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Questions that Go Beyond the Facts

Every beginning reporter knows that asking the “5 W’s and an H” is the way to gather the facts. Who, what, where, when, why, and how are basic. With careful embellishment, however, docents can adapt these questions to go beyond mere facts, encouraging their audiences to observe, analyze, and evaluate.

“Who painted this picture?” “Who used this tool?” These questions are designed to elicit a factual response. “Picasso.” “A shoemaker.” In most tours of museums, gardens, zoos, science centers, and historic sites, such dead-end questions allow someone in the group (usually the docent) to show off his or her knowledge or force at least some of the group to admit (if only to themselves) that they don’t know the answer. Even phrasing the question so that it appears to ask tor a variety of answers, (“Who do you think used this tool?”) is merely a poorly-disguised quest for facts. Another way to use the Who question allows visitors to examine the painting, artifact, or zoo specimen to arrive at more useful answers.

“If I gave you this painting to take home, who in your family would like it best?” This more imaginative Who question opens opportunities for visitors to think about the painting on a different, non-factual level. Answers to this question might lead to a discussion of gender and/or age preferences, to ideas of monetary or aesthetic value, or considerations of an artist’s intended audience. As part of the discussion, a docent could “slip in” facts about the artist and the art, if she thought they were pertinent. The visitors, on the other hand, are freed from the demands of facts — they can imagine, explore, opine without a glimmer of pressure to “know the answer.”

What period in history does this furniture represent?” Docents who work in a historic house might be tempted to ask their visitors a what question such as this to determine how much the group already knows. Perhaps some of the visitors will venture a guess, but most wouldn’t know the specific, factual answer the docents wants. “Although this house was built in the 1850’s, the furniture is a local product created during the Reconstruction Period to encourage the use of local woods.” Who knew?

A more creative what question would allow the docent to share local lore while freeing all her audience to participate. “If you were a pioneer farmer who’d finally ‘made it’ financially, what would you do to your home to show your neighbors how well off you were?” Architecture, decorative arts, furniture design, even those puddling drapes, could enter the discussion as visitors explore their ideas of “making it,” and the docent might add information specific to the era of the historic site being toured. No facts are necessary, unless the docent has some to share, and visitors are encouraged to bring their own experiences to an imaginary situation.

When does a baby elephant or chimpanzee reach maturity?” I’ve never actually heard a zoo docent ask this question, but I’ve had several tell me an animal’s gestation period, as well as the length of time the animal is cared for by its mother. If the docent wants me to think about the comparative time that humans and animals care for their young, which usually is the point of such facts, a more interesting when question might be a lot more fun.

Bringing the question into the visitors’ own experience is relatively simple. “When did you think your kids were ready to leave home? Or, if you’re working with students, “When will you be ready to leave home and live on your own?” Such a question is certain to generate some laughter and, maybe, a little controversy— an excellent lead-in to a discussion of human versus animal “child care.” Facts about the specific animal being viewed can easily be inserted in such a discussion without pressuring visitors to produce the “correct” answer.

Where do these small plants seem to grow best, in the sun or the shade?” a docent in a botanical garden or nature might ask. It’s not a hard question to answer; they are clearly doing well in the deep shade of the oak trees. It’s a question designed to let the visitor observe and draw a conclusion. It’s also the kind of question teenagers call a “no-brainer.”

A different kind of where question encourages visitors to use their brains in a more creative manner. “As you can see, these plants seem to grow best in the shade. If you didn’t have to take such things as sun and shade into consideration, where in your yard would you put all the different plants you see here?” Answers to this question, based on each individual visitor’s vision of his or her own space, could allow the docent and visitors to explore other landscaping considerations — size, color, shape, and function of plants as well as their sun/shade requirements.

Why did you spill your milk?”

Why haven’t you done your homework?”

Young visitors have had lots of experience with why questions, and not all of their experiences have been positive! For this reason, why questions can be fraught with danger. If they are used in a museum setting to force the visitor to justify an answer or explain a choice, they can elicit the same defensiveness — even in adults — as “why were you late this morning?” On the other hand, asking a question that tries to explain why someone used a particular pigment or started a collection of butterflies is simply another thinly-disguised search for facts. And, unless the artist or artisan in question left a journal, explanations of why are often highly speculative.

However, why questions that allow the visitor to suspend disbelief, to step into another situation or another person’s life, can be real eye-openers. “Let’s pretend for a few minutes that you have lived in another country all your life,” a docent at a reconstructed historic community might begin. “Why would you ever want to leave home and move to an entirely different country?” By asking her audience to place themselves into an imaginary scenario, the docent enables them to become more personally involved with the real people who once lived in the community. As they discuss reasons they might have for moving, the docent can guide them to explore the “whys” of the community’s historic inhabitants.

A how question asked in a museum exhibit hall can be closed (“How does the blood flow from the heart through the body?”) or open-ended (“How could you explain the life cycle of a butterfly to a child younger than you?”). However, how questions are also perfect vehicles for hands-on experiences as they encourage visitors to solve problems.

“The exhibits in our history museum are arranged chronologically. How might you rearrange them if you were the curator? Use shoe boxes and cut-outs of the artifacts to show how you would redesign the museum’s collection. Remember that the galleries usually have some sort of title in the museum brochure, so also think of a title to go with each of your new galleries.”

“We’re not very pleased with this exhibit about the nervous system. I know you’ve been studying the body’s systems at school. If you were trying to explain the nervous system to a visitor to our science museum, how would you do it? When you and your partner have decided how you would solve this problem, use this poster board to draw a picture of your new exhibit.”

“We’ve been talking today about ways that an artist uses color to emphasize certain parts of his canvas. How would you use color to make me look at a particular part of your painting first? Remember, you can only use color to make one part of your painting seem more important than others. No fair drawing a big arrow! After you’ve finished your painting, I’m going to try and guess which part you wanted me to look at first.”

We all work in fact-filled environments, and part of our job as docents is to convey important facts about the collections with which we work. However, allowing our visitors to go beyond the facts gives them ownership of the museum experience. When a docent’s “5 W’s and an H” are phrased to encourage imagination and creativity, a visitor can relax and participate, knowing he’s not expected to produce “just the facts, ma’am.”

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Questions that Go Beyond the Facts,” The Docent Educator 9.2 (Winter 1999-2000): 4-5.

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