The art of asking questions in heritage interpretation

The right questions asked in the right way can spark interest and discussion, help people form their own opinions, and inspire action.

Questions involve us in thinking, and if we ask powerful questions, that opens the possibilities to explore more, to discover more, and to eventually make better decisions. Isaac Newton said, “What we know is a drop, what we don't know is an ocean”. The research shows that most questions people ask are safe; that is, they highlight what is already seen or understood, they lead to repeated ideas and opinions. In other words, most questions that people ask really only bring to the surface what is already known. As heritage interpreters, however, we aim to ask questions that go deeper and discover a larger truth. We want to ask questions that move participants from automatic and reactionary thinking to deep thinking, questions that inspire creativity, fuel passion, and lead to profound ideas, and most importantly, we want to ask questions that spur people into action. In other words, we want to ask questions that demystify the unknown, and in doing so, open up an ocean of possibilities.

An open-ended question is designed to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject's own knowledge and feelings. Closed questions have only one pre-determined answer. Although the answers could be used to provide explanation, such questions should be asked only rarely because they do not start a conversation. 

The first step in asking good questions is planning. Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”. 

Asking a good question is about executing the act of curiosity. It is more craft than science. Once it comes to delivery of your session, set a relaxed, welcoming tone. People enjoy being made to feel welcome and important. Then you can use these questioning strategies:

  • Arrange your group sitting or standing in a circle so that the topic and conversation can be the focus, rather than you standing in front of the group. 
  • During discussions, rather than beginning with a single question that is multi-layered and complex, use a sequence of questions to build depth and complexity. 
  • Strive for empathy to reach across the differences between opinions; put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and really open your heart to their experience.
  • The ideal response is an accepting one. Passive acceptance is indicated by a smile or a simple nod of the head. Active acceptance offers an expression of understanding.
  • It’s easy to say no, especially when you know there is a correct answer, but negative responses tend to shut people down and discourage further participation.
  • No matter how inappropriate a visitor’s answer might seem, avoid ridiculing their attempt. No one likes to be laughed at.
  • Don’t rush to supply an answer to your own question. Give the audience time to think, allowing up to 15 seconds before you jump in.
  • Give participants time to think and formulate responses. Waiting 5-10 seconds will increase the number of participants who volunteer to answer and will lead to longer, more complex answers. If participants do not volunteer after 10 seconds have passed, rephrase the question. Do not ever answer your own question, that will only communicate to participants that if they do not answer, you will do their thinking for them. We want to encourage everyone to formulate and share their opinion in a safe environment.
  • Let participants share their own experiences and perspectives as much as possible. Give them the opportunity to learn from one another. 
  • Avoid questioning in ways that set up a series of dialogues between you and another participant and allow the bulk of the participants to disengage (Lisa Brochu in Personal Interpretation: Connecting Your Audience with Heritage Resources, published 2012).


Ivana Jagic Boljat is a museologist and heritage manager. Within her previous position at Muze, she gained extensive experience in interpretive planning and managing projects in culture and tourism. She is a member of Interpret Croatia’s Executive Board. This year Ivana joined IE’s Events Team. She can be contacted at: ivana.jagic@gmail.com. 


This article was the topic of a recent webinar presented by Ivana. If you missed it, IE Members can request a link to view the recording. Charges apply for non-members. See:  http://www.interpret-europe.net/top/events/ie-webinars/ 

To cite this article:
Boljat, Ivana (2020) 'The art of asking questions in heritage interpretation'. In Interpret Europe Newsletter 3-2020, 4-5.
Available online: http://www.interpret-europe.net/fileadmin/Documents/publications/Newsletters/ie_newsletter_2020_3_autumn.pdf

If you can give your son or daughter only one gift,
let it be enthusiasm.

Bruce Barton