Friday, March 14, 2008

FInding the Right Questions (For Visitor Dialogue)

These days, it's fashionable to use label-writing to ask visitors questions. How will your actions affect global warming? When have you experienced racism? What do you think?

But asking a question, even providing a talk-back location for visitors to answer the question, does not guarantee an engaging social experience. In reality, most of our questions are too earnest, too leading, too obvious, to spark interest, let alone engagement. As one designer commented to me after last week's colloquium on museums and civic discourse, it feels fake, even condescending, like we're handing out little "talk back opportunities" just to give visitors something to do.

Have you ever had someone ask you a question and not care to hear the answer? I'm TERRIBLE about this. My husband will frequently call me on it. I'll ask him a question, and then literally walk out of the room. It's disrespectful. It's rude. And more than that, it begs the question: why did I ask him in the first place?

Why do we ask visitors questions in exhibitions? It shouldn't be a half-hearted gesture, questions tossed out without any listening to follow. Is it just an exercise in giving visitors a fake voice? I certainly hope not, and I believe that most of us genuinely want these questions to present an opportunity for real visitor expression. And so I am becoming increasingly obsessed with this question:

What are the right questions, and what are the right ways to ask them?

First, questions must be asked with a genuine interest in hearing the answer. This is really hard, and it's necessary, no matter the context. When it comes to an exhibition, this gets more challenging: if I'm sometimes disingenuous about hearing my loved ones' response to a question, how much harder is it to have true interest in the response of a random stranger? This is one of the things that makes the PostSecret project so successful--the fact that Frank Warren (and millions of others) REALLY care about random folks' answer to the question: what is a secret you have never told anyone? I don't think that Frank Warren has a lock on the question business. But he is just about the best question-asker I know in terms of expressing love and interest in all of his respondents.

Relatedly, we should ask q
uestions that induce grappling. Thank you to Saturday's participants for bringing this wonderful word back into my vocabulary. "Grappling questions" are not merely interesting or even provocative, but one where the adversaries exist as much in our own hearts as in the voices of those on the opposite side of the aisle. Of course, the danger here is that we shift to "stumpers" (like the question for which you want anyone's answer) which may dampen participation. I'd argue, however, that it's more important to ask a grappling question and use other vehicles to increase participation than to dumb down the question in hopes of getting more response to something "easier."

It may help us cut to the grappling if we ask
questions that are more human/personal than abstract/ideological. The program RadioLab does this so well, featuring two scientist hosts who frequently ask each other: do you really think that X does Y in your brain? and answer based on their personal feeling. It feels human to hear a scientist say, "do you really believe that?" It doesn't dumb down the science to switch from asking "how do you feel about genetically modified foods" to "what are your priorities when you are buying food?" It just requires different linkages.

Of course, the corollary to the personal is to try to ask
questions that are universal and do not leave anyone out because of cultural bias etc. Hard to do, important to consider. What are you assuming about your visitors, and what do your questions imply? A leading voice in declarative labels can hide. In questions, it comes out loud and clear.

The questions I've become most interested in recently are
speculative questions, like those posed by the alternate reality game World Without Oil, which presupposes an oil shock that leaves people seeking new energy options. Or, consider this clip in which Anna Quindlen asked pro-life folks: What should the punishment be for a woman who has an abortion (assuming abortion were illegal)? Speculative questions get us away from our hard and fast polemics and into an imaginative space where we can brainstorm with people who are different from us. I might never engage in useful discourse on the question of whether people should drive SUVs but I might have a great engagement with others on the question of how our lives would change if cars were not available. One of the things that excites me about gaming is the opportunity to engage in problem-solving in this way--to grapple with others on both personal and global levels in a safe imaginative space. In some ways, I wonder if this isn't the next age of imaginative play in museums--moving from letting people construct fantasies based on objects and interactions to those based on speculative questions. Finally, in a museum context, we need questions where the initial answer (and a composite gallery of such answers) provides a compelling enough single visit experience, and you don't need to be able to return again and again or stage real-time discourse at the point of the initial question to have a good experience. That way, the exhibit of questions and answers can serve as the starting point for discourse, rather than a dislocated moment in the life of a question.

What questions do you genuinely grapple with, lovingly want to know others' responses to, and speculatively want to pursue with others? A tall order, I know. But at least I really want to hear your response. All of you. I promise, I won't leave the room.

2 comments, add yours!:

Leslie Madsen-Brooks said...

Thanks for another excellent post, Nina.

Learning to ask questions well is such an important skill, and yet one that isn't exactly easy to pick up. I learned the art of asking good questions in the trenches of the college classroom. If you can make recalcitrant undergrads who haven't done the reading have a good discussion at 8 a.m., you can lead a discussion with anyone. :)

That said, I think what really makes for a good question is the opportunity to ask follow-up questions based on how the person responds to the first question. How can we make this possible in your average museum setting?

Nina Simon said...


Great question :)

It has a lot to do with the way we do/don't listen to visitors. I could imagine finding some ways to use the web to "extend the conversation." Bryan at SMM tells wonderful stories about visitors who have interacted with staff online via the Science Buzz site who then come in person for and enjoy meeting (and having a continued personal experience) with that same previously virtual staff/correspondent.