Asking good questions is essential to museum practice. Exhibitions are explorations of a topic, often driven by a curator’s curiosity, even when not explicitly framed around a question. Tours explore questions masked as a theme: How do artists explore place? How can we learn about the 19th century through household objects? Inquiry-based museum education, and participatory practices that solicit visitor feedback, stem from a common goal: We want visitors to ask good questions, to contribute their own ideas, and to learn to pose and contemplate questions for themselves during museum visits and beyond.
Likewise, as educators and administrators, we must pose good questions that support learning: for visitors, for ourselves, and for the museum field. For visitors, our good questions both model an inquiry-based approach to museums and engage them in the work of interpretation. For ourselves, good questions are a way to keep our work fresh and exciting: by identifying questions we might have about our practice, we continually reinvent and improve our practice. And for the field, good questions move us into research and experimentation, finding new understandings and methods of practice that can be shared.
As any educator who engages audiences in inquiry-based tours knows, crafting good questions is some of the hardest work we do. Some questions are too open, and others too closed; some questions are off-track or uninteresting. There is no recipe for good questions, but they do share a few characteristics. Good questions are:
- Relevant (on task)
- Informed (takes into account existing information, and builds on what you already know)
- Genuine (you really want to know the answer)
My consulting practice is driven by an interest in questions, and helping museum practitioners immerse themselves and visitors in questions that deepen all of our museum experiences.