Developing Questions for Visitor Participation

Photo by Oberazzi

For the past 2 years or more, I have been working with docents and educators using a strategy I first encountered through Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog a post on “Developing Questions for Visitor Participation.”  This approach to developing questions — for which I give full credit to Nina Simon, the guru she is — has helped shift my own mentality towards the role questions play in museum teaching.  When I first read Simon’s blog post, it was before her book The Participatory Museum was published, so I was citing her blog as the source of this great exercise that has since become the “bread and butter” of developing questions in my own work.

If you take away one thing from her approach to developing questions, it would be this:

“This is the golden rule of developing questions for visitor dialogue: you must be truly interested in their answers. If you don’t care about the answer to the question, why on earth should anyone else?”

Her list of the “right” types of questions can also get educators and docents generating questions that matter, instead of regurgitating questions that we all know the answers to.  Here is Simon’s list of good questions:

  • questions that trigger an immediate response
  • questions that induce grappling
  • questions that motivate authentic expression
  • questions that draw from personal experience
  • questions open to anyone
  • questions that are speculative (“what if?” instead of “what is?”)
  • questions that produce answers that are interesting

We’ve had some incredible sessions with docents and teachers where we will use this approach to brainstorm and test questions in the galleries.  Back in 2009 (the first time I used this strategy with our new docent class), a small group selected to work with the painting Factories at Clichy by Vincent Van Gogh.

Factories at Clichy, 1887

After developing several questions, there was one that bubbled to the surface as particularly engaging and interesting.  The group asked, “What do you think this landscape might look like today?,” and I remember everyone wanting to share their own response, striking up quite a conversation in front of this painting.  The question was simple, triggered immediate responses in everyone, drew from personal experiences, and allowed us all to speculate.  It also made some complex connections with the environmental and urban issues that artists like Van Gogh were actually dealing with back in the period of modernization and rapid urbanization of the areas surrounding Paris.

If you bring Nina Simon’s “golden rule” of developing questions for visitor dialogue into your own work, please share your experiences and “Add to the Conversation” below –>

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