Observing the Details: Notes on Independent Learning in Three Icelandic Museums

Growing up I had a good friend whose father worked in film. He was a prop master, and if my memory serves me correctly, he couldn’t get through a film without spotting the flaws, looking for continuity, or catching the odd moment of subtle brilliance. I was never sure if he even enjoyed movies, bonded as he was by his profession to always pay attention to the details.

Touching objects, even those on display: gloves on offer (Heimilisiðnaðarsafnið – Textile Museum in Blönduós).


Discovering hidden objects: A friendly invitation to visitors to open drawers and look inside (Heimilisiðnaðarsafnið – Textile Museum).

Many years later, as a mid-career museum educator I sometimes think of him and this experience when I wander through museums on my own time, for pleasure. Without fail, I quickly start to notice the details — details related to accessibility, pedagogy, and inclusivity.

Check yourself out: self-serve period costumes for kids — mirror included (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – National Museum of Iceland).


Quiet time: a relaxed and cozy place to read about plants and trolls (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – National Museum of Iceland).

A satisfying visit to a museum can an affective, intellectual, social, or sensory experience. Comfortable places to sit can be as important as a legible wall panel, a new story, opportunities to touch an object, or challenges to think outside the box.

Trust, autonomy, and creative expression: sharp tools go unsupervised within the gallery space itself (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – National Museum of Iceland).

Having made some recent visits to local, regional, and national museums here in Iceland, I took note of what I consider to be some examples of good practice — examples of learning made easier, more interesting, experiential, or active.

Take a peak: A religious icon, originally discovered hidden in a wall, is displayed in surroundings familiar to it but unexpected for the visitor (Safnahúsið – Culture House).


Engaging with the theme of Outside: using the window for an observation drawing activity (Safnahúsið – Culture House).

I asked myself, what strategies is the museum using to engage its independent visitors in active learning? How are visitors made to feel welcome, seen, and heard in their exhibition spaces? By what means might their curiosity be piqued, their doubts raised, their patience tested, their spirit ignited?

Contextualizing artistic creation: sketchbooks and photos adjacent to a display of paintings (Safnahúsið – Culture House).


Tactile connections: matching objects with their materials (Safnahúsið / Culture House).


Mobility and comfort: Strollers, wheelchairs, and stools on offer (Safnahúsið / Culture House).

Some of these examples are more novel than others, but demonstrate  that strategies with lasting power don’t always need to be new, complex, or high-tech in order to be effective in triggering new ideas or creating connections between people, objects, and narratives. I’ll continue to look for the details in order to find new ideas and validate or challenge existing ones — all part of an ongoing process of reflective museum education practice.