Questions visitors ask – ask a curator day

I have written here about the question I asked on ask a curator day. It was about this piece of art


Willow Walk by Richard Long at the Hepworth Gallery Wakefield

I thought mine was a very obvious question. So I asked the room stewart/interpreter/guide/attendant whether lots of people asked that.  She masked her surprise well, I thought, and told me no one had ever asked that. So I AM the odd one out.

“I’ll tell you what they do ask though’ she teased. “Yes?” I replied, ever eager for new insights into the minds of visitors to cultural attractions …

‘They want to know how many sticks there are,”she said.

EH??? WHAT??? WOW!  Now that really surprised me. Of all the questions, in all the dimensions, why that? Why not – “How do you clean it?” or ‘where did he get the wood from” or even the old favourite “You call that art? my five year old could do better …” ?

Art, and the way people respond to it is really full of surprises.

I love the questions people ask which is why I think Ask a Curator Day is so brilliant.  The good people behind this month’s Museums Journal picked what they called ‘some of the best questions from #askacuratorday’.  I like them too:

Which Museum or gallery would you most want to be locked in overnight?

(That is one fantastic question.  The Carnegie Museum of Natural History Pittsburgh gets my vote.  Being in the dinosaur hall after hours was definitely the highlight of my curatorial career.)

When curating an exhibition do you have an image of the “ideal” visitor in mind?

(Good, tricksie one)

Curators, do you have good tactile exhibits for babies and toddlers? What’s your best example? if not why not?

(Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield (15 years ago) was a great toddler museum).

How much of a negative impact does lack of funds have on your museum?

( I do hope no punches were pulled in answering that!)

What is your best kept secret about your collection?

(Ha ha – you can’t trick a curator that easily).

I would so love to see the whole list of questions.  Maybe asking our visitors for questions would be more revealing than asking them for answers.  It could show us more of their world and their approach to what we do. One of the best guided tours I ever went on was based entirely on that principle.

About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
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2 Responses to Questions visitors ask – ask a curator day

  1. Regan says:

    Hi Sue,

    I’m not surprised your question made you the odd one out 🙂 I would suggest such a question would not have occurred to most people because it requires a subversion of the standard art gallery ‘script’.

    I’m in the middle of reading a doctoral thesis about visitor behaviour in contemporary art galleries. It has much to say about the unspoken rules of behaviour, particularly in relation to touching. (I do a lot of it myself – folding your hands behind your back when you inspect work, etc.)

    There is probably also a similar unspoken rule about the ‘framing’ of works – whether the frame is explicitly present or not, visitors mentally ‘frame’ the work so that the floor within the frame stops being just floor and becomes part of the work itself. Thus there is no gap between the sticks that may be walked upon because it is no longer conceptualised as floor. (That’s my theory anyway)

    Meanwhile the number of sticks question doesn’t surprise me at all – to me that’s a sign of concrete thinkers looking for some kind of ‘hook’ with which to grasp this work (the “S” type in the Briggs-Myers typology). It’s also a ‘safe’ question to ask, in that it is a way of expressing curiosity about the work without having to give an opinion or value judgement, which many visitors will be reluctant to do and thus expose their ‘ignorance’.

    • Hi Regan. I am sorry that it has taken me so ridiculously long to reply to this most excellent comment. I enjoyed it greatly. It made me smack my brow exclaiming ‘DOH!’ in very Homer Simpson-esque way that I know you would have enjoyed! I had forgotten about concrete learners, thanks for bringing them back into my frame. I completely agree with your analysis.

      I had recognised that I am more subversive than most visitors :-D.! I regard it as one of the small perks of my work to see the whole thing as a contestable heap of constructs that can be joggled about at whim. Also that I can undertake to make room attendants’ days more interesting by treating them as warm, enthusiastic and approachable human beings (even when they are claerly constructing themselves otherwise!).

      Very small and mild subversions.

      But I am working on it …

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