Walking backwards to go forwards
Writing for me is often a process of walking backwards away from where I started to where I need to begin, and then (hopefully) slogging my way back to where I started. In the case of my book, I had started with immersion in physical and virtual environments, thinking I’d bang that out as a test case for how the main chapters would work. Then I got stuck on the way that “experience” was always being used without being explained or explored. So, back up a step, find another pile of references on the nature of experience, of which there’s a whole literature! Fascinating stuff! Then, I’m happily consuming articles on neuroscience, experience, qualia(!) and other exotica and feel like I’m just starting to get a handle on what I mean when I say “experience” when I read a number of pieces that paired “experience” with “engagement”, including Seema Rao’s Museum 2.0 post. Nowhere did I find a good definition. And the word is in the working title of my book. Ugh! Time to back up another step. More references, more reading.
I can barely see where I started. And that’s fine. Because I found out where I needed to begin: engagement. And I’m fairly confident I’ll get back to where I need to go, with your help. So here’s what I’ve worked out thus far about engagement in cultural institutions. It’s rough, and I’m pretty sure incomplete, but it’s enough to share and see what you all make of it.
Just getting this all into digestible prose has reminded me of the truth of Mia Ridge’s statement that “Blogging makes me do my thinking properly.” So, here for your consideration, is a discussion of the meaning of engagement in museum settings.
Next steps will include soliciting your feedback (done!), incorporating that and getting a version of this revised and posted on the Google Drive folder for the book, with footnotes, citations and whatnot. Stay tuned!
The Qualities of Engagement
Imagine a typical museum visitor in the act of “being engaged” by something at the museum. What are they doing? Thinking? Feeling? Can you describe what that “engagement” looks like? How can you know that visitor is engaged as opposed to confused or looking at their email? Is engagement like pornography; hard to define but you know it when you see it? I don’t think so.
When I think about an engaged visitor, she is focused on the experience at hand, she is emotionally affected by it, able to connect it to her own humanity and lived experience, and hopefully is changed by the encounter. Visitor engagement is a hard thing to pin down, because we use the word very loosely and without clear definition of what it means. It has been a theme throughout my career, indeed almost a running joke, that I have been unable to resist being irritated by buzzwords like content, digital, gamification, experience, immersion, and, of course, engagement. It is an issue that the museum field seems prone to, and it hurts us because it’s impossible to measure success in any deep way without knowing what exactly you’re measuring. Since the working title of book alone contains three of those buzzwords, I will endeavor to define terms wherever they first occur.
So, first, let’s look at engagement, that mythical beast that all cultural organizations chase.
Engagement is emotional and active
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines engagement in the sense I’m talking about as “emotional involvement or commitment.” You can’t be engaged and emotionally detached. So far, so good, but there is more to engagement in this context. The Oxford English dictionary defines “engage” as “to attract and hold fast (attention, interest)” So engagement is an active, emotional process, one of being attracted and held by something of interest.
Engagement is self-directed
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly has spent a career looking at how people learn and what motivates them to high levels of performance. He tells us that when people are deeply engaged, they are in what he has famously called a “flow” state. His work in this area is supremely relevant to everything I will discuss later on, so you should consider reading more of his work if you haven’t already. To me, flow experiences are a subset of engaging ones, so a lot of his description of what characterizes flow experiences will also apply to the larger category of engaging experiences. Probably the most fundamental aspect is that they are voluntary. You can’t make someone be engaged. It has to come from within. For Csikzentmihaly and Hermanson, “what information we select to attend to, and how intently, is still the most important question about learning.” So calling what happens in a museum or cultural institution “free-choice learning” seems more accurate than “informal” education to me.
Engagement is satisfying
Can you imagine an activity that you would find both engaging and unsatisfying? Me neither. I think most practitioners would argue that learning about the natural world, art, and history should be enjoyable and satisfy visitors. If we continue with the idea that engagement and flow are similar, then we can take Csikzentmihalyi’s assertion that their primary purpose is enjoyment, “Such flow activities have as their primary function the provision of enjoyable experiences. Play, art, pageantry; ritual, and sports are some examples. Because of the way they are constructed, they help participants and spectators achieve an ordered state of mind that is highly enjoyable.”
Which is not to say that engagement means fun. Museum educator Rebecca Herz makes the point that engagement is not synonymous with fun. “True engagement is defined by an individual’s choice to take on a difficult (but not too difficult) task that has relevance for him or her, whether it be physical (playing a sport or a musical instrument) or purely cognitive (making sense of competing ideas).” Adam Rozan, former Director of Audience Engagement at the Worcester Art Museum, described audience engagement as an active process that reimagines what museums do, and how they interact with audiences. For him, engagement “works to create a range of positive, stimulating experiences for audiences throughout their visit”
Csikszentmihaly also describes a flow experience as one where
“…concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self consciousness disappears and the sense of time become distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.”
Engagement requires conscious effort
British educator and innovator Valerie Hannon argues that engagement in learning can be observed:
- When the student cares, not just about the tangible outcome of their learning (usually their test scores), but also the development of their learning;
- When they take responsibility for their own learning;
- When they bring discretionary energy to the learning task;
- When they can locate the value of their learning beyond school, and wish to prolong learning beyond school hours.
Several of these categories overlap with ones we’ve already discussed; the emotional attachment, directed effort, etc… My colleague Tedi Asher explores how neuroscience can inform the work art museums do to engage visitors. Underpinning that work is a focus on what visitors attend to when they’re in the museum. Attention, what the brain focuses on and how, is an area of deep interest to me. For Asher, engagement occurs when one’s attention is captured in a way that generates an emotional response, and leading to the formation of a memory. We have limited capacity to attend to something, so attention is a process of deciding what to attend to at the expense of everything else. Csikszentmihaly says “Attention is a scarce resource – perhaps the most precious scarce resource there is”
Engagement changes you
Perhaps the most elusive part of the engagement puzzle is understanding why it’s so desirable. And I think the reason why is the outcome of that conscious effort, self-motivation, attention, and emotional attachment: change or transformation. The result of engagement is that you are changed as a result of it, and behave differently. Consumer neuroscientist Carl Marci, defines engagement as attention to something that elicits an emotional response, triggers a new (or reinforces an existing) memory, and influences your future behavior. Seema Rao, Chief Experience Officer at Akron Museum of Art, and current keeper of the influential Museum 2.0 blog carries that idea further, “What does audience engagement mean? To me, it means transformation…People are at the definition of engagement to me. It’s a word that stands in for all the efforts we make to connect people to collections.” But Seema’s statement about transformation, and connecting people to collections is an essential part of the equation. People engage with something, and in this context, that would be not just the collections of a museum (assuming they are a collecting museum, which not all are), but also the other products the museum creates, and certainly the staff of that museum. And being transformed as a result.
So where does all this leave us? Attention, emotion, memory, and behavior are central to what is observable and measurable, but th whole thing is bookended by the intrinsic motivation of the visitor saying “Yes, I will devote my precious attention to this thing before me.” and then acting differently as a result of that experience. Or in sentence form:
Engagement is an intrinsically motivated process where a person directs their conscious, focused attention to an experience which triggers an emotional response, leads to the creation or reinforcement of a memory, and influences their behavior afterward.
Going forward from here
Now that I know what engagement is, I can see better the challenge; how can an experience designer attempt to create the conditions where engagement happens and increases? That’s what I was digging for in my readings on immersion and experience. I will argue in the later chapters of the book that there are (at least) four elements that underlie engaging museum experiences which can be employed to maximize the chance that audiences will find the experience engaging. They are:
Play = intrinsic motivation, focused attention, behavior
Immersion = focused attention, emotional response, behavior
Emotion = emotional response (duh!)
Storytelling = emotion, memory formation