Skip to main content


Reading the museum

May 12, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Museums are places of adventure, engagement and discovery. They take us into a world of investigation and imagination. When we look back at our museum experiences, we realize that they are complex places where we go to explore a historical period, an artist, natural phenomena, scientific and technological innovations, just to mention a few of the myriad of options museums offer to their visitors. We go to museums in the company of family members, friends, school groups or alone. Museum visits are both social and educational events which can really make learning memorable. 

As we visit online and offline museums, we observe and often interact with exhibits, and we do a surprisingly large amount of reading. 

International Museum Day

International Museum Day has been celebrated on May 18 since 1977. The event is organized by ICOM, the International Council of Museums. This year’s theme is 'The Power of Museums'. To join this worldwide celebration, we look at reading possibilities in and inspired by museums with a special focus on language learners.

Museum learning

Museum learning is different from classroom learning: it is essentially informal learning as there are no tests or assignments to complete or curricula to follow. Museums are “environments of possibility, of insights into the development and formation of ideas and the wonder of human ingenuity”; places where both learners and educators “engage in a dialogue of discovery” as education researchers Foreman-Peck and Travers (2013) define them.  

Guiding students during real-life or online exhibition visits is a fascinating experience which now has become easier through the generous work of museum education departments. Most museums offer both on-site and online activities to encourage visitors to engage with their collections.  Online exhibitions often come with interactive features and guidance, and more importantly, they provide worksheets, wordlists, and printable and digital games to interest visitors of all ages.

Language learning in the museum 

Although we often think of museums as temples of culture filled with images and objects, they are also packed with an exciting variety of texts to be read in a meaningful context (the museum visit): brochures, labels, wall texts, interactive features, activity books and albums. 

Several globally renowned museums such as The British Museum, Tate, The Met, MOMA and the Getty Centre offer lesson plans and resources for English language teaching, and some of them run English as a Second Language (ESOL) programs. When you visit their websites, look for language or subject lesson plans. And it goes without saying that all museum visits are an enriching part of any CLIL programme.

  • One excellent example is Tate Kids which has a variety of learning materials. 
  • Another fascinating collection with a refined search option is the Teaching History with 100 Objects website, set up by The British Museum.
  • For a wide range of language learning activities, visit the J. Paul Getty museum Language through Art webpage, where you can find lesson plans (right side column).

Let’s not forget about the extension of exhibitions, the museum shops where we find lots of books about the museum’s collections and other related topics.

Reading in the museum

Apart from reading IN the museums through engaging mostly with the labels, brochures and activity books, we can also read ABOUT museums.

Let’s take a look at some interesting books for different ages and levels.

Readers for elementary and pre-intermediate learners

The Cat's Paw

The Cat’s Paw is an exciting story in the Helbling Maze Readers series. This new adventure series was written for young teenagers and readers can influence what the characters do or what happens to them by making decisions for them in the story. This way reading becomes an interactive event. 

The Cat’s Paw is part of The Secret Statues mini-series and is set in a museum. Levels 1 and 3 coming soon.

  • written by Gavin Biggs, illustrated by Elisa Bellotti
  • Helbling Readers Level 2; Language Level: CEFR A1/A2
  • Recording in British English

Plot summary

One day a cat with purple eyes touches Philip with its paw. Philip becomes a cat and the cat becomes a girl. Philip has to find the girl. She has to make him a boy again, but who is she? How did she change him into a cat? And who is trying to steal a cat statue from the museum? 

Read more about this series: 

The Cat's Paw page 54
Illustration by Elisa Bellotti in The Cat's Paw. © Helbling Languages

The Surprise

In this short read, Aunt Elizabeth acts as a strong role model, both as a paleontologist doing field work and a curator in a museum.

  • written by Günter Gerngross, illustrated by Marzia Sanfilippo
  • Helbling Readers Level 2; Language Level: CEFR A1/A2
  • Recording in British English

Plot summary

When Aunt Elizabeth comes back from Greenland she has a very strange present for Roger and Helen a big egg. One day when they are eating dinner the egg starts to crack open. What's inside?

The Surprise


Dan and the Stolen Bikes

This reader is from the  adventure series centred around Dan, the teenage detective. This story is set in Oxford, and they visit an exhibition on William Blake in the Ashmolean Museum. It is a good opportunity to grab a map and check where the museum is in Oxford, and then visit the museum website to explore its collection.

Plot summary

When Sue’s bike is stolen one evening in Oxford, Dan decides to do something. He starts Oxford Bike Finders and soon lots of people are contacting Dan on the Internet with information. Then one day, one of Dan’s followers sees a bike being stolen and Dan and Sue decide to follow the thieves. What happens when they find the thieves, and can they get Sue’s bike back?

Dan and the Missing Bikes page 23
Dan and Sue in the Ashmolean Museum. Illustration by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helbling Languages


Children’s books

Here is a list of famous children’s books set in museums.

A short read for students above an intermediate level

A Museum Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

Which are the oldest museums in the world? What is a cabinet of curiosities? Who haunts Hampton Court? What is on the FBI’s list of stolen art?

These are just some of the questions this short yet fascinating book answers. It introduces us to the intriguing world of galleries and museums through museum-related facts, stories and lists. It shares stories of dangerous objects, museum robberies and even ghosts.

Novels for advanced readers

Here are some novels set in or with a connection to museums.

A poem for advanced level students

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles by John Keats

Read this beautiful poem by the Romantic poet here

Tip: Read the poem out loud.

Students can do a little research after reading the poem. What are the Elgin Marbles? Where do they come from? Where are they now? Who was Lord Elgin?

Do you have any favourite stories set in museums?
What is your most memorable museum experience?

Tip for teachers: Visual Arts Circle

If you are interested in using visual arts in language teaching, check out the website of the Visual Arts Circle, a community of practice founded by writer, editor, trainer and video producer, Anna Whitcher, and teacher, trainer, award-winning writer and international conference speaker, Kieran Donaghy. The group is made up of language teaching professionals, teachers, teacher trainers, writers, editors, researchers, designers, illustrators, artists, photographers, and filmmakers. The community shares teaching experiences, lesson plans and ideas about the value of visual arts – drawing, painting, sculpture, design, crafts, photography, video, and filmmaking – in language education.