Posing Questions That Engage the Visitor: A Hands-On Interactive Workshop – Bev Biderman and Elizabeth Evans – Textile Museum of Canada
We had 63 participants and wanted to split them into 12 small groups. As they entered we gave each person a piece of coloured yarn and they looked for chairs and/or people with yarn that matched theirs.
I set up the chairs in pods facing the front so that people could face the front of the room when necessary and move easily into small groups.
We began by asking people to close their eyes and exhale. I asked them to set aside thoughts and concerns running through their minds in order to be fully present for the hour. I asked them to notice what they saw when they closed their eyes and asked them to relax their facial muscles.
While their eyes were closed I gave them instructions. I told them I'd be holding up an object that I wanted them to look at in silence and asked them to make a mental note of what they saw. Afterwards I would ask for responses. Responses could be simple and obvious. They could pass if they had nothing say. There were no wrong answers, but we wanted responses to be observable and weren't interested at this point in context or background.
I called on people for their observations and recorded them on the flipchart.
Then I asked them to close their eyes again. This time I asked them to imagine that they were presenting the object to a visitor. What question would they ask the visitor to get them to see what they had objserved?
We had a few moments of silence before I called on people and recorded their questions.
We asked people to move into small groups and gave them a minute to introduce themselves to each other and appoint a recorder. We gave each group an object in a bag.
I asked them to close their eyes again and talked them through the process as I had in the large group. This time they would open their bag, look closely at the object, pass it around in silence for a minute or so. Then they would go around the circle from one person to the next and state an observation that would be repeated and recorded by the recorder.
After a few minutes I asked them to close their eyes again and imagine they were presenting this object to a visitor. What question would they ask to help the visitor see what they had observed? After a minute of silence, they went around the circle stating their questions.
After a few minutes I asked them to choose their best question.
We reconvened. A representative of each group came to the front with their object and asked their question. Because of time contraints we asked the rest of the group to imagine they'd been asked that question and to think about how they would respond.
We had a few minutes for discussion. We left a few minutes for people to come up to the front and see the objects together with their related questions.
Some people find this difficult because they are very concerned with background and context. It is valuable for them to take time to look at objects carefully , in silence and note what they observe.
Taking turns in the group with observations can be valuable too as everyone gets an opportunity to share.
With more time or a smaller group, it would be fruitful to have people respond to the "best questions".
With more time, we could have developed other types of questions such as questions about the visitor's personal response to the object.
"Seeing comes before words." (John Berger)
"It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." (Oscar Wilde)
"... the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art." (Susan Sontag)
Barrett, Terry (2006). "Interpretation" in Encyclopedia of 20th Century Photography. New York: Routledge, 2006, Volume 2, pp 803-806
Although dealing with photography, Barrett's ideas are accessible and relevant when engaging with all art and artifacts. He is very good on paying attention to one's feelings when looking at an object in a museum. (note PDF is online; google to locate)
Barrett, Terry. "Principles for Interpreting Art" in Art Education, Vol. 47, No. 5, September, 1994), pp. 8-13 Great overview of Barrett's guidelines for interpreting art aimed at the educator. He rejects the idea that one's approach to a piece is either through intellect or feeling, but insists both are needed for an understanding ("interpretation") of the significance of a piece. Moreover, he asserts: "Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and to continue on our own." (note PDF is online; google to locate)
Berger, John. (1972). Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin, 1972. A classic. About the role of the context of what is being viewed, the influence of viewers' experiences, biases.
Brown, Espeth H. (2005). "Appendix A: Reading the Visual Record" in Looking for America, Ardis Cameron, Editor. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005. Excellent description of how to make visual descriptions of objects. Of interest for all educators, but especially those needing to prepare visual descriptions for those visitors who have low vision or are blind.
Elkins, James. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. New York: Harcourt (1996). Fascinating exploration of how we bring our own biases to "just looking".
Manguel, Alberto. Reading Pictures: What We Think About When We Look at Art. New York: Random House, 2000. A rambling, always-interesting, erudite look at "reading" art, focusing in detail on eleven specific works and their creators.
MOMA Alzheimer's Project: www.moma.org/meetme/index
The Museum of Modern Art in New York has had, since 2009 an innovative programme of tours for those with Alzheimer's and other dementias. The downloadable guide, "Foundations for Engagement with Art" (found in the "Practice" section of the website), while aimed at educators working with visitors with dementia can actually be useful for anyone trying to encourage visitors to look closer. Sample questions in the Foundations guide offered to that end are excellent.
(There is a concept in disability studies called "The Curbcut Effect" which refers to how accommodations for those with disabilities have an unforeseen spillover effect of being of benefit to all. For example the gentle curbcut meant for those in wheelchairs benefits mothers with strollers, those on skateboards, etc. etc. In the same way, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where one of the NDS presenters is a gallery guide, training of guides in how to give accessible tours to those with disabilities (such as dementia) make us all better guides. )
Shuh, John Hennigar. "Teaching Yourself to Teach with Objects" in Chapter 7, The Educational Role of the Museum, 2nd Edition, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill editor, Routledge, 1999. A highly readable account of how open-ended questions can allow both the educator and the student to learn in ways they would never have imagined.
Sontag, Susan. "Against Interpretation" in Against Interpretation and other Essays, E&S: London, 1967. See quote from the titular essay at the beginning of this bibliography. If you only read one item in this bibliography, read this essay.
Textile Museum of Canada website for "Social Fabric" project:
Using items from the Museum's permanent collection, this website allows you to look at items of your choice up close, and answer (interesting) questions that museum educators pose about the item. Your answer can be posted online along with other questions, creating a discussion. Well-worth visiting.
Zelanski, Paul and Fisher, Mary Pat. The Art of Seeing. Fourth Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999. A wonderfully comprehensive guide to looking at art and artifacts, from formal analysis of line, composition and colour to interpretation and cultural context. The explanations of line, composition and colour and their effects on the viewer can be useful as a foundation for developing questions that encourage museum and art gallery visitors to look more closely.
... and last but not least:
Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing About Art. 8th Edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005. See especially the wonderfully on-topic section, "Getting Ideas: Asking Questions to Get Answers" pp. 47-99.
Bev Biderman and Elizabeth Evans, October 2011, National Docent Symposium.