How Can We Get Museum Visitors to ASK More Questions?

While museum educators (myself included) spend a lot of time thinking about the types of questions we ask to visitors and students, I’m not sure we spend enough time considering how to motivate visitors to ask their own questions? We know that getting visitors to ask questions can be an extremely important way to tap into their sense of “wonder” and curiosity, both key elements of a meaningful museum learning experience. So how do we get visitors to ask more questions?

My own thoughts on this topic were sparked by a session at the 2012 National Art Education Association conference held in New York. Entitled “Visitors Ask, We Learn: Visitor Questions that Shape our Teaching” and led by Elliott Kai-Kee and William Zaluski from the Getty, the session explored a project in which Getty Museum gallery teachers collected every single question visitors asked them. There were attempts to categorize the questions and make some sense of them in a more scientific manner, but that never materialized. Instead, the project brought attention (and reflection) to the ways that visitor questions can help drive inquiry in museum learning, and to the teaching philosophies and strategies that create a welcoming environment for different types of visitor questions. As Kai-Kee stated in the closing of their session, “gaining questions is to gain participation.” Which brings us back to the key question:

How do we get visitors to ask more questions?

Photo by Wexner Center
Photo by Wexner Center

1. Model Curiosity

One technique that many educators use (including those at the Getty) is simply modeling the type of curiosity and open discovery that we want in our visitors. Choose an object early in a tour, and demonstrate some of the types of questions we might pose — information-based questions, museum-related questions, personal questions, and questions that allow us to use our imagination. The idea here is that visitors will feel more comfortable if you, as an educator, have opened the door to these types of questions. Being transparent about your motives here can be helpful, so that visitors or students know that you expect them to ask similar questions as the group moves to new objects. Creating a comfortable and inquiring environment for visitors is key to getting them to ask questions that matter to them.

2. Start with Visitor Questions

Elliott Kai-Kee mentioned this during their NAEA session. After introducing an object on a gallery talk or tour, he simply states: “I’d like to start with a question you might have for this object.” Of course, wait time is crucial here … remember to allow for silence if needed, and those first visitor questions will eventually spring up. This strategy truly uses visitor questions to drive the learning experience, and gallery teacher & visitors become fellow inquirers. Object selection can play an important role, too, as there are definitely some artworks that will likely spark more immediate questions in visitors. For example, in my own experiences, a large enigmatic painting by German artist Max Beckmann might draw out more immediate questions and curiosities than a Worcester porcelain coffee cup.

3. Cataloging Our Questions

Sometimes, it can be quite productive (especially for school groups) to allow time for students or visitors to brainstorm a list of questions they might have about an artwork. This can be as simple as each person writing down as many questions as they can about an object. An educator can take this further by inviting participants to pair up, review each others’ questions, and select one or two to share with the larger group. By doing this, you can quickly generate a large number of questions driven by students’ or visitors’ interests — a great place to begin a conversation about an object.

4. Creative Questions

One very effective “thinking routine” developed through Harvard’s Project Zero and the Artful Thinking project is called “Creative Questions.” This routine provides students with a series of question stems, and encourages them to be creative and come up with a list of several questions about an artwork — using the suggested stems only if they need help brainstorming different types of questions. While I tend to avoid using worksheets in the galleries, I often use this with students — and it can generate some interesting and fun questions (I especially like questions that come from the stem “How would it be different if…”). As with many thinking routines from Project Zero, this strategy can expand and deepen students’ thinking in relation to a work of art and encourage their curiosity.

5. Having a Conversation with the Artwork

We may have success in getting visitors to ask questions about the artwork and its information/context (who’s the artist, when did she make it, how was it made, how did the museum acquire it, how much did it cost, etc. etc.), but it is quite rare for students and visitors to be invited to ask questions of the artwork? By this, I mean encouraging visitors to pretend that they are having a conversation with the painting — what would they ask it? Not the artist, but the actual painting itself. Yes, this stretches the imagination (a bit too much for some traditional visitors, truth be told), yet can be such a creative way to further our exploration and inquiry. I constantly ask adults, teachers, and students to do this with artworks in the galleries, and I always find that it taps into a more complex level of engagement. Participants frequently ask quite personal things of the painting — for example, when working with an Anselm Kiefer piece one afternoon, a teacher asked “Are you mad at me?” At the same session, other teachers asked “Why are you so chaotic?”, “Are you still becoming?” and “How did your world begin?”

What are some other ways that you have been able to motivate visitors and students to ask questions? How do we continue to create these learning experiences driven by visitor questions?

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Featured header image: 1/19/11 PAGES Gallery Tour, from Wexner Center for the Arts, Flickr.com, Photo by Jay LaPrete, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

5 thoughts on “How Can We Get Museum Visitors to ASK More Questions?”

  1. Mike, thanks for posting this! I missed the beginning of the session, so I am thankful for your recap. Lots of great gallery teaching ideas here. Also, a lot of this reminds me of another program/session I saw at NAEA: the National Gallery DC’s family program Artful Conversations (http://www.nga.gov/programs/family/#artfulconversations) that is based on Artful Thinking from Project Zero. It’s very structured, but definitely promotes questioning, and I love that they adapted it for a family audience for adults with their children.

  2. No problem, Chelsea. The session got me thinking a lot about how we can motivate visitor questions, and then also what that process might teach us about our own practice as educators (it sounded like that was a big outcome for the Getty educators — would you agree?).

    This does have strong connections with the NGA family program, and I think that might come from the Project Zero thinking strategies at the core of what they are doing. One of the core things that visitors/families are asked in these experiences (if I remember correctly) is “what do you wonder?” This open-ended question comes right from teaching strategies like Project Zero’s Artful Thinking as well as adaptations that other museums have created. I hope one day that I have the opportunity to bring my family to one of those Artful Conversations at the National Gallery!

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