Whether we think of the museum as temple or forum, the experience we strive to stimulate for our visitors is that of contemplation — contemplation leading to awareness enlightenment, and understanding.
In today’s information world, however, where attention spans are driven by 30 second media messages, contemplation is not always achieved easily or naturally. Ideas and information are to be digested instantaneously without benefit of contemplation or reflection, for they have become luxuries we can rarely afford. This orientation presents formidable challenges to adults who enter the museum seeking rewarding learning experiences. Rather than attaining a state of contemplation, which the Random House College Dictionary defines as an “act of thoughtful observation,” adults often find themselves in a trance. They wander through galleries in what seems a half-conscious state, glazed and overwhelmed, hardly engaged in any form of thoughtful inquiry.
Yet, I behave that most visitors, adults especially, want to “slow down” sufficiently to engage in contemplation, but are puzzled as to how to do it. I believe the kind of contemplation that can occur in museums often needs to be learned. Docents provide a great service to visitors by teaching them how to experience the power of the museum’s “magic” through contemplation.
There are a number of strategies docents can use during their tours to stimulate “thoughtful observation.” One way is through inquiry. The use of questions can be very effective for both docent and visitor. For docents, questions tell more about the visitor and how to adjust the tour; for visitors, questions help to focus and broaden experiences with the objects exhibited.
Children are thought to be more receptive to questions during tours; adults more reserved. While this is often the case, adults can be extremely responsive depending on how and when questions are posed, and what is asked.
Questions during an adult tour should accomplish one or more of the following purposes:
Create an informal and nonthreatening environment
These types of questions are used from the beginning of the tour to immediately establish an atmosphere where visitors feel comfortable sharing observations and ideas. These questions send a message to visitors that you invite their own questions and dialogue. It also provides you with information useful to tailoring your tour to suit the needs and interests of participants. Here are several examples:
- Is there anything in particular you would like to see during our tour?
- Are there any questions you would like to ask before we begin, or before we leave this area?
- Can all of you see this object/exhibit?
Tell you more about the visitors
These questions are very close to the first ones as they help create an informal and non-threatening environment. The purpose of these questions is to give you more specific information about the visitors, and to help you make the tour more relevant to their lives, interests, and skills. Examples of these questions could include:
- Have you been to this museum before? What parts or exhibits did you see while here previously?
- Do any of you paint, collect, hike, bird watch, etc?
- Has anyone been to Yosemite Valley (subject of the exhibition)?
- How does this exhibition/art work compare with your experience of it?
Direct the visitors’ attention
Some questions can help the visitor focus upon, and appreciate, details. Directing the visitor’s vision by suggesting different things to consider is an important first step toward contemplating exhibits. Some examples of these questions are:
- Can you find references to the stamps and other contemporary symbols influencing the artist?
- What clues can you discover to suggest how this was made?
- What about the object tells you it is not from the twentieth century?
- What are the first three things you notice about this work/object?
- What caused you to see those particular areas first?
- What can you tell about this animal’s habitat just by looking at this exhibit?
Motivate adult visitors to use their experiences to think about objects
These questions call upon the adult’s knowledge, interest, nostalgia, and life experiences. They are factors that distinguish many senior adult visitors from their younger counterparts. Adults are often interested in those things relating directly to their own life experiences. Their memories wait to be recalled and re-experienced in vivid detail. (I think of my 100-yearold Grandmother and the spark in her eye whenever she tells me about growing up during the turn of the last century.) Docents can make use of adults’ experiences to stimulate deeper exploration of exhibitions. Simple questions can start the process. They might include:
- Do any of you remember this? How did you use it, or see it used? When?
- Why was it so important, popular, or unusual at the time?
- Does this remind you of anything you’ve experienced?
- How did this impact upon your life at the time?
- What made this artist’s style seem so unusual at the time?
Teach visitors how to ask questions about the objects
These questions are similar to those curators might ask themselves when selecting objects for display. They do not necessarily require a verbal response from visitors. Though some might engage in dialogue, others may prefer to find the questions rhetorical, and engage in private contemplation. A quiet visitor does not mean that his or her imagination has not be stirred. The purpose of posing these questions is as much for offering models as for actually being answered.
- We might ask ourselves, ‘Why was this so important; what are the most significant aspects or details here, and how do they relate to one another?’
- How might I learn when this was made?
- How does this relate to the technology of its time?
Address the questions you believe visitors are asking themselves.
These questions explore and acknowledge visitors’ concerns. The use of an introductory phrase, such as “We’re often asked…” is useful with these types of questions. Other introductory phrases that validate the visitors’ questions might include:
- I used to wonder about. . .
- Many people want to know. . .
- People are frequently concerned about . . .
While these six categories do not constitute an all-inclusive list, they can provide a good starting point for developing questioning strategies for touring adults. You may find it useful to keep a list of questions that elicit particularly productive or enthusiastic responses.
Questioning is an appropriate teaching method with adult visitors. Once you understand why and how they are used, questions can become very helpful tools, assisting adults to investigate and appreciate museum exhibitions.
Barbara Henry is Curator of Education at The Oakland Museum, the largest multi-disciplinary institution devoted to the art. history, and ecology of California. She has more than 13 years in the museum field, which includes docent training workshops throughout the State of California. This article is based on a docent training workshop she conducted with Mary Nell York, former Docent Council President at The Oakland Museum.
Henry, Barbara “Questioning Strategies: For Adults Only,” The Docent Educator 1.1, (Autumn 1991): 6-7.