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9 ways to approach resistance to participative museum tours

8 ways to approach resistance to participative museum tours

This week I’m responding to a question I get asked a lot: How do you approach groups that are more used to a traditional approach and say they don’t want to participate?

This challenge isn’t limited to any specific group and can apply to various types of audiences. So, how can we work with these expectations, while still providing an engaging and educational experience? Here are 9 ways to approach resistance to participative tours and programmes.


Today’s topic was inspired by an email exchange I had with a listener who faced challenges when dealing with groups of older participants. Here’s what she had to say:

“My colleagues and I recently completed two training courses in your approach Visible Thinking in the Museum (VTM) at our museum. My experience with VTM has been very positive! However, I have a question to ask you: how do you use VTM for seniors? Some of my colleagues and I have experienced difficulties with groups of this age. They usually expect a traditional form of guiding – seeing as many artworks as possible and listening to art historical information from me. Do you have any advice for us?”

While the original question was about engaging senior citizens, I’m going to broaden our focus today to address any group that may resist more interactive, participative experiences. These challenges are widespread and can apply to various types of audiences. Many people expect a traditional style of museum guiding, emphasising ‘seeing’ as much as possible and passive listening.

Let’s first look at WHY some people might be resistant or reluctant to more participative and interactive museum experiences. It’s important to be able to empathise with their perspective in order to address their concerns.


For many individuals, especially those from older generations, a more traditional approach to education is deeply ingrained.

Their school experiences and upbringing often involved one-way communication, with the teacher or authority figure imparting knowledge, and the students listening and absorbing information passively.

This traditional educational model may have shaped their expectations for what to expect in informal learning in a museum too.

Or they may have experienced lots of guided tours in the past with a lecture-style format, where the guide imparts knowledge, and they listen and observe.

The idea of active participation and interaction might feel unfamiliar or even uncomfortable to them.

Another factor could be apprehension or fear of the unknown. When people encounter a new approach, they may worry about their ability to engage or participate effectively. This fear of “doing it wrong” can be a huge barrier to embracing more interactive experiences.

Additionally, some individuals may have sensory or physical limitations, such as hearing difficulties or mobility issues, that make active participation more challenging. They might be concerned that this might hinder their ability to engage fully in the experience. And this all leads to resistance.

When working with groups that expect a more traditional approach, it’s essential to be aware of these concerns and practice empathy.

Acknowledge that their past experiences and expectations are valid. Encourage participants to share their concerns, and actively listen and respond to create an inclusive and respectful environment.

It’s far more effective to understand their apprehensions, than to make assumptions.


One crucial aspect of preparing participants for a different kind of museum experience to what they’re used to is by setting expectations. Before the experience even happens, begin by clearly communicating the nature of the educational programme or tour with potential participants. Use your museum’s website, booking communications and introductory materials to explain what this experience will be like.

Highlight the benefits of a more interactive and immersive approach. Ensure messaging is consistent throughout the museum to manage any surprises effectively. In an ideal scenario, participants would arrive already aware of the unique nature of the programme, thanks to clear and consistent advance communication by the museum.


In an ideal scenario, participants would arrive at the museum already aware of the unique nature of the educational programme or tour, thanks to the clear and consistent advance communication by the museum. However, there may be instances where some participants are still surprised or confused when they arrive. In such cases, it’s essential to manage this situation effectively.

Offer a warm and friendly welcome: Create a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere where participants feel comfortable expressing their concerns or confusion.

Reiteration: Repeat the key points about the nature of the experience in your introduction (see here for the 4 elements of a great introduction). Reinforce that this programme will be different from a traditional tour and explain the benefits of an interactive approach.

It’s crucial to highlight that the more participants engage with the programme, the greater their rewards. The programme centres around their ideas, discoveries, thoughts, and questions, so it’s important to hear their unique perspectives and observations.

Acknowledgment: Acknowledge any concerns or questions participants may have. You could say something like, “I can see that this format may be different from what you were expecting. That’s perfectly okay. We’re here to explore the artworks together in a way that allows us to share our thoughts and engage with the collection on a deeper level. I encourage you to take your time and feel free to ask any questions along the way. We want this to be an enjoyable and engaging experience for everyone.“. This can help to address specific worries and provide reassurance about what to expect.  


But what about concerns that the group may miss out on seeing a vast number of artworks in a relatively short time – aka the highlights tour. How can we address that concern?

You may want to explain that you will be focusing on a curated selection of artworks. And that these artworks have been carefully chosen to offer a rich and in-depth experience. Emphasise the quality of the experience over the quantity. 

Highlight that an interactive approach allows for a deeper understanding of the artworks. They can engage with each piece on a deeper level, delving into it’s context, history, and meaning (depending on the goals of the programme, of course).

Perhaps you could mention that the programme is customisable too. If there’s a specific artwork or object that they’re eager to see, then your interactive approach allows for flexibility and customisation too – there are no scripts here!

It’s important to reiterate that the goal of the programme is not to rush through as many artworks as possible, but to create a meaningful connection with the selected pieces. Participants should understand that the value of the experience lies in the quality of engagement rather than the quantity of artworks or objects seen.


One of the challenges of working with diverse groups is that not everyone will have the same level of comfort with interactive experiences.

Some participants may be keen to embrace it wholeheartedly, while others may still be a bit reluctant – even after you’ve set expectations and managed concerns.

In order to navigate this dynamic effectively, you might want to try a hybrid approach with a gradual introduction of more participative elements.

Start your programme with a balanced approach, incorporating some interactive elements while also maintaining a more traditional format.

This allows participants to ease into the interactive experience gradually.

For example, you can begin by sharing some brief background information about the artwork in a more traditional way, providing some historical context, for example, or some details about an artist.

Then you could introduce some light interactive elements. This could include asking participants open-ended questions about their initial impressions of the artwork or object or encouraging them to share any observations or things they’ve noticed.

Then if all goes well, you can introduce more group discussion at the next artwork or object. As the tour progresses, you can introduce more interactive elements, such as inviting participants to discuss the painting’s symbolism or encouraging them to try their hand at sketching a detail from an object.

By following a gradual, patient approach to interactivity, participants have the opportunity to ease into the interactive elements, making the overall programme more inclusive and enjoyable for everyone.


You will have to work hard at building psychological safety and trust. Ensure participants feel comfortable expressing themselves and know that their contributions are valued.

Psychological safety is about making participants comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas without fear of judgement. Trust is built by consistently showing respect for their viewpoints and actively listening to them. It’s crucial to let participants know that their contributions are valued by incorporating their ideas and feedback whenever possible.

When participants feel psychologically safe and trust the process, they are more likely to engage and enjoy the interactive programme. This leads to a more inclusive and enriching museum experience that respects the preferences of all participants.


Pay close attention to the group’s comfort level throughout the museum tour. If you notice resistance to participation, respect their preferences and avoid pushing them into interactive elements before they’re ready.

Observing the group’s comfort level requires paying attention to verbal and non-verbal cues. It means being attuned to signs of hesitation, apprehension, or reluctance to engage in interactive elements. If you notice resistance to participation, don’t push it.

One of the key principles here is avoiding any pressure to push participants into interactive elements before they’re ready.

It’s important to respect their preferences and not push them into activities they might not be ready for.

Instead, give participants the space to progress at their own pace and comfort level. Encourage, but don’t require participation.


Flexibility is key in adapting to the comfort levels and preferences of your group. If at any point participants appear uncomfortable or resistant to interactive elements, it’s essential to have a strategy for scaling back temporarily. This approach allows you to maintain a positive and inclusive atmosphere with the whole group.

During such moments, shift the focus towards bite-sized information-sharing and gentle questions. This adjustment ensures that participants are not overwhelmed and have the space to gradually ease into more interactive aspects.

For instance, if you’ve introduced a pair-and-share activity and notice hesitance among some participants, reassure them that there’s no pressure to perform. Emphasise that there are no ‘wrong’ answers and that every perspective is valid. Clear instructions are vital too, as people might hesitate not because they’re reluctant about the activity, but because they’re unsure of what to do.

Mingling among pairs and offering simpler prompts can also help participants get started. The primary goal is to create a welcoming environment where everyone’s voice is heard and valued, fostering a sense of inclusivity and comfort within the group. By being ready to scale back and adapt, you ensure that the museum experience remains positive and engaging for all participants.


Asking gentle questions is a great way to encourage participation. Gentle questions are designed to make participants feel comfortable and relaxed, rather than putting them on the spot or causing any anxiety. The key is to frame questions in a way that invites sharing and discussion. Or whether they are enjoying what they are looking at. These non-threatening questions can help ease them into participation.

  1. “What do you notice about this artwork?”
  2. “How does this piece make you feel?”
  3. “What thoughts come to mind as you look at this object?”
  4. “Can you share your first impressions of this painting?”
  5. “Do you see any details that particularly catch your eye?”
  6. “What aspects of this artwork or object are you most curious about?”


Incorporate simple thinking routines, such as See Think Wonder and repeat them throughout the programme. This repetition helps the group get used to the interactive process and gradually builds their comfort with it.

Start with activities that don’t involve much effort or planning, such as pair-share discussions. This encourages participants to talk to their neighbours and share their thoughts without feeling overwhelmed.

If the group seems receptive to interactive elements, gradually introduce more complex activities, such as group discussions, hands-on activities, or storytelling. Allow them to ease into these elements at their own pace.


In conclusion, successfully navigating resistance and concerns about participative and interactive museum tours and programs involves a combination of strategic approaches. From setting clear expectations before the program even begins to creating a warm and inclusive atmosphere, adapting your approach to comfort levels, and using gentle questions, each of these methods contributes to making the museum experience enjoyable and engaging for everyone.

The key takeaway here is adaptability. By demonstrating understanding, being patient, observant, and responsive to the group’s comfort level and preferences, you can introduce participative elements to even the most resistant of individuals and groups.