Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Finding Enticing Questions on the Edge

Yesterday, I was telling a friend about what I perceive as the essential challenge to involving visitors in co-creation in museums: finding compelling questions that open people to the experience of sharing. He told me about the World Question Center, and we spent the rest of the evening exploring the questions and answers posed on this fascinating site.

The World Question Center is a product of, a group of self-described "digerati" providing a forum for scientists and other folks of interest to present lectures and symposia on topics loosely related to science and culture. Each year, John Brockman poses one provocative question, and solicits responses from some of the most influential thinkers in the world (though a suspiciously large number of them are white men).

Recent questions include:
  • What's your law? (2004)
  • What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? (2005)
  • What's your dangerous idea? (2006)
  • What are you optimistic about? (2007)
And this year's question is: What have you changed your mind about? Why?

I'm frankly less interested in many of the answers than I am in the questions themselves. As are other readers--now that the most recent question/answers have been put out as books, I was interested to read the Amazon reviews. The "dangerous idea" book got very positive reviews, including this one from a person who wanted to know "your" dangerous idea:
In other words, Joe and Jane Citizen were not invited to participate in this project. Too bad... it would have been a worthy exercise to see "third culture intellectuals" spouting out alongside those who live in... our first and second culture?

Regardless, there are some interesting ideas presented here, even if the pool of writers has been high-graded through a filter that is not clearly specified.

Brockman has done a great job of teasing out questions that are both provocative and evocative, and I think many of us and our visitors would benefit from the exercise of answering them. He tells the story of visiting Hans Obrist, curator at London's Serpentine Gallery, who was putting on his own exhibition (in his office) of responses to the question: "What's your formula?" Obrist had received submissions, drawn on A4 paper, by celebrities like Brian Eno and Rem Koolhaas, but my instant reaction was to recall a time when my then 14 year old cousin came to me with an elaborate set of formulae for an imagined new axle arrangement for a more efficient car. We all have these theories, formulae, laws, and observations inside of us--we just need the right question or opportunity to draw them out.

John Brockman has given us a starting point. If the hard part is coming up with a great question, go to the World Question Center and find some pre-vetted ones that might be compelling to visitors as the basis for co-creating an exhibit or program. And once you're feeling brave enough, start writing your own. The World Question Center can't rest with the digerati--it will be a lot more powerful when we are all asking and answering each other.

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