine system). Accessibility is important. Where possible we chose technologies that are free (or inexpensive) so learners can continue to use them after their visit. In our Gallipoli Perspectives programme, students create their own VR experience of Gallipoli: The scale of our war exhibition using the Cardboard Camera app on smartphones. They experience and share their VR movies using Google Cardboard VR viewers.

Testing various technologies and planning in research and development time is vital. Intuitive tech is best. Technology that doesn’t need too much instruction to use. Technology that does its job and lets the learning happen. It probably helps that I’m a self confessed tech geek and spend a lot of my spare time tinkering and researching. :)”

Hīnātore Learning Lab
(c)Matt Richards 2017

Turning the tables on education

“We define “learner” as everyone , including us! We want to empower lifelong learning. I designed Hīnātore Learning Lab as a learning commons for everyone (students, public and Te Papa staff). Ako is a Māori term for both teaching and learning. The New Zealand Ministry of Education defines Ako as a non-hierarchical, reciprocal learning relationship. We can all learn from each other. The capacity to self-direct one’s learning is vital in today’s rapidly changing world. As Eric Hoffer once said, “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists”.

We are engaging an external research partner to study Hīnātore Learning Lab and assess its effectiveness as a learning model. We also internally utilise feedback from learners to inform Hīnātore’s evolution. At this early stage, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Personally, through creating the Learning Lab here at Te Papa I have learnt that museums can be a powerful force for change in the world. Museums can preserve the past and also help create the future. I believe Mr. Mandela was correct when he said “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”. When we combine museum collections and hands-on educational technologies, magic (and learning) happens!””

Matt Richards
Senior Advisor Learning Innovation
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongawera

Matt is an education director, learning innovation leader and educational technologist. He has 10 years experience creating innovative learning environments, high performing teams and education programmes in schools, social enterprise and government organisations. Matt pioneered the maker education movement in Australian schools and founded an international games-based learning project. He employs emerging technologies to empower learners and build global learning communities. Matt is a Google Certified Innovator and Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert.