Spend time developing questions, especially questions that support the exploration of key ideas for the artwork. Plan to have two to three questions or activities per stop. When you develop a great question, keep it for future tours!
When developing questions, avoid making assumptions about visitors and their lives. For example, questions connected to travel or vacation experiences assume that all visitors have enough money and free time to take a vacation. Be cautious of making assumptions about family and homes as well, especially when leading school tours. For example, while looking at the Cream of Wheat advertisement in Philip R. Goodwin’s A “Bear” Chance (View in Mia’s collection) (fig. 21), you might ask: “What kind of breakfast did your mom or dad make you this morning?” With that question, you assume that the child was able to eat breakfast, eat at home, and that a parent takes care of the child.
An easy fix for these types of questions is to turn them to opinion questions. For example, instead of asking “How many of you have been to Rome or Venice?” ask “How many of you would enjoy a trip to Rome or Venice?” Those visitors who have traveled may choose to speak of their experiences, but at the same time, those who have not may share an opinion in the discussion. For the previous example, ask instead: “If you could choose what you have for breakfast, what would it be?”
Open-ended questions accommodate the divergent perspectives of your tour group. To encourage learners to make observations or to generate ideas, open-ended questions must have several appropriate answers, such as “How would you describe this person?” If you ask a question that has a brief and predictable answer, the question is close-ended, such as “Who is this person?” Closed-ended questions often ask visitors to recall factual information; they do not stimulate reflective thinking. Open-ended questions encourage multiple answers, involving more of your group and leading to greater engagement during the tour.
An inquiry strategy outlined in The Great Books Foundation training manual 1 has been adapted for discussing works of art using three basic categories of questions: description, interpretation, and association.
Descriptive questions can be answered by looking at the work of art. They often involve the subject matter or the visual elements, such as color, line, or shape.
These questions and appropriate follow-up questions encourage tour participants to make observations and support them with visual evidence. Some descriptive questions encourage viewers to describe the subject or action of an artwork, while others ask the viewers to analyze or describe how the elements are organized within the artwork.
Interpretive questions help tour participants explore the meanings of artworks. They require viewers to offer opinions that can be upheld by observable evidence. These questions offer the possibility for divergent opinions so you should remain open to all responses.
Associative questions ask viewers to consider to what extent an artist’s viewpoint or a work of art has application to their own opinions, lives, and/or times. Associative questions can be fun and provocative and help people relate artworks to everyday life. However, avoid overusing this type of question since they can get group members (especially young visitors) far away from the artwork itself. Typically, you ask these after the artwork has been thoroughly explored and various interpretations have been discussed. However, sometimes an associative question at the start of discussion can help spark a discussion (e.g., What about this Chinese Reception Hall is similar to living rooms today? What is different?).