4 POWERFUL QUESTIONS TO SUPERCHARGE YOUR ART EXPERIENCES

In the past I’ve talked about all kinds of different subjects about questioning. I’ve talked about The 5 Golden Rules for Asking Brilliant Questions⁠ (Episode 4), the 10 Common Mistakes to Avoid when asking questions (Episode 10), how to use artworks to improve your questioning skills (Episode 15), quick things you can do now to improve your questioning technique immediately (Episode 36) and so-called ‘bad’ questions – the types of questions you should probably be avoiding in your art experiences (Episode 48
 
I don’t really like big lists of ‘good’ or ‘great’ questions – for example, 50 questions to ask about art. These lists are OK for a quick source of inspiration to help you change up the type of questions you ask or for a boost now and again, but it’s the list part that I don’t like – you’re not going to be carrying around a list with you in the museum
 
Instead it’s much better to work on your questioning technique⁠ with exercises and experimentation, rather than trying to memorise or use big lists of questions. Working on your technique yourself will help you to phrase questions better in the moment, instinctively and naturally. And this will always work better than parrot-phrasing a question you read on a list. 
 
But there are some questions that I think are worth remembering.
And these are the types of questions that have a really powerful effect when they are asked.
These questions are the ones that will supercharge your art experience with your participants. And today I’m sharing 4 simple questions that are worth remembering and trying out with your groups. 
These are questions that can be used at any moment during your experience or guided tour to great effect.
I’ve found it hard to narrow it down to a small list (I started preparing this episode with a much longer list), but I’ve chosen questions that work for me time after time with all sorts of different groups, different artworks or objects, different types of museums and different situations.
These are universally powerful questions – but these are just my favourites, maybe you have others that you’d like to share so that i can add them to my question bank (yes, it’s a thing)? I’d love to hear what your powerful go-to questions are. 
So, here they are. Let’s start with the first one.
 

#1 HOW WOULD IT BE DIFFERENT IF…..?

This is a fantastic question starter or question stem to use in an art or object discussion. It helps us to reframe what we’re looking at and see it anew or afresh.

It encourages imaginative thinking and helps participants to develop new perspectives on things. Literally seeing something from a different direction or differently helps to challenge our assumptions and to come up with the more non-obvious ideas.

It’s great to use when the discussion might start to dry up or participants are finding something a bit challenging, thinking about it differently, from another perspective really helps.

So, use ‘How would it be different if…?’ when you want to:

  • Get another perspective
  • Another way of looking at something
  • To explore different ways of thinking about something

I use this question frequently in art experiences and it is one of the suggested stems in thinking routine Creative Questions. It always generates a lot of new ideas and great discussions.

I used it in a post on Instagram last year with a Monet painting , Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (Courtauld Gallery, London, UK, Public Domain⁠⁠), and encouraged people to see how many ‘How would it be different if…?’ questions they could come up with about this artwork.

Here are some of their suggestions:

How would it be different if the shape of the trees was different – narrow and high like cypress trees, for example ?
How would it be different at night with moonlight reflected in the water?
How would it be different if the water was frozen smooth and solid? How would it be different with boaters in the foreground?
How would it be different if it depicted another season?
How would it be different if the tree leaves were green?

I also like to use this question with the thinking routine Colour Shape Line. I like to get participants thinking about how the artwork or object would be different without a particular colour, shape or line. What would change? Would the effect be the same or different? It encourages participants to really think about the effect certain elements have on the power or story of an artwork or object.

Have a go at using this question with a variety of different groups and see what effect it has. Let me know how you get on!

#2 WHAT DO YOU SEE THAT MAKES YOU SAY THAT?

This simple follow-up question asks participants to share evidence for what their saying. But the magic in this question is the ‘see’ part – it asks them specifically to look for visual evidence that is based in the object or artwork itself.

I know that ‘‘What makes you say that?’ is a favourite with many – and indeed is a Project Zero Thinking Routine. It’s also part of the Visual Thinking Strategies 3 core questions. It too asks particiaptns to support their interpretations with evidence.

BUT it can be problematic at times – I feel it can sometimes put people on the defensive – like a personal ‘why’ question like ‘why do you think that?’.

I’ve also read an article that discussed avoiding using this question in discussions around sensitive themes because it could reinforce stereotypes by reiteration of a hurtful sentiment.

As an aside, I had a discussion about this with educator Jess Vance on Instagram last year whilst she was writing her book Leading with a Lens of Inquiry and the discussion made it into the book where she suggests some alternatives and notes that ‘as with all questions, our tone and body language impact the way others perceive our inquiries’ So if you use WMYST, it’s worth being aware of some of these thoughts.

So, as a general rule, when working with artworks, I always prefer to use ‘What do you SEE that makes you say that?’ This asks the participant to look specifically for visual evidence based in the artwork itself. The question ‘What are you noticing that makes you say that?’ is similar.

Over time and with continued use of ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’, participants will automatically start supporting their interpretations with evidence without being asked.

Here are some of the other alternatives I use too:

  • What are you noticing that makes you say that?
  • What evidence can we find in the artwork/object etc for that idea?
  • What do you see that informs your ideas?
  • What do you see that made you come to that conclusion?
  • What evidence can you share (from the artwork) to back up that idea?
  • Can you show us where you see that in the artwork?

And more. But none of them are as catchy as ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’ And this, is part of its attraction – it’s memorable and catchy and therefore no thinking is involved on your part to ensure that you are asking participants to support their ideas and interpretations.

And something else that Jess says in Leading with a Lens of Inquiry struck me too when i was thinking about this episode – she says that What Makes you Say That prompts an ‘intentional pause’ and the same is true for ‘What do you See That Makes you Say That?’ too – this pause allows a bit of time and space for the everyone in the group (facilitator, participants and the person who has just spoken) to think about what has just been said and to reflect upon it.

It gives time for the speaker to question their thinking and/or any assumptions they may have made too. And it also allows the facilitator to demonstrate a genuine interest in what the participant has said – it’s a way of saying ‘tell me more about this with some more context’. It stops you automatically moving on to the next comment from someone else and gives a moment to slow down and dig deeper into something someone has said. In essence, it’s a golden question.

So, in summary use What do you see that makes you say that when you want:

  • Ask for evidence (particularly visual evidence)
  • Slow down the process and avoid a round of quick-fire interpretations
  • Listen carefully
  • Add depth to a discussion

So, be sure to add ‘What do you see that makes you say that?‘ to your question repertoire. You won’t be sorry.

Notice what effect it has on the discussion and share with me. You can also share with me any other great questions you have for asking for evidence.

 

#3 WHAT IF I WAS TO TELL YOU….?

So, I love ‘what if…’ questions and this one ‘what if I was to tell you’ is a very clever way of sharing contextual information with your group.

There was a silkscreen print in the Tropenmuseum that I’ve worked with hundreds of times with a variety of different groups. It shows a woman of a mature age seated crosslegged on the floor. She wears a blue headscarf and a dress with a white background and a yellow floral print. She looks out directly at us. Behind her are some images of objects and people and writing or script behind her that is cursive and looks like it could be Arabic script. The image is by an artist by Khosrow Hassanzadeh. It’s actually an image he created of his sister created in 2004. 

We used to spend a lot of time observing the image – which is huge around 2m x 3m – before we would then step inside and imagine what this woman perceived, knew and cared about. Then I would ask participants to come up with a title for this artwork.

Only at this point would I reveal that the title given by the artist for this work was ‘Terrorist’. This would always cause a ripple of noise amongst the participants. Lots of questions would be asked to me about what this means. I would then ask the group what they think the artist is trying to say by using this title.

We would always then have a discussion about what terrorism means, and what might the artist be saying by referring to his sister as a ‘terrorist’ in this artwork. It always contrasts sharply with the discussion we have had previously about the woman and causes participants to think about stereotypes and assumptions that they or the world might have.

After sharing information using ‘what if I was to tell you….’, I would always then follow up with some questions of my own, such as:

  • How does this change your interpretation?
  • Has the new information changed any of your previous ideas?
  • Has it answered any of your wonders?

You can use this question at any moment to share information – either to help the discussion along or to give the group some information to be able to continue working out what is happening in the artwork.

It doesn’t have to be a ‘shocking’ piece of information as above, it can be anything – but use it wisely and pick your moment well. It can be a really powerful and impactful question. Think about what you can share and when you can share it for maximum engagement and interaction from your group.

And so finally the last question – this was tough, I had a longer list and I had to really think about the questions that I use time and time again and that have the most effect with groups.

#4 WHAT WAS CHALLENGING, INTERESTING OR INSPIRING ABOUT LOOKING AT AN ARTWORK IN THIS WAY?

This question I have used so many times as a way to ask participants to think about and reflect on an art or object discussion that we’ve just had. It can also be used at the end of a guided tour or art experience after you’ve discussed several artworks or objects. 

I love the fact that it offers 3 alternatives from which to think about the question – someone may have found the discussion challenging, interesting or inspiring – and if offers them the chance to reflect from that standpoint. It gives a little focus to the reflection.

It’s less broad than ‘what did you like or enjoy?’ and less formal than ‘what insights or learning did you get from our discussion?’ You can ask your participants to reflect individually, seeing who would like to offer their thoughts or ask them to form small groups and chat together about it. 

This question asks the group and everyone in it to make meaning from what has taken place, to identify the moments, actions and observations that stand out and to pinpoint significance. 

You can also use this question yourself as a facilitator to do a quick on the spot reflection on a discussion that has just taken place. It creates a ‘reflective moment’ for you to think about what happened, what stood out and what that may tell you (or not) or what can be learned from it. 

So in summary use ‘What was challenging, interesting or inspiring about looking at an artwork in this way?’ when you want:

  • A reflective moment (for your participants and/or for yourself)
  • Make meaning from the discussion and create longer lasting memories through reflection
  • Get feedback from the group on what they enjoyed or found challenging (which allows you to personalise the rest of the experience)
  • Check in with how the group are feeling

 

CONCLUSION

So I’ve 3 powerful questions that I think are worth remembering. These questions have a really powerful effect when they are asked. These are the ones that will supercharge your art experiences with your participants.

  • How would it be different if…?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What if I was to tell you….?
  • What was challenging, interesting or inspiring about looking at art/objects in this way?

Which question are you going to try? And do you have your own favourite powerful questions? Please share your thoughts, photos, sketches and or notes via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter with me. Search for Thinking Museum on all social media and you’ll find me.

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And don’t forget my FREE new Facebook group The Slow Looking Club created especially for podcast listeners. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly. I’ll share resources, ideas and tips for anyone interested in looking at art – whether it’s for your personal enjoyment or your practice as a cultural educator. And we’ll have regular slow looking moments together too!

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