As a Heritage Interpreter here at the Museum I have the opportunity to interact with the public on a daily basis. There are numerous reasons behind coming to Pier 21, but there is something universal I hope all visitors bring: questions. It might seem like a trivial thing, dear visitor, but your questions are immensely important. They are invaluable in helping me do my job, and to ensure you get the most out of your visit. I thought I would take a moment and share the reasons I prize questions so highly and why you should too.
First, let’s explore the scope of what we talk about here at the Museum. The history of Canadian immigration is a vast and immensely complicated thing. It’s a multifaceted story composed of groups and individuals, influenced by innumerable factors. It’s a story of mass migration, and of individual journeys. It’s a story that stretches back to early contact with Aboriginal Peoples, and reaches forward into our nation’s future.
None of these things lend themselves to a concise guided tour! It’s downright impossible to talk about everything, so what shall we talk about? The answer to that often depends on you, dear visitor. Knowing your interests can help me present content in a way that is enjoyable. We tend to better retain information on things that are of interest to us. The type of questions you ask, even your answers to my questions help me to figure out your interests. Maybe you have questions about an ancestor that immigrated through Pier 21, or you want to know more about refugees? Knowing this I can work to present the story of immigration through the perspective of your ancestor, or make sure to include more material on refugees groups and policy. Interpreters can often adapt on the fly based on the non-verbal cues of our guests and can tell what is, and isn’t working (snoring is a big hint!) But your questions provide a much clearer sense of where your interests lie, and what we should be talking about.
Questions help me gauge your response and understanding of my work, and help to measure if I am doing my job properly. Part of my job is to provoke: I want you to react, to respond to and consider the material. If I am faced with a blank wall of faces, I need to troubleshoot. Do I need to change my approach? Am I speaking too quickly? Have I missed the mark and I’m not relating the material to my audience correctly? If I’m not reaching my audience, the information I am revealing is of little value to the visitor and I might as well be describing the weather forecast. If visitors are asking questions, they are engaged and involved and are retaining and responding to information.
It may sound strange, but I love not knowing the answer to things. I don’t have the answer to everything and that’s fine, in fact that’s how I learn & improve my knowledge. Being stumped by your questions help me pinpoint the gaps in my knowledge, and I can work to improve accordingly.
Questions also help other visitors understand and have better experiences. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it bears mentioning. I always endeavor to be clear and precise, but I find immigration fascinating, and my mouth sometimes gets away from me. Ask if I can slow down. If you are unsure of something, ask me to clarify. If we’ve sparked a question in you, ask it! An unasked question will just sit there in your mind, to the exclusion of anything else we’re discussing.
I should say that I am fine with unanswered questions. I don’t have the answer to everything, and I don’t mind leaving visitors with a question or two to reflect upon, but I never want there to be questions left unasked because a visitor wasn’t comfortable. That would be a failure on my part, to create an atmosphere where visitors aren't comfortable and confident enough to ask questions freely.
Questions also help improve group dynamics. Which do you think provides a more enjoyable experience: a tour where nobody asks questions or one where they do? Questions help to break the ice, to help strangers in a group feel comfortable around one another. Your questions may also inspire a question in another visitor or give voice to a question that they were too shy to ask. Have you heard how we shouldn’t be afraid to ask a question, because the others in the group most likely have the exact same question? It’s really true and if visitors are comfortable enough to ask questions, again they will be able to fully experience and appreciate our exhibits.
Lastly, questions help us develop new programs. One of the ways we evaluate the interests of the public is through their questions. If visitors are asking about the same item or subject day in day out, there’s clearly an interest. That means there’s a potential opportunity for us to do more. It could be we need to provide more information on a topic, or should devote more time to it on a tour, or even developing a new program around it.
I hope I’ve made my case for questions, and have instilled in you a desire to ask them. They really are a fantastically versatile thing; contributing in a number of useful ways. They allow me to better do my job (which I appreciate), and help you get the most out of your time with us (which I’m confident you will appreciate)! Hopefully you, and your questions will visit us soon!