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How to Create Intellectual Comfort in your Museum and Gallery Programmes

how to create intellectual comfort in your museum and gallery programmes


Today I’m exploring the concept of intellectual comfort – what it is, why it’s important and 8 ways you can foster it in your museum and gallery programmes.


In my (forthcoming) book Slow Looking at Art: The Visible Thinking in the Museum Approach I have a chapter dedicated to creating a collaborative culture in your museum and gallery programmes. As part of this chapter, I talk about how important it is to make participants feel not only psychologically safe, but also intellectually safe. 

Museums can be scary places. They can be intimidating. Even walking through the front doors of a museum can trigger ‘threshold fear’, let alone joining a tour or knowing how to engage with the collections within. How am I supposed to act? To walk? To feel? What do I do? How do I do it? What are the codes here? Why does everyone seem to know what they’re doing and I don’t…?

So many people feel that museums are not places for them, that there is a prerequisite amount of information required before you can enjoy being in a museum. This is particularly prevalent in art museums and around art in general. That feeling of needing to know something about art in order to enjoy it. You’ll remember that this is something I discussed on the podcast with Ben Street back in Episode 74. You don’t need to know anything about art to enjoy it. 

As a museum educator and facilitator I want to make sure that all of my participants feel comfortable with whatever information or knowledge – if any – they have prior to starting their programme with me. This means whether they’re starting with zero knowledge or consider themselves experts and everything in-between. 

On any given museum or gallery programme, you can have a wide variety of differing levels of knowledge in your group. This sits  alongside different motivations for being there. 

Your job as a facilitator is to ensure that everyone feels confident and able to participate fully in your programme, whatever their motivation or knowledge level upon arriving. This is what it means to create intellectual comfort on a museum or gallery programme. 


As an aside, creating intellectual comfort doesn’t mean that you may not try at times to gently push beyond the levels of comfort so that your participants can discover new things. It doesn’t mean that your programmes should be without any intellectual challenge. We know that comfort zones rarely give rise to a lot of learning. 

When you engage in discussions with your participants in the museum, you’re never 100% sure where the discussion might go. It’s essentially open-ended, even though you may have some parameters in place such as a theme or an idea that guides the programme. This means that there will be moments of discomfort and wondering, alongside moments of discovery and aha moments. The moments of discomfort may come from hearing opinions or perspectives that are different to yours, or realising that you’re changed your thinking as a result of the process, or when you’re struggling, really struggling, to make sense of an artwork. But at the same time, in any discussion-based approach there will also be highs – wow or aha moments, lightbulb moments, moments when you’re amazed by what someone else has just said and you’re nodding along. 

What we are aiming for here with intellectual comfort is for our participants to feel secure in the first place, so that they can learn new things. Not feeling comfortable in a museum or on a museum programme means that participants won’t take part and participate and therefore their potential to learn new things and enjoy themselves is undermined. 


I did a bit of digging and found this great definition in an essay by Ashby Butnor. It says:

 ‘I imagine this feeling of comfort as similar to feelings of relaxation and belonging, free of stress and doubt, while being entertained, amused, or satisfied in some way’


That’s the feeling that you’re looking for. You want people to feel comfortable in your programmes. Intellectual comfort means creating a warm, inviting space where participants feel they belong, regardless of what they know or what brought them to the museum in the first place. 

Intellectual comfort means valuing and appreciating participants ideas and making them feel comfortable at their present knowledge level. 

Discussion-based programmes can make some people feel uncomfortable – for example, if you’re only used to participating in traditional style walk-and-talk tours where the museum guide talks at you for an hour or more, then being asked to participate and share your thoughts can feel a bit intimidating.

Likewise, if your school experience was one where the teacher stood at the front and transmitted information for your absorption or memorisation, then again being asked to share what you think about an artwork can feel like a tall order. So, it’s important for everyone to feel that this is a place for them. 


Fear, insecurity and apathy (amongst other things) may get in the way of participants offering their thoughts, contributions and asking questions on your museum and gallery programmes. 

In his article on intellectually safe classrooms, Trevor Baba says that:

’Intellectual safety encourages respectful relationships, meaningful learning environments, and productive disagreement’


It’s about creating a positive environment where everyone is respected.

Ashby Butnor also asserts that intellectual safety is not simply about feeling comfortable; rather it is a “feeling of trust in oneself and one’s community to honestly and genuinely engage in thinking

You’ll find that participants are more willing to participate knowing that their comments and thoughts will be taken seriously. When they feel that the environment is intellectually comfortable, they are happy to demonstrate their curiosity without fear of worrying what people will think.

Everyone feels welcome and that they have a place. Everyone feels heard and that they are a part of the process of discovery. Everyone can contribute no matter what their level or background. 

Trust is key here – when the atmosphere and environment that you create on your museum and gallery programmes is safe, trust grows. And when you have established that trust, participants will have more courage and inclination to share their thoughts, ideas and feelings too. 


It all starts with you 

As these things often do, creating an environment of intellectual safety starts with your commitment to creating a positive space on your museum and gallery programmes where all participants feel comfortable to share their thoughts and ideas. Make it a priority!

Use your introduction

Use your introduction to find out information about your participants. In a 4 part introduction you include time to connect to your participants and to ask them questions about themselves. At this point you’re finding out what they know about the museum, its collection, the subject matter of the tour. What do they know in advance? What don’t they know? How do the levels differ in the group?

You won’t find everything you need to know in your introduction, but it will give you time to assess basic information about where your guests are coming from. Use this time wisely! 

Show genuine curiosity 

Continue to learn about your participants as the programme continues – demonstrate a genuine curiosity in them and what they know (or don’t know). 

Don’t make assumptions

Don’t make any assumptions about any prior knowledge. I see and hear this regularly on tours that I’m observing – guides making well-meaning and well-intended comments about what they think their participants already know about history and art history. Don’t assume anything. Just because you know that doesn’t mean everyone in the room does. Don’t make assumptions: it prevents people from participating. 

Don’t use jargon 

Every field has its own jargon and language that is used. Everyone who has expertise in an area or is used to the common language of that area gets used to that language.

Then, when you’re trying to share information about your subject or ask a question about it to someone who may or may not be knowledgeable about those things, we have to realise that we should not use that jargon or specialist language.  This is because we want the most number of people to understand what we are saying or asking. 

Don’t make any assumptions about prior knowledge of any terms that you use regularly. Just because you know those terms and they are a regular and common part of your language doesn’t mean that your audience understands them. You may not even know that you’re using jargon – it may be so ‘normal’ to you to speak this way that you’re not even aware that you’re doing it. Does your group really understand what you mean when you talk about ‘perspective’ or composition in art? Does everyone really know what that ‘ism’ is that you’re talking about? 

Jargon is a gatekeeper and can prevent people from participating. It doesn’t create an environment of intellectual safety. 

Avoid acronyms, technical terms and archaic language. If you must use jargon or an uncommon phrase or concept, provide definitions or analogies to simplify them. Ask someone who is not in your field to participate in one of your sessions and get them to tell you whether you use jargon frequently. For more on this explore the 10 types of questions you should never ask

Get your group talking 

And as soon as possible. Get your participants used to talking in the museum and with the people they are with at that moment. Use low-threshold activities to get them talking straight away on your programmes, things like observation-based activities and discussions. Use slow looking to get everyone focused and commenting.  You can raise the bar and the level as your programme continues and as the group warms up and levels of confidence rise. 

Encourage questions and wonderings throughout

Asking for wonderings and things your group are puzzling over on a regular basis, helps you to know what your participants are looking to know more about. 

Let the group know that we are all in it together 

Let the group know that this programme with you is a communal journey of group discovery. And the more input they put into this, the more they will get out of it. 

So that’s it for today – a few thoughts on creating an environment and atmosphere of intellectual safety. I’d love to know how you create this on your programmes.