In neo-liberal discourses, lifelong learning is about the introduction of a new constraint: a lifelong and highly individualized commitment to learn, to develop and to change according to the changing needs of the jobs market. The educational scope becomes one of employability: to increase personal flexibility in accordance with the ever shifting demands of the workforce in the so-called ‘knowledge society. In contrast, if we look at the field of 'museum education', we can say that learning in museums traditionally connects to ‘softer’ humanist ideals of lifelong learning, such as popular enlightenment, personal development and active citizenship.

Learning in a contemporary museum or gallery is not a simple output of teaching in the sense that ‘learners learn what teachers teach’. Learning is a process involving cognitive, emotional and social dimensions as well as different levels of engagement and reflection. Museums are places that foster a constructivist point of view on learning, in that learners construct their knowledge in a quite independent and personalized fashion, which is connected to individual learning styles as well as to a broad range of socially and culturally embedded factors. An important consequence is that educational settings in museums should aim at stimulating learning processes by providing learners with access to many different tracks to knowledge.

Museums today are not only about introducing visitors to the history of their region or to universal works of art, providing and raising consciousness of aesthetic experience for the public; they are also about fostering an aptitude for creativity by making it possible to experiment with setting up personal projects. In this respect, the four major goals of museum education are:

  • transfer of knowledge and aesthetic experience from experts;
  • social awareness of self in history;
  • involvement and empathy with other beings in all their diversity;
  • opening windows and doors between art and science.

Transfer of knowledge and aesthetic experience appears mainly in art and sculpture, but can also be important in the presentation of natural history and national history.

Museums that chose social awareness as a goal want to give meaning to developments in society. They resist the often automatically accepted need to spread high culture to present the outcomes of ordinary behaviours of making and consuming .

Cultural history museums, in particular, want to make the visit as enjoyable as possible and therefore choose involvement and empathy in a setting of cultural and evolutionary history.

Although not often presented overtly, museums have the potential for crossing the boundaries between art and science. In this context, the concept of 'making tracks' is an ideal link, defined as following a well-defined route to a goal of understanding, or unscrambling information to establish relationships in time, both of which routes we describe as 'building a personal body of knowledge'. This arts/science link offered by museology is developed further in the page entitled 'footprints with a purpose'.