Hull of a House

Asking the Right Questions


Lisa J., here, thinking about how to ask the right questions to museum visitors.  I love interactive exhibits, facilitated dialogues, and just about anything that offers audiences a chance to talk back to museums.  But I’ve found that asking the right questions can be immensely challenging.  Ask the wrong question and your audience becomes confused, or worse, disinterested in the exhibit or activity.  The right question, on the other hand, is like magic.  Audiences get involved, have new insights, feel empowered, and are more likely to say that their museum visit was personally meaningful.  Isn’t that what we’re all after?

So I was really pleased to see these posts on Museum 2.0 about designing questions in museums.  They’ll be really helpful as we design a new interactive exhibit for the Hull-House Museum, called “Unfinished Business.”

For the past year I have been facilitating conversations (links to .pdf article) on immigration and models of social change for high school and college groups.  At first, some of the questions I asked were completely useless, like the terribly broad and potentially stereotyping question, “Where do immigrants work?”

Some questions I still struggle with.  For example, I want to highlight Jane Addams’ boldness in starting a settlement house and question the power dynamics between residents and immigrants.  I sometimes ask, “what do you think would be the response today if two privileged white women moved into an under-served neighborhood of color to start a Settlement House?”  I like asking students to imagine Addams’s work in the present day, but this question isn’t necessarily effective because students often speculate about low-income neighborhoods and come to troubling conclusions.

But some of our questions have been refined and are really successful.  Here are some of my favorites.  Notice how open-ended they are:

Still, I do struggle to find balance in my dialogues.  I have an agenda for these conversations, but I want students to come to conclusions themselves through the questions- not by my having to spell it out. One solution for me has always been to assert the history of our site.  This is especially useful if students make claims that are nonfactual or even racist. (“Immigrants used to work harder and wanted a better future than they do today.”  “Polish immigrants came to the United States legally, but it’s different with the Mexicans.”)

Have you struggled to ask the right questions in a museum setting?  Any tips or questions to avoid?

For more information on facilitated dialogues:

Cafe Society’s DIY Kit (.pdf document)

Essays by Sites of Conscience members on various museum dialogues (.pdf docuement)