Museum Education

Museum Education Toolbox

 Natalie Zacharewski

The B.C. Museums Association gratefully acknowledges funding support of this project


Basic Guide to Museum Education Programming: A Tool for Small Museums

Author: Natalie Zacharewski, MA


Acknowledgments and Special Thanks to:

Tom Long, Public Interpretation Coordinator at Fort Edmonton Park, Sophia Maher, General Manager of Nanaimo Museum, Anissa Paulsen of the BC Arts Council, Laura Nichol, Volunteer and Community Engagement Coordinator at Fort Edmonton Park and the countless educators on the frontlines of museum work.


Note from the Desk:

Just like learning, the field of museum education is always changing. The British Columbia Museum Association is committed to creating practical, easy-to-implement resources that inspire, invoke and move with the direction of your museum.

This is a living document. Please contact the BCMA with suggestions, comments, case studies, and stories of success. We are excited to see how you use this Toolbox!



Why is Museum Education Important?


Object-Based Learning

Planning for Successful Museum Programs


Community Partnerships, Collaborations and Working with Stakeholders


Funding and Budget

Staff Resources


Effective Delivery of Tours and Programs

Working with Curriculum

Artifact Kits

Works Cited and Resource List


This tool is meant to help managers, coordinators, front-line staff (educators) and volunteers design structured programs into/surrounding an exhibit or overall small museum and how to build a lesson plan/program outline for a structured program.

Structured programming can include: school programs, adult programs, youth programs, early learning programs, birthday parties, daycamps, overnight programs, family programs, tours and more

*This does not include special events, regular gallery attendance operation (also known as unstructured interpretation) and other curatorial duties.

Often Museum Education is cross-referenced as Interpretation. For the basis of this tool, we will use the terms interchangeably for larger concepts, and specify adaptations when necessary.

Our Goals:

  • Help staff and volunteers at small museums understand the keys to creating and executing successful museum programming, specifically:
  • Identifying different types of programs and activities that work
  • Understanding needs of different audiences and tailoring activities to each;
  • Implementing a program plan template at your institution.
  • Provide sample activities as applicable to test out at your institution

Why is Museum Education Important?

Museum Education can be understood as: in the broadest sense, any museum activity pursued with a view of facilitating knowledge or experiences for public audiences. The vision of education is in fact a vision of the museum’s mission and purpose as a whole.

(The Museum Educator’s Manual, 2nd Edition, 2017)


From a subjective lens, education programs can:

  • Fulfill the mission, vision, values of a museum/exhibit/culture institution
  • Foster connections for & within the community
  • Encourage stewardship of the collection
  • Engage with diversity of thoughts, demographics, stories and experiences
  • Develop meaningful, impactful connections with cultural, natural and human history
  • Challenge preconceived notions of events, narratives, thoughts and experiences

From an objective lens, these programs can

  • Generate revenue for an institution
  • Build new audiences for museum attendance
  • Engage repeat visitors in different museum experiences
  • Create jobs for community members (including youth)
  • Stimulate community connection for volunteers, which promotes health and wellness

Educators use their museum’s collection to build meaningful, emotional, thought-provoking learning connections with their visitors.


The American Alliance of Museums formed the Education Committee in 2005, who developed ‘Excellence in Practice: Museum Education Principles and Standards’:

  • Accessibility
    • Focus on Audience and Community
    • Diversity of Perspectives
  • Accountability
    • Excellence in Content and Methodology
  • Advocacy
    • Advocacy for Audiences
    • Advocacy of Education
    • Dedication to Learning


Museum Education and Interpretation are intrinsically intertwined. Interpretation is the vehicle, set of tools, presentation style that combines teaching with discovery to create personal connection. According to the National Association of Interpretation, interpretation is a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connection between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.

Freeman Tilden (1883-1980), often known as the ‘Father of Interpretation’ developed these 6 Guiding Principles for Interpretation:

  1. Relate: Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile. (compare, contrast, make it personal)
  2. Reveal: Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information. (help the visitor discover something new)
  3. Provoke: Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable. (inspire profound thought or action)
  4. Arts: The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation. (employ multiple learning styles)
  5. Holistics: Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole picture rather than any phase. (give the resource context – the bigger story)
  6. Appropriate: Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program. (consider the audience)

Object-Based Learning

The DfES Museums and Galleries Education Programme publication Learning Through Culture summarizes the different questions or learning pathways leading from an object in the diagram below.

‘Learning from Objects’ diagram. DfES publication DfES/0159/2002, page 11. Published by RCMG, Feb 2002


What is Object-Based Learning?

Object-Based Learning (OBL) is an interactive, personal and explorative form of learning. By using the objects from the collection, the Museum Educator asks intentional questions to facilitate a visitor’s deeper learning.

The aim of OBL learning is

  • To act as a focal point for an activity.
  • To stimulate discussion on a topic.
  • To consolidate a learning point.
  • To explore meaning.
  • To explore function.

The students, during and after the activity will:

  • Use all their senses.
  • Examine objects as ‘text’ and as ‘evidence’.
  • Draw conclusions by handling and observing.
  • Develop an understanding of the object by examination of evidence.
  • Critically evaluate the object in a given context.

What an Interpretation, with OBL, Could Look Like:

Before You Get Started

  • Decide on what you want the outcomes to be – e.g., conversation starter, investigation, comparison, idea generation.
  • Choose a space in the gallery/museum that will allow for conversation – this could be a corner of an exhibit, a specific classroom, or if you have a visitor’s centre
  • Make sure you know all of the other events happening in the museum that day, including busy times, to avoid competing for the visitor’s attention
  • Before you get started, make sure your water bottle is full and you have eaten! Self-care is critical to program success
  • Speak with your curators or collections technicians ahead of time – you would not want to build a whole program surrounding an object that cannot be handled, will soon be taken away for restoration, is damaged etc. – they are often a great source for background knowledge on every object in the collection, which could spur further activities or new directions
  • Know what your bigger picture is – the objects within themselves are tied to a larger concept. Make sure you know how you will tie this exchange into the bigger picture

Keep in mind when choosing a location for the activity things like foot traffic, noise level, spacing. This can drastically affect the success of a program.

Once the Visitors Arrive

  • Stress there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers throughout the activity
  • Ask them if they need a bathroom break, water, food before you get started to avoid interruptions
  • Let them know what they will be seeing and discussing so they know what to expect
  • Use words like ‘investigate’, ‘explore, ‘reveal’ or ’detect’
  • Keep your questions open (think inquiry)
  • Take suggestions and make them work
Pro Tip

If the group is larger, split the group into smaller ones (no more than 5 people is best). Try not to split up families, couples (they are here to experience together!). Make sure that each grouping has an object to handle at the same time to avoid lag-times and waiting. This may affect which objects and therefore narratives you are choosing.

In the Midst of It

During programs, it’s important that your role is to facilitate.

  • Choose 5-7 questions ahead of time, but know you may not get to all of them – the theme of the activity is to explore the group’s and individual’s interest rather than direct the learning


Question Suggestions:

  • What does this object make you think of?
  • How do you think this object was made?
  • Where do you think this object came from?
  • How do you think this object was used?
  • Tell me how this object feels, smells, looks
  • What kind of life do you think the people that used this object lived?



  • Tie to the bigger picture

Don’t forget to make it personal – this will evoke emotional memory to not only the object, but the larger narrative surrounding the story.

Planning for Successful Museum Programs

The 3Rs

You want your museum to be the 3 R’s in the community:


Relevant = To your community (are you creating programs that will be meaningful to your community?)

Example: Can you host an event to celebrate big ‘life’ events in your community? Eg. anniversary or milestone date?

Your community is the backbone of your museum, and your museum should be the backbone of your community. If you are not creating programs that engage your visitors, as many visitors as possible, then you are not serving your community. Your museum must be relevant – if we are not being relevant, there is not a reason to develop a program.

Relevance is a key that unlocks meaning. Before you get started; there are several key things to keep in mind:

  • Relevance is an exercise in empathy – understand what matters to your intended audience, not what matters to you.
    • Listen more than talk.
  • Be careful about misconceptions of relevance. These can look like:
    • We believe what we do is relevant to everyone
    • We believe that relevance is irrelevant – people will be attracted to our work for its distinctiveness
  • Keep in mind regardless:
    • All programs should be connected to your museum’s mission.
Pro Tip

Nina Simon, a groundbreaking thinker, author and museum leader has created an online resource for innovative community engagement in the museum/cultural institution. “OF/BY/FOR ALL is a global movement and a set of tools to help your organization become of, by, and for your community”. Visit for more information and to join the movement.


Responsive = To needs, desires of your visitors (are you engaging visitors prior to and/or after their visit to gain feedback?)

Example: Have you spoken (in-person, over online surveys etc) with visitors on a daily, weekly, monthly basis to find out how you can serve them better?

Working with Indigenous/First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities

In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created as a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Its mandate is to inform all Canadians about the cultural erasure that occurred in Indian Residential Schools (IRS). The Commission documented the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience. Institutions such as government entities, corporations, education spaces etc are being called upon to enact, lead and exemplify a ‘decolonized’ space; removing barriers of accessibility, exclusivity and institutional racism.

Working with local Indigenous communities, whether it be directly or through an associated organization is critical to building exhibits, programs and educational experiences which features FNMI content and narratives. Before you begin this important work, there are several resources that can be useful in becoming versed and prepared in the narratives, histories and worldviews.

A Land Acknowledgement is a formal statement that recognizes the unique and enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories ( These are increasingly becoming a regular part of opening statements and introductions in schools, lectures and other settings. Consider opening your education programs with a land acknowledgement to recognize the sovereign territory of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples that your museum is situated on.

Check out these examples:

University of British Columbia

“I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered today on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.”

Camosun College

“Camosun College campuses are located on the traditional territories of the Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. We acknowledge their welcome and graciousness to the students who seek knowledge here.”

BC Museums Association

“The BC Museums Association (BCMA) office is located on the traditional, unceded lands of the Lekwungen peoples (Songhees and Xwsepsum Nations). We respect past, present, and future Indigenous stewards and recognize that we are uninvited guests on this territory.”Check out Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre

Here are some useful resources:

Indigenous Ally Toolkit (Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network)

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation – University of Manitoba

Peers, Laura. Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions.

Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

*See Works Cited and Resource section for further recommendations on research and resource material.



Reflective = To successes, failures and emerging trends (are you consistently looking to improve your programs?)

Example: Are you ‘relatively’ versed on museum trends on the past 5 years? Keep up to date be connecting with fellow museum workers through outlets like the LMME or BCMA’s Watercooler Wednesdays.

How Do You Get To Know Your Audience

Pro Tip: Data is your friend!

Data surrounding visitor trends will assist you in justifying to your management, board and team members why certain programs will work, or not work. Check out Colleen Dilenschneider, author of the website ‘Know Your Own Bone’ focused on market research and the behavioral economics surrounding cultural organizations. Colleen is also the Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & DevelopmentSurveys – This can be prior to a potential visit, or after a visit. Surveys are a clear, data-driven analysis of visitor likes/dislikes, and where you need to take your programming next.

  • Surveys can be done in person (paper) or online (using a free survey generator like Survey Monkey
  • Advisory committees – These are ongoing, set groups of people that provide advice on a slightly wider range of topics. Advisory committees could be on education programs in general at the museum, or future exhibits you wish to bring in. They could be volunteer, honorarium-based or fully compensated.
  • Focus groups – These groups are often focused on an individual objective. They are often deliberately selected for that purpose, and meet 1 to less than 5 times to elicit discussion on a particular area of interest
  • Piloting, and failing – You need to try things to ensure they will work both on paper, and in the field – and sometimes a failure can result in a more positive learning outcome! Don’t be afraid to take risks, and support your team members as they do as well.

What does piloting and failing look like? How can you fix it and learn from it?


You have just developed a new program and invite a class to come and participate and give you feedback. During the program, the students seem disengaged with the information you are teaching, you run out of supplies for an activity and the teacher wants to end the program early. You will receive negative feedback from the teacher, how do you respond and what are your go-forward steps?


Following the LEAD model of Customer Recovery;

L = Listen

  • Allow the teacher to fully explain what happened and what her concerns were

E = Empathize

  • Demonstrate understanding of how things failed. This does not necessarily mean apologizing, but emphasizing with the faults of the situation. Repeat information back to the teacher to demonstrate understanding

A = Amaze with Alternatives (or Action Plan)

  • Communicate how their feedback will be used to make improvements. This could be: changing the program activities, being better organized, reflecting on training for staff or revising the entire program. Work collaboratively with the teacher on what could be possibilities.

D = Document

  • It is important to record our improvement moments. Not only does documenting assist you in the particular situation, but it allows us to reflect on future program plans.



Each visitor, regardless of age, is unique – and has a unique reason for coming to the museum. Being mindful of these visitor types and motivations will assist you in building programs for a diverse audience (such as a multi-generational audience)

Today’s Museum Visitors:

  • Explorers motivation curiosity: desire touch and feel
  • Facilitators motivation needs of others: desire to bring others to experience the Museum
  • Experience Seekers motivation seeing and experiencing a new place: desire behind-the-scenes tours
  • Professionals/Hobbyists
    motivation specific knowledge-related goals: desire in-depth attention in areas of interest
  • Rechargers motivation find knowledge: desire contemplative, restorative experiences


What are their Motives/Needs?

  • Recreation relaxed, unstructured, playful
  • Sociability being with others, shared activity
  • Learning new, exercising curiosity, discover, understand, contemplate, reflect, practice
  • Aesthetic sensory, focused activity, sense of delight or disquiet
  • Celebrative observing, honouring, sharing, connecting
  • Issue-oriented encountering, engaging, local, global

Teaching to Age Groups

Keeping in mind visitor types, motivations/needs, Museum Educators need to keep in mind the general age group of the program they are designing. Visitors who are preschool age are going to experience a program differently than those who are teens or older adults. Be mindful of language, tone, message and content when you are tailoring your program for a particular age group

Teenagers and Adults

The presence of these age groups changes the goals, delivery and outcomes of your programs – one size does not fit all! Refer to these tips when developing experiences for teens and adults.

Teens (ages 12-18):

  • Involve social media and technology (develop and hashtag, have ‘Instagrammable’ moments and allow teens to have their cell phones with them during the program)
  • Focus on goal-oriented, outcome-based workshops or experiences
  • Provide food if able, especially if the program occurs after school
  • Connect collections/exhibits to modern-day challenges
  • Diversity and inclusivity should be a theme throughout your program
  • Be project-based with guiding questions
  • Allow for creativity, collaboration and a hands-off approach in terms of direction/instruction from the educator

Introduce teen programs to your board as creating long-term, multi-generational engagement (the training of future volunteers and staff)

Program Ideas:


  • ‘Young Curators’ or ‘Junior Volunteer’ program
  • Teen Artist/Curator in Residence
  • Teen Ambassadors for your museum or new exhibit
  • Supportive peer community meet-ups


  • Drop-In programs on Friday nights
  • Blogs or guest authors, social media takeovers
  • Easy hashtag that can easily be re-Tweeted


  • Internships, work experience and co-op placements to prepare for post-secondary school
  • Mentorship programs matching with staff and trusted volunteers
  • Design/contribution-based competitions


  • Adult Programs: Not just tours – Museum Education trends lately strongly suggest that tours are not the way adults (or kids!) are engaging with information in current world.
  • Keep experiences diverse, encourage social media interaction, inquiry-based and casual.
  • Be mindful that adults have different stages of life
    • Young Adults
    • Adults with (or without) young families
    • Middle aged adults
    • Retirees
    • Seniors

Research and be mindful of the audience within the ‘adult’ age group you are working with.

  • Consider how and when using technology/social media – some may be more comfortable with engaging in this format than others
  • Focus on dynamic experiences – what is unique about your museum? Showcase the individuality of your site and look towards skill development for participants
  • Build community in your program through conversation – avoid over-structuring the event and not allowing relationships to form because there is no time for discussion
  • Connect collection and themes within your exhibit to ongoing issues and real-world controversy
  • Consider the time of day when adults may be available to visit – this could mean offering a program later into the evening than your typical opening hours

Program Ideas

  • Museum Happy Hour (‘Cocktails with the Collection’)
  • Yoga in the Galleries
  • Costuming Lecture and Demo
  • ‘Adults Only’ Behind the Scene tour
  • Build Your Own “Insert Skill-Based Object” workshop
  • Concert Series
  • Art based workshops (pottery, wall hangings, candle making)
  • Food based workshops (specific to your site – think historic recipes, the science of fermentation, looking at diverse cultural cooking)

Real Examples from BC

Check out Adult Programs at the Royal BC Museum for inspiration with programs such as ‘Museum Happy Hour’ and ‘Night at the Museum – Adults Only’


Use staff/volunteer training time to really dive deep into traits of different age groups. Not every staff will have had exposure to varying age groups in past employment. This will help in how they answer questions to different age groups, allocating time to various activities during the program etc

Let’s give it a try!

Taking the theme of ‘Cooking’, let’s make a program idea for each age group (for 20 people for example).

Age 2-5 years = Lets explore shapes! Join us for this tasty exploration of shapes using cookies and cookie cutters.

Age 5-9 years = Happy Holidays! This field trip will explore how food is used in celebrations around the world.

Age 9-12 years = This week our science detectives are exploring the crystalline world of … chocolate!

Age 13-17 years (teens) = Think you can make it in our teen top chef competition? Bring your creativity and lets see what you can cook up! Prizes for the top competitors.

Adults (eg. young adults, ages 25-34 years) = What came first, bread or beer? Discover the funky and fun world of fermentation and try to answer a question that has stumped historians. Brew and bread included!

Each of these programs are engaging, hands-on, interactive, education, age appropriate and fun!

Family Programs/Multi-Generational Programs

Interacting and programming for families differs considerably from other ‘age groups’ as families are attending with multi-generational learners. It can be challenging to write a program for everyone, but you can create a learning experience for everyone.

Keep these key elements in mind when building your multi-generational learning experience


  • Sided = So families can cluster around an exhibit
  • User = Interaction allows for several sets of hands and bodies
  • Outcome = Observation and Interaction are sufficiently complex to foster group discussion
  • Modal = appeals to different learning styles and levels of knowledge


  • Easy to understand segments


  • Comfortably used by adults and children


  • Cognitive links to existing knowledge and experiences

Use these characteristics to build your multigenerational family program. Keep in mind the many learners that will be present at these programs and you may have to navigate different learning styles at different points throughout the program.


Real Example from BC:

Check out Nanaimo Museum Family Programs, offered regularly throughout the year


Community Partnerships, Collaborations and Working with Stakeholders

Consulting your community is vital for creating unique and diverse programming. The process to developing these relationships takes time, patience and mindfulness – be prepared for an investment that could take months and years to cultivate.

Firstly, let’s define a few terms:

Stakeholder: A person or group that has an interest in something. For a museum purpose, this could be a program, direction, site, event etc.

Partner: A defined recorded relationship between a group/individual with an organization. The relationship is mutually agreed upon, often with clear outcomes.

Think of it like this – A partner is often a stakeholder, but a stakeholder does not necessarily have to be a partner. The formality and mutual exchange of goods/services differs these roles.

Collaboration: A joint effort of two groups or more on an initiative. Collaborations can be formal or informal, but it is recommended that the collaboration is recorded and documented to allocate proper acknowledgement to all groups involved.

Consultation: The act and process to formally gain knowledge and discuss such knowledge. Any consultation should be recorded, and should receive some kind of compensation (whether it be monetary, hosting, professional development, relationship building acknowledgement etc.)

Compensation: Partners and stakeholders should be compensated for their time, knowledge, and expertise. If you are able to, set a fee structure up beforehand. If you are unable to cover consultation fees – be sure to communicate that at the beginning of the process.

Think about developing your community partnership, collaboration or consultation in a Phased Approach. This will help you identify progress in your journey, and where things may be stalling.


Phase 1: For Both of Our Benefit

  • Enter into a partnership with a group that aligns with your museum’s MVV (mission, vision, values), along with your partner’s MVV: this will ensure that from the start, your goals are mutual in the larger scope
  • Be open to your partner’s needs, and be flexible to changing with your partners direction (within reason)
  • However always be clear on what your needs are, so the relationship is continuously mutual
  • Be cautious: Partners can be advocates for your institution, but also a risk. Research the organization/individual thoroughly before entering into any discussions. Partners may come with their own agendas that can derail your work and as a partner they become representatives of our institute – poor behavior on their part can tarnish your museum.

Phase 2: Signing on the Dotted Line

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities IN WRITING
  • The written agreement can be referred back to throughout the process, or changed with mutual understanding if needed

Phase 3: Setting Expectations

  • Be clear with what is possible, what timeframes, what resources will be needed
  • Be accurate and do not over-promise, this can lead to disappointment and a partner not wishing to continue the relationship
  • Terms of agreement can be helpful in keeping both groups on track throughout a process

Phase 4: Execution

  • Communication: communicate more than what you believe you should. This will demonstrate a desire be aware of all aspects of the project, and your commitment to it
  • Maintain the relationship throughout the execution phase, it can become easy to focus too much on the action at hand, try to keep a consistent eye on the relationship maintenance throughout the project
  • Expect all aspects of the project to take longer than you think they do, and that is ok! Working collaboratively towards a positive outcome often results in a more timely process, but it will equal a better partnership in the end

Phase 5: Debrief

  • Always allow time for debrief and follow-up at the conclusion of the process
  • Don’t just evaluate the project at hand, but the overall relationship with the partner, the big picture the relationship is crucial for future collaborations
  • If the project and partnership was/is successful, consider other opportunities (different projects, co-training) to engage the partner. This will illustrate a desire to maintain an active relationship
  • Be ready to hear negative feedback about their experience as well. Both stakeholders and partners have often the most honest and invested thoughts to the success of your program/project which can manifest in very honest feedback. Don’t be alarmed or disappointed! They only want your goals to succeed.


Real Example from BC:

Check out Fort Langley National Historic Site for oTENTik camping experiences


Here is a general guide on when you should be planning and posting programs for booking and registration. This is just an example and may not reflect the reality of our organization or community. Ensure your registration open and closing dates are clearly listed and easy to find for your target audiences. Along with registration timelines, consider what your cancellation policies may be and how you communicate those with teachers and community members.

School Programs – 1 academic year ahead of time (e.g. for school programs September 2021- June 2022, the programs should be planned and posted by June 2021).

This is because teachers may book and plan 1 year in advance as per their principals’ budget and timeline. Ensure you have communicated the cut off date for changes to school program bookings. Some places use a two-week out policy.

Pro Tip

Print and post the Public, Private and outlying areas School Calendar in your office. This will help you keep track of PD Days, Spring Break and when you can expect teachers to be in the classroom

Group Programs (Youth) – 1 year to 6 months in advance.

This is due to group leaders (such as Scouts, Brownies, international visits etc) needing to submit their plans for review.

Daycamps – 6 months in advance.

Adults may start planning their Spring Break and Summer Daycamp plans 6 months ahead of time to avoid registration disappointment. Be ready that some will register right away on opening day, and others will wait until the last minute if plans change (including the morning of camp!)

Registered Programs – 3 to 4 months in advance. (This could be family programs, adult programs, early learning programs and tours).

As ‘ticketed’ (or public is registering individually/as a family) are more flexible with each guest’s schedule, this type of program will most likely be the shortest window of planning and promoting. This kind of program can be repeated.

Homeschoolers – Group dependent.

Homeschool students operate on a different and individual schedule that is dictated by their own homeschool setting. As each region varies GREATLY, reach out to your local homeschool co-operative and allow them to share their own field trip timelines and expectations for the year

Pro Tip

For all structured programs, you should be conducting 1-2 pilot/tester programs before advertising the program. See the Pilot Programs section for suggestions on how to set up a pilot program.

Real Examples from BC

Check out the Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site for their Girl Guide Badge Programs

Funding and Budget

Money makes the world go ‘round, and how do we combine the important of museum programming with cost-effective operations?

Here are some key questions to ask yourself, and your board/management team before you price out a program:

  • Is there a consistent external funding source we can access (eg. grant funding, endowment, corporate sponsorship, school district)
  • Are these programs meant to ‘pay for themselves’ (eg break even with all cost considerations) or are they meant to profit? How much profit are they meant to gain?
  • What are the market competitors? (eg other museums, attraction sites, cultural centres near your museum), what are they doing program-wise and how much do they cost?
  • Will we provide transportation to our museum (eg bussing) and/or will there be the option for educators to come to the classroom? This will affect school program pricing considerably as bussing can be cost prohibitive to some groups
  • Will this program by led by volunteers or paid educators?


Budgets – How to Price Out a Program

As museums are increasingly questioning how to create sustainable revenue streams, each museum will have different expectations surrounding if/how much a structured program will generate money. It is important to discuss with your management team/board what they expect structured programs to function as.

Don’t forget to factor in prep and clean up time! (Especially if the programs are being delivered by staff/volunteers who are only at the museum for the time the program is running). Here is an example of how to ‘roughly’ price out a structured school program:

School Program – 2 hour program for Grade 4 class

$80 – 4 hours x $20/hour – Staff Hours (Education Interpreter) – 1 hour prep time, 2 hours program time, 1 hour of clean up time = 4 hours

$15 – Supply Cost

$30 – Administrative Cost (booking system use, office supplies, etc)


$125 – Suggested Cost (Price to Schools)


Use Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel to create a template for pricing. This will make it easier and consistent for pricing multiple programs based on relatively similar information

You may not turn a profit in the first year of hosting your programs. Evaluate continuously whether the program needs more time to build momentum or whether it needs to be cancelled and re-visited.

When setting a school program cost, consider how other museums or institutes charge for their programs and whether they charge a lumpsum or based on the number of program participants. A total program cost of $125 will look very high compared to places that are charging $5 per student (even when the total revenue may be the same).

When setting a registered program budget, you may need to set a ‘go/no-go’ date regarding registration and the amount of revenue needed to cover the cost of the program.

Staff Resources

Whether your museum is operated by paid staff or volunteers, staff resources are critical in planning what your institution can realistically achieve. Each museum will vary widely in their staffing structure, but there are key things to remember when working with a team (staff or volunteers).


Conduct a hiring process – posting for the position, CV review, interview, check references, offer. Seek diverse candidates.

Provide a job description (and stick to it!) as much as possible

Ensure mandatory training – manuals, in-person workshops, shadowing opportunities, ongoing professional development opportunities

Provide ongoing evaluation – make a schedule of planned evaluations and stick to it

Set individual goals with staff/volunteers to help them succeed in their current and future roles

Identify/encourage leaders and effective succession plan


Only hire people you know

Add additional responsibilities without a conversation with staff/volunteer or another position posting that truly reflects what the role requires

Ignore concerns or feelings of lack of confidence – focus on building training tools and resource to encourage independent teaching excellence

Leave evaluation season in the indeterminate future – staff/volunteers respond to set benchmarks in their schedule of improvements

Forget your staff and volunteers all have different goals – it is your job to support each and every one as individuals

Keep every and all information in your own head/records – if you need to step away from your role (either planned or unplanned), have a succession plan where you have cultivated leaders on your team

There are several grant funding structures that financially support museums in their seasonally and year-round staffing.

Young Canada Works in Heritage Organizations
Young Canada Works at Building Careers in Heritage



Programs need stuff. Regardless of how low-key or audience-driven a program is, you will need a supply list. This also helps the Educator leading the program to get organized and feel prepared prior to the program’s start-time. It should provide instruction on how to organize the materials following the program’s end.


If possible, try to build a program based on existing supplies you may have. This will save time, money and certainly get those creative juices flowing!



Top 10 Tips for Supply Management

1.Always Know Your Inventory – running out of a supply could mean a negative visitor experience, or an educator needing to make quick decisions with mixed results to conduct the program. Set a schedule so you are always on top of what you need or use a short checklist completed after every program.


To encourage leadership, task a staff or volunteer with keeping track of inventory - this will not only save you a bit of time, but also introduce a staff member (in the goal of succession planning) to an aspect of your role

2. Know Your Spots – Where do you order and purchase everything. Spend time to research the best prices, easiest/closest locations to pick them up etc. This will reduce time in supply shopping and assist future Coordinators/Managers in knowing where everything comes from. Keep a record or folder of your sources.

3. Signed, Sealed, Delivered – Time is valuable. If there is a free or reduced charged for delivery of supplies, take it.

4. Order in Bulk – If the supply is not food-related/perishable, and if space is not an issue, often ordering a great deal of an item will reduce cost. It will also save the trouble of having to question whether you have enough of it for longer periods of time.

5. Know Your Storage – We are often working with smaller spaces with reduced storage for all items. Before purchasing any items, have a storage plan. It will avoid troubles of having to take over extra areas that are not a good long-term solution

6. Have an organization system – Labels, bins, shelving, this will depend on your site. Make labels legible and organization systems logical to every user. You can’t use a supply, if you can’t find a supply.

7. Be mindful of expiry dates – This could be for craft supplies, food supplies and other tools.

8. Check your storage and program location often – When left unattended, these spaces with these items can attract theft, pests and other undesirables. Make a plan to check all locations/areas every few days to a week to keep on top of any growing issues

9. Choosing a storage location – if possible, try to choose a storage location that is easy and accessible for all staff and volunteers. This will help with program preparation time and helping the educators feel organized.

10. Reduce, Reuse, Restock – Write as part of your program plan that restocking supplies is a part of every program clean-up. This will ensure educators are preparing for either their next program, or their fellow colleagues.

Effective Delivery of Tours and Programs

Inquiry-Based Learning

To give our museum’s collection meaning, space for exploration, and elements of discovery, we as Museum Educators combine Inquiry-Based Learning, with Object-Based Learning.

What is Inquiry-Based Learning? Inquiry-based learning is a form of active learning that starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios—rather than simply presenting established facts or portraying a smooth path to knowledge. Inquiry-based learned can and should be student led and generally results in more engaged and enthusiastic program participants. This process is often assisted by a facilitator.



What does a good inquiry question look like?

  • A good question is an invitation to think (not recall, summarize, or detail).
  • A good question does not have a yes or no answer.
  • A good question comes from genuine curiosity about the world.
  • A good question makes you think about something in a way you never considered before.
  • A good question invites both deep thinking and deep feelings.
  • A good question leads to more good questions.
  • A good question asks you to think critically, creatively, ethically, productively, and reflectively about essential ideas in a discipline.
  • Good questions examples:
    • How can we better understand the people of the past?
    • How do we know what we know about the past?
    • Why do you think the HBC decided to establish Fort Edmonton in this area?
    • How did the First Nations, French, British and Métis peoples interact with each other as participants in the fur trade?
    • What do you think?
    • Why do you think

What does a bad question look like?

  • In what year was Fort Edmonton built?
  • Who was John Rowand?
  • How many people lived in the Fort?
  • In what year did Canadian women obtained the right to vote?


Real Example from BC

Check out The Maritime Museum of British Columbia’s Museum Tot program

Program Outlines

Program outlines (also known as lesson plans) are key aspects to any structured program in a museum. They:

  • Are a reference for all staff and volunteers on the program expectations
  • Reflect the mission, vision and values of the museum and program
  • Ensure the programs are relatively standardized and repeatable in terms of messaging and content delivery for all visitors
  • Are training tools for new staff and volunteers

Program outlines should be easily available to all staff and volunteers. It is recommended they are found both online (through an internal storage drive like Google Drive) and in printed paper form (located in the museum/education office)

Suggested Format for Program Outlines

Program outlines are as unique as the programs and museums they are located in. These subheadings (topics) are suggestions, and should be tailored to each program and museums outcomes.


  • Includes grades/ages it is intended for
  • Length of program
  • How many staff/volunteers are leading it (eg. 2 Museum Educators, 1 volunteer)

Program Description

  • What appears on the marketing (so staff/volunteers can see what is externally promoted)

Program Objective

  • The themes, goals, intentions of the program
  • These are overarching, general and should help staff/volunteers

Eg. Families will engaged with artifacts, learn how to bake over a wood burning stove, explore family life from the 19th century

Program Schedule

  • Minute by minute account of how long each portion of the program should take. Keep in mind that these are time estimates, always factor in time for wiggle room and time to move from one space to another.
  • Here is an example of how to break the program into portions:
    • Logistics Introduction = 10 minutes
    • Lesson Introduction & Hands On with Artifacts = 25 min
    • Interactive Quiz = 5 min
    • Activity Rotation = 30 min
    • Break = 15 minutes
    • Activity Rotation = 30 min
    • Activity Rotation = 30 min
      Wrap-Up = 10 minutes

Allow for at least 5-10 minutes of ‘wiggle time’ - this unstructured time will allow for activities that take longer, group management (like gathering attention) or any further program adjustments that need to be made.

Curriculum Connections (School Programs only)

  • Specific curriculum links the program is connecting with

Program Details

  • Set Up/Prep Time (how educators are preparing for program)
  • Supplies (in depth supply list, and where to find the supplies in your museum eg. bin, in a certain location, etc)
  • General Procedures (signing in, getting into costume if necessary, meeting the group, safety procedures)

Leading the Program

  • Detailed activity descriptions (including rotations should the group be split into smaller groups)
  • Inquiry questions prompts
  • Transitions (how to move smoothly from activity to activity – this could include imagination games, songs, questions that bridge a logical spot-to-spot narrative etc)
  • Images of activities (this can be helpful for Educators to visualize what the end result should look like – especially for crafts!)

Wrap-Up & Further Reading/Resources

  • ‘Connecting the Dots’ for the visitors
  • Thanking them for attending
  • If there is a program evaluation

Activity Options

Structured Programs need diversity. A mixture of active options (like a physical game) and passive options (like a craft), all age appropriate, are necessary to maintaining order and engagement in your audiences. Consider different levels of ability and ways to include all in the activity. If you have adult chaperons – include them too!



Keep in mind adults love to have fun too! Know your group (eg. young adults, or a group coming for a team building experience), challenge your group and don’t be afraid of having adults and families be silly and have fun.

These are just some activities that can compose your structured program. Be creative and research more on your own!


Activities should not last longer than 30 minutes, and a whole program should be no longer than 2-2.5 hours. Attention spans will wane and busy lives can take over as well. Make sure you leave time for Instagrammable moments, selfies and group photos throughout your program (which is great exposure for your museum as well)

Printable Template

Pilot Programs

Create, Test, Re-Design, Test Again, Evaluate. Tester Programs or Pilot Programs allow you to see in action a program you have created, and where the holes are. Follow these steps to pilot and test your program:

  • Develop relationships with trusted visitors, families, teachers
  • Offer to bring them into your exhibit for free to experience a new program
  • Ensure they understand at the end of the program, they will be expected to provide feedback on the program
  • Choose a date, time that works well for them (as they are doing you a service in attending)
  • Run program just as you would a member of public
  • Gather feedback – depending on the nature of the program, this can be done
    • Surveys (if the group is large and you wish for a large sample of information)
    • Focus groups (selecting a number of the participants and discussing with them their experience with a pre-selected number of questions)
    • Informal Discussion (often in pilot programs, this can yield the best results as the pilot group will feel free to offer their feedback unrestricted – make sure you listen and record all pieces of feedback

Sample Email to Teacher for Pilot Program:

Hello there all!

Thank you to everyone for their responses! I am delighted there is excitement and interest for this opportunity.

Our proposal with (SCHOOL) is as such. We are currently in the process of editing our program ‘Boats and Beavers’ and we would love the opportunity to pilot our edits with a classroom. This would of course be free of charge for this program and we would love to have feedback from both the students and the teachers in the program. All thoughts are welcome!

We are currently examining the time frame of late February to early March 2019. Would this time period work for your group at all? We look forward to hearing from you soon!

Program Evaluations

It is important to gather feedback about a structured program not just at the pilot stage, but throughout when it is being offered. This keeps your finger on the pulse of visitor experiences. This helps with future program adaptations, justify program direction with your management/board and potential funding opportunities.

Evaluations can come in many fashions, the most common are paper (handed to visitors at the end of the program) and kept onsite. The other is online, through portals such Google Forms (free through a Gmail account) and Survey Monkey ( A link to your survey can be sent out to visitors pre-visit or post-visit, or handed out (card with link) at the end of the program. The online surveys often have analytical functions (graphs, charts etc.) that can provide helpful visuals for interpreting the data.

Sample Questions:

  1. How did you hear about our programs?
  2. How would you rate the booking process?
  3. Did the program meet your curricular objectives? (for school programs)
  4. The Museum Educator was knowledgeable on the subject matter (ranking)
  5. How can we improve on this program (essay box)

Diversify the ways you are asking the evaluation questions (ranking, yes/no questions, essay questions) - this will give your program evaluation a bit more interest when visitors are filling it out. You can also add in an option ‘win a free field trip for your class’ or another giveaway at your museum. This incentive drives submission numbers.

Working with Curriculum

If you are offering education programs for school programs, the content should be linked to the provincial Education Curriculum you are situated in (such as the BC Curriculum). The way your program supports and connects to curriculum should be clearly communicated to your audiences and in your program plan.

British Columbia recently modernized their K-12 curriculum for all subjects. See note on their website ( The new curriculum includes a focus on inquiry-based learning.

B.C.’s New Curriculum

B.C.’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) education system has been modernized. As part of this process, new curriculum is being introduced in all B.C. schools.

  • Full transition to the new K-9 curriculum began in the 2016/17 school year.
  • Full transition to the new Grade 10 curriculum took effect in the 2018/19 school year.
  • Full transition to the new Grades 11 & 12 curriculum took effect in the 2019/20 school year.

“A key goal in modernizing the education system is to provide students with an education that is still rigorous, but also flexible and innovative, one from which they gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to succeed in today’s modern world.

Another goal is making sure that teachers can deliver the curriculum efficiently and effectively. The new system provides teachers with more time and flexibility to explore topics in depth with students.”

If you have education programs that are written prior to the 2019-2020 school year, you will need to review the content of the program to ensure it meets with the upcoming curriculum.


Teachers will need to identify the specific curriculum-link in your education program to justify to their administration (school boards, parents, principals etc) funding the field trip. Make it easier for them to pick out the curriculum connection by posting it on your website/brochure alongside the program description.

Working with a curriculum can be daunting, but breaking it down and only selecting the curriculum connections that best pertain to your program is key for not overwhelming yourself and teachers. Visit BC Government’s website for the new curriculum and easy-to-follow visuals for the information

Example: You have built a new exhibit on the fur trade in British Columbia, let’s choose a curriculum connection to build a structured program around

  • Visit the new BC Curriculum website
  • Select the Grade Level (s) you wish to build the program around
  • Download the curriculum for the grade – to start off with, it may be easiest to pick a subject (eg Social Studies) to center your program around
  • Choose the Curricular Competency, and Content (related to your exhibit) surrounding it
  • Build your program with these themes in mind (take a look at the ‘Sample Activity’ and ‘Key Questions’ for guidance!)
  • Make sure you highlight these connections on your marketing (website, brochure) and program outlines/lesson plans
  • Write, test, pilot and go!

Once you are comfortable and have built a program surrounding one grade level, and one subject area – you can introduce cross-curricular connections.


Real Examples from BC

Check out the Museum of Vancouver for their Elementary School Programs (in English and French)

Artifact Kits

Artifact Kit, Museum-in-a-Box, Reproduction Kit, EduKits, Outreach Materials. These are kits, boxes, trunks that are inspired by your collection. The main theme is: you can touch it!

  • Their contents could include: costume pieces, de-accessioned artifacts, craft supplies, reproduction pieces, lessons plans etc
  • They can be onsite at your museum, or be able to be rented by the public (teachers, community groups etc)

Therefore: don’t pack your kit with things that you cannot replace easily

Take a look at these examples: These examples from other museums can give you an idea of what can appear in a kit. Specifically take note on how they have: combined paper (lesson plans, worksheets etc) and ‘touch’ pieces (costuming pieces, artifacts, games, toys). These examples take a different approach to Object-Based Learning in allowing the pieces to ‘speak for themselves’



Example 1: History in a Box, North Caroline Museum of History

Example 3: Royal BC Museum


Before building your Artifact Kit, ask yourself:

  • What story am I trying to tell? Do my objects illustrate my stories in the best way?
  • Do I have enough programming/reproduction artifacts to make the kit?
  • Can I purchase reproduction items?
  • Do I want lesson plans to go with them?
  • Onsite or offsite?
  • How will they be taken care of/rented out?
  • What happens when something gets destroyed, stolen, misplaced?
  • Where is this kit stored?
    Is this kit wanted and will it be cost effective for us to create

Move forward only when these key beginning questions have been answered. As these kits are meant to be self-directed, you should do more preparation in ensuring the audience will feel comfortable working with them prior to advertising them/sending them out.

You are now ready to build your own Museum Education Program! Have fun, take risks and explore the many ways you can make learning come to life in museums!


Works Cited and Resource List

Helpful Reads


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Museum Education and Education


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