“The great man is he who does not lose his child’s heart.” (Mencius 327- 289 B.C.) When children tour your museum, how do you speak to their hearts and minds? Do you ask questions? Provide activities? Promote exploration? Invite discussion? Do you use the same touring strategies when teaching adults? Most of us subscribe to the notion that children have a more enjoyable and educational museum experience if they actively participate in a tour. Yet we hesitate when it comes to applying the same techniques with adult audiences. Why do we think that interactive and personalized tours are beneficial for younger visitors but not appropriate for adults? What holds us back?
Perhaps one of the larger stumbling blocks is our pre-conceived idea of what adults do and don’t want. We assume that adults won’t want to be actively involved, and would rather linger in the background, passively taking in information. We may also believe that interactive tours for adults would be the same as children’s tours, only talking in a “more adult tone of voice.”
While it is true that the same general touring strategies work for all ages, there are ways to modify approaches to make them suitable and appropriate for adults. When designing tours for adult audiences, we need to reconsider what adults really want and what a successfully engaging tour for adults might look and sound like.
What do adults actually want from a museum experience? A study of adult museum programs, coordinated by the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, revealed that adult learners are more self-directed than children, bring a rich resource of backgrounds and experiences to learning situations, have internal incentives for learning, and want to apply what they are learning immediately. (Dr. Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer and Dr. Robert Fellenz, Principal Investigators, A National Study of Adult Museum Programs, U.S. Department of Education Field Initiated Studies Program)
So, contrary to many of our assumptions, adults are looking for opportunities to make their own decisions, share what they think and feel, and actively learn and grow. Therefore, it seems appropriate that during adult tours, docents try to provide opportunities for choice, engagement, questioning, reflection, interaction, and wonder.
Do adults have a chance to make choices during your tours? Inviting adults to choose empowers them, helps them direct their learning experiences, gives them a personal investment in the lesson, and makes them more mindful of what they will be doing.
What are some practical ways to provide adults with choice? You could, quite simply, ask each person to select an object in a gallery that engages their interest, and base the discussion on those choices. Or, if time does not permit selecting multiple objects, ask participants to look at the same object, but let them choose the way in which they will investigate it. This can be accomplished by giving each person a card with three different “triggers” for thinking about the object. For instance, a “trigger” card might ask the viewer to select one from the following three activities:
- think of five words to use to best describe this object
- make an association between this object and something in your own life
- compare this object to other objects on display in this area.
After distributing the cards, give the group some silent time for thinking. Then, ask those who wish to participate in the first activity to share their thoughts. Next, move on to the second activity, and then, the third. In addition to gaining their direct participation, you will have engaged everyone in all three activities.
In his book The Everyday Work Of Art, Eric Booth points out that a work of art (or a history or science object) “has two concurrent lives: one as an actual real thing and another in the set of connections we make when we engage with it.” Getting your visitors to engage with objects, therefore, implies having them connect with them in personal and meaningful ways that go beyond objective lectures.
The desire to touch, to try new things, and to be entertained doesn’t disappear when one becomes an adult. Look for creative ways to invite your adult audiences to participate. In an art museum you might have a group pass around a piece of canvas covered in oil paint, let them handle a copper engraving plate, or have them try their hand at making a simple design on a scratchboard. In a science museum you could set up a hands-on activity or experiment. And, in a history museum you could play music from an earlier period, or share news stories from the time represented by the object or place you are exploring.
Do not stand between the object and the visitor. Stand to the side or behind the group so that your audience’s focus is on the object and not you. Everything you do to directly involve adults with the objects they are encountering will further their engagement.
If you’ve tried posing questions during adult tours, you may have encountered the long silence that often follows as you wait for an answer. I encourage you not to fear the silence. Eventually, someone in the group will be brave enough to speak up, especially if you ask questions that do not require prior knowledge or expertise to answer, such as “What do you have in your home that this object might remind you of?”
Encourage adults to ask their own questions. Have each person in a group select a different object and list all the questions they can generate about that one piece. Then, discuss the questions listed and provide some answers.
Give adults permission to ask questions. Let them know that all questions are welcome and none are too simple. Also, try posing some rhetorical questions, such as “Have you looked at plants like this and wondered why they evolved this way?” People will be responding, silently, in their minds.
Interaction can be achieved effortlessly just by asking visitors such questions as “Does anyone see it differently?” or “Does anybody remember having one of these?” Allowing your audience to make choices, to engage, and to consider questions promotes interaction. And, interaction makes learning experiences more memorable and more enjoyable.
The “flip side” of interaction is reflection. Do you give visitors time to think? This is particularly important because people learn and participate in different ways. Some will be quick to respond; others will need time to formulate answers or opinions. If you allow time for reflection, you will find that many more of your adult visitors are likely to participate in discussions.
Encourage visitors to slow down, reflect, and take time to gather their thoughts. Before saying anything about an object, tell the group that you are going to give them a few minutes of silence just to look at it and think about it. Providing just a few moments for reflection will go a long way toward enriching the tour experience for adults.
To experience wonder is to be amazed, to marvel, to be in awe. Though the adult world might seem fairly serious on a day-to-day basis, many look for opportunities to go beyond what they already know, and to stretch and grow. Museums, zoos, gardens, and parks are great places for visitors to expand their horizons. Think of ways you might awaken their curiosity or amazement. Share with them what excites you while you allow them to make their own discoveries.
Michael Nelson has a master’s degree in art history and has been a museum educator for over ten years. Currently, she resides in Austin, Texas, and is working as a education consultant to museums, specializing in docent training. Ms. Nelson contributed an article previously to The Docent Educator. It was entitled “Helping Visitors Ask Better Questions” (Vol. 9, No. 2).
Nelson, Michael. “Hitting the Bull’s Eye: Adult Touring Strategies,” The Docent Educator 10.1 (Autumn 2000): 8-9.