How can we really ensure that we are doing all we can to cultivate curiosity and wonder amongst the participants on our tours and programmes?
For the next few weeks I’m choosing my favourite articles from the back catalogue. I’m taking this opportunity to revisit some of the subject I’ve most enjoyed researching and writing.
Today’s first choice is all about curiosity. This was a really popular episode and blog back in February 2022 when it was first published and was the first of a two part series about the subject (here’s part two).
We’re going to explore what curiosity is and why it matters. Then I’m sharing 3 key ways to cultivate curiosity in your museum and gallery programmes.
A DEFINITION OF CURIOSITY
Curiosity is notoriously difficult to define and it’s even harder to work out how to harness and foster it.
It could be defined both as an eagerness to encounter what is new or unfamiliar and the desire to learn, to understand new things and to know how they work.
It is a desire to understand what you do not.
Psychologist Daniel Berlyne is one of the most important figures in the 20th century study of curiosity. He was really interested in why people get interested in things.
He distinguished between different types of curiosity: perceptual versus epistemic and specific versus diversive.
George Loewenstein was influenced by Berlyne’s ideas and built his ‘information gap’ theory out of this.
According to Loewenstein, curiosity comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know“.
This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like an itch, something we need to scratch. We seek out new knowledge because that’s how we scratch the itch.
But it’s not all about seeking out new information, curiosity is also about being open to learning the unknown. It can be about asking questions and finding out more but it can also show up as a way to approach life (and we’ll talk more about this in part two).
If you want to read more about curiosity as a subject, then I really recommend reading Ian Leslie’s book ‘Curious: The Desire to Know and Why your Future Depends on it’.
We know that artworks, objects and artefacts have the power to inspire, provoke curiosity and interest. We make unexpected discoveries – find new artists, new artworks we didn’t know about, find out information that we hadn’t heard before, and these new finds take us to new places that we haven’t been before.
So how can we really ensure that we are harnessing that power and doing all we can to provoke curiosity and wonder amongst the participants on our tours and programmes? Here are 3 ways.
1.USE THINKING ROUTINES TO CULTIVATE CURIOSITY
When I lead discussions using thinking routines, we can easily discuss one artwork or object for 15, 30, 60 minutes or more. How is it possible to sustain interest and curiosity for this length of time?
Thinking routines consist of a series of open-ended questions that work to fire up the group’s curiosity. This curiosity to find out more drives the discussion. The group keep wondering and keep asking questions, wanting the discussion to continue. After the discussion, participants leave wanting to return and learn more about other objects.
Thinking routines like Zoom In, See-Think-Wonder and See-Wonder-Connect are all about observing, interpreting and wondering. The slow reveal of the image with Zoom In works to really fire up curiosity to see the whole image. Whilst See-Think-Wonder and See-Wonder-Connect both have ‘wondering’ parts built into the routine.
Not only that, but object experiences using thinking routines stimulate curiosity, arouse memories and connections and encourage participants to share personal stories. Making your thoughts about an object visible, bringing your ‘wonderings’ out into the open and having conversations about objects can be an uplifting and sometimes even a transformative experience.
The exploration of artworks & objects through thinking routines, slow looking and discussion fires curiosity and leads to a multitude of questions, ideas and themes related to it. It’s a case of the more you look, the more you see, the more interesting the object becomes. The slow or sustained looking helps to fire up that curiosity.
2. THE ROLE OF WONDER IN CULTIVATING CURIOSITY
Wonder is connected to curiosity, our desire to know. Philosophy begins with a sense of wonder at the meaning of things. We wonder at the nature and meaning of things in the pursuit of knowledge.
A staple part of all my online and in-person teaching is asking the question ‘What are you wondering about?’ throughout the discussion. I also use ‘What puzzles you?’ or ‘What are you curious to know more about?’
I also encourage participants to wonder out loud whenever they have a thought or question. ⠀
Sometimes we even start a discussion with writing down everything we’re wondering about.
But why do this?
- First of all, you are encouraging participants to make their thinking visible – whatever connections or ideas are happening in their heads, they’re saying these thoughts out loud.
- Secondly, by encouraging wondering questions in your art discussions you know exactly what your participants are curious about. And therefore, you always know exactly what information to add and when just by answering their questions.
- You can keep a record of all their “I Wonder” questions or theories, and use them to develop future guided programmes and art discussions that will harness participant’s curiosity. You can see if there is a pattern in which themes and subject areas people are really curious about.
- When someone asks you a wondering question, think first: ‘Where could I go with this?’ and then ‘What could I share now that will answer this question and drive curiosity further?’
- But don’t feel obligated to answer every ‘wondering’, encourage the group to puzzle out some answers on their own too! Ask ‘What does everyone in the group think? Does anyone have any theories or ideas?’ or ‘Do you feel the same way or differently?’
HOW TO CULTIVATE CURIOSITY AND WONDER
- Share your own wonders. Build a ‘culture of exploration’ when you’re with groups. Model the curiosity and wondering yourself – it’s infectious and the rest of the group will pick on your enthusiasm.
- Create a Wonder Wall. Save some questions to answer later – note them down on a large sheet of paper (if you’re with a school group, ask the teacher to assist) and come back to them later on. Call it a wonder wall with questions that you can revisit at the end of the session or programme.
- Follow the lead of your participants. Be flexible in your approach and be prepared to deviate from your programme goals where necessary in order to follow new lines of inquiry
- Keep your themes relevant and interesting to the group that you are with – what may be intriguing to a group of teens, may not be with a group of seniors!
- Allow time and space for wondering – build this in to every discussion
- Actively explore objects and artworks through thinking routines and open-ended questions, rather than just presenting information to your group. The enthusiasm for wondering in a group goes down as soon as the educator or guides gets into an extended monologue.
- Keep your responses non-judgemental and neutral so that you are encouraging a community of wonderers who feel happy and confident to contribute.
Our culture seems to emphasise the importance of having answers over asking questions. However, the best ideas so often come from the curious, open and wondering mind.
As Alice Walker says ‘The more I wonder, the more I love’.
Think about how important wondering is to your work. How do you encourage people to wonder in your programmes and discussions?
3.USING INFORMATION AS A TOOL TO CULTIVATE CURIOSITY
The way you share information can drive and stifle curiosity.
When we know nothing about a subject, we find it hard to engage with it, we have no idea at this point whether we will find it interesting or not.
At this point we may also feel a little intimidated by the prospect of what we don’t know – the huge amount of information that we need to learn about it.
On the other hand, when we know lots about a subject, we’re unlikely to be interested in learning more about it. We already know it, we have it covered.
So, some starting information is useful to get people into the zone. In this case, it could be contextual information – for example placing an artwork within a certain time period, or letting them know the artist or why the curator has hung all these artworks together.
A hook, if you like, to get them curious to know more.
The information doesn’t have to be contextual though, I’ve had plenty of art discussions where I haven’t shared a scrap of information and people have still been curious throughout. Why are they still curious?
Because they want to hear what other people in the group are suggesting, they want to hear more about other peoples personal connections with an artwork or they are curious as to where the discussion will go next or what question you’re going to ask next. This is a different kind of information that they are sharing, but it’s still enough to get your audience into the curiosity zone.
So, the more we know about something, the more intense our curiosity is to find out what we don’t know. And it’s important to add information that will continue to pique that curiosity. For example, some information will not add anything to their curiosity, whilst other information will provide a lightbulb moment.
So, when you’re thinking about information to share, think about what you could share that will provide lightbulb moments and enlightenment.
- Don’t share everything at once – keep dripping information in small amounts when you need to pique curiosity in your group or you feel they cannot go any further with looking alone.
- Likewise, don’t leave all your information until the end either – because this can be frustrating and kill off curiosity. It can also sometimes feel like a ‘here’s the real story’ and invalidate all the discussion that’s gone before so do be wary of this.
- Information dumps kill curiosity too – small pieces of information spark curiosity whilst large information dumps smother it. You can almost feel the energy of the group disappearing as they listen to someone talking and talking and talking and emptying everything they know about a subject in their heads onto their unsuspecting audience. Don’t kill curiosity in your audience.
- Fear kills curiosity too – you need to create an environment in your programmes where all participants feel that they can ask questions and make contributions. Make it a culture that is open to curiosity, wonder and questioning.
- If you’re telling a story, provoke curiosity by getting your audience to really care about what happens next or how it will turn out. Think about how much you could tell them and when you could tell them this information. Think about what you could ‘withhold’ for a while (the title of an artwork is always good if it is provocative or revealing) to generate momentum and curiosity. Or share information as a teaser with no further explanation and get the group to think about it by exploring their thoughts. This will generate questions in their mind and get them curious.
- But, be aware that you can only go so far with this. If the group suspects that you are withholding information on purpose or that you are withholding it too long, then that will lead to the frustration I mentioned earlier or even annoyance.
- Reminding your group that you may not arrive at a definitive ‘answer’ or interpretation for what you’re looking at is a good way of framing discussions that maybe have neatly defined ‘answer’ or definitive ‘interpretation’. Art discussions after all are not the same as Googling the answer to a question. It’s good to share that we don’t have the answers to everything and there are some unresolved mysteries out there. And mysteries themselves inspire long-term curiosity and wondering…
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