Defining “engagement”

Walking backwards to go forwards

close up of legs and feet of person in Batman costume doing the Moon walk dance.
batmoonwalk. CC-B Y2.0 image by Flickr user istolethetv

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

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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

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British educator and innovator Valerie Hannon argues that engagement in learning can be observed:

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

Your thoughts?


  1. Hi Ed,

    I’ve done some writing on this for my book: The Personalization of the Museum Visit (Routledge). You might find the following useful:

    This term has thoroughly permeated museum discourse, and in most instances, its use refers to the palpable state of involvement of the visitor in some aspect of the museum, and the state is usually signified by the voluntary granting of
    the visitor’s time, attention, and (in many cases) money. However, engagement has other key institutional, professional, and discursive valences that are worth discussing.

    Engagement is also an institutional function, one of the museum’s responsibilities. Engagement is now widely considered in museological discourse to be one component of a triad of key responsibilities that encompass and describe museum practice. The second element of this triad is the work convened around collecting and caring for material objects. The third concerns the research, curation, and formation of a narrative or conceit that are crucial components of the process of presenting objects to an audience’. One researcher, Peter Welsh ( 2005 ), describes engagement as encompassing the ways in which “museums seek to establish relationships with a wide variety of people, […] and reciprocally, the ways that people establish relationships with the museum” (pp. 105– 106). This definition importantly recognizes that a connection formed between visitor and museum is a kind of relationship— even when it is fleeting, as it may be in the episodic visit. More, viewing engagement as the forming of a relationship— always a core part of the remit of any successful museum— places education, programming, and exhibitions, but also marketing, publicity, and donor development, all on similar footing.

    There’s much more. You may want to take a look.


  2. This was a really interesting read, thank you! I’ve come across similar issues when trying to define organisational change within museums for my MA dissertation – it’s a term used quite a lot without a concrete definition behind it. I’ve had to borrow one from the business world!


  3. Ed,
    This seems like a good start in fleshing out the bones of ‘engagement’. However, what you have framed does seem to involve a shifting between what engagement IS in itself, and what it should be. You mention that the flow aspect of engagement is a subset of the larger issue, and this points to a conceptual distinction that needs to be made. There are particular instances of engagement that we can talk about somewhat clearly, but that isn’t a direct insight into ‘engagement’ as such. That is, things like flow might be aspirational, but they themselves do not define engagement. Conflating the particular and the general should be avoided. You can’t easily get from the particular to the abstract because the particular instances are observable things and the abstract is not. The abstract is a concept. The particular an empirical thing of some kind. There are classes of things and their members.

    So a question is whether ‘engagement’ has an essence common to all instances, that we can see as a strand running through engagement itself, or whether ‘engagement’ is composed of more loosely connected phenomenon that might best be described in family resemblance terms. That is, potentially there is no one common feature but aspects that are shared unequally and sometimes including things belonging only by the presence of intermediates (Check out Ludwig Wittgenstein for his insights into ‘family resemblance’). The point being that ‘engagement’ might be a term of convenience rather than science or strict definition. It is a hazard to simply assume our ordinary words result in viable scientific terminology. Nature might not be carved at a joint where ‘engagement’ exists as such. But this is not a defect any more than not having a standard definition of ‘art’ hampers us in talking about art. In a sense it IS like knowing pornography when we see it.

    What I’m getting at is that your quest to get back to the beginning may not be the place you should be. There is nothing wrong with talking about engagement aspirationally. If there is an essence to engagement it seems to be that someone is paying some sort of attention. The more we describe what that attention involves the less we are describing ‘engagement’ generally. The harder we try to pin down engagement by its concrete examples the fewer things get included. Is a torture victim engaged while suffering? Is pain itself engaging? Unless we make space for the diverse variety we are no longer talking about engagement as such but only one (or more) version of it. We can’t define our way out of the tangle without distorting what we normally include as ‘engagement’.

    If engagement is important to us as a general issue that is one possibility. But it does not seem to be where any of us is coming from. We are interested in engagement because it serves us in some sense. The type of engagement we are after is an instrumental phenomenon that benefits some other purpose for us. Engaging museum visitors is something we do with an expected outcome. It IS aspirational for us. Play, immersion, emotion, and storytelling ARE important results of an engaged experience we are attempting to promote. This is simply an entirely different question from what ‘engagement’ itself is. We don’t need to define it because a *definitive* definition may not really exist. Imposing order by fiat seems unwarranted. If we can stomach the diversity of ‘art’ then surely we can accommodate a plethora of ‘engagements’.


  4. Great stuff here, Ed! And thanks for the thought fuel on an otherwise gray morning. A few thoughts on this:
    I feel like thinking about engagement as a “flow state” is interesting, but I wonder if it encourages us to think about engagement in a very binary way, as in, a person can be in a state approaching engagement, but not actually “engaged” until some transformational summit is achieved. To a certain extent, the commitment to visit a museum is already itself an act of engagement. Paying for a ticket is a *quantifiable* demonstration of engagement. We could argue that these acts merely create the environment for a possible engaged state to occur, and are not demonstrative of engagement itself, but that starts to feel like we’re setting an extremely high bar. I feel like there are plenty of steps on the way that, while not necessarily engagement nirvana, are still demonstrative of engagement.

    I keep coming back to this question you asked: “Can you imagine an activity that you would find both engaging and unsatisfying?” I can! I would argue that most social media is exactly this. I imagine that bidding at an auction is probably like this, too–highly engaging, very rarely truly satisfying. I suspect that museum visits are this way for a lot of visitors. The building itself may be interesting, the milieu of “being in a museum” may itself be exciting, being there with your friends might be fun, but maybe the exhibitions were just not that interesting to you that day. Maybe you don’t ever think about that museum again after the day you visited. Were you engaged, though?


    1. K,

      I don’t think engagement is a binary either. It’s definitely an analogue dial you can try to twist up and down. How do we increase the amount of engagement is the thing I’m interested in cracking.

      Also, thanks so much for the negative example of social media. You’re right, of course, and I’ll have to think about how to add that to my discussion.


  5. Lots of interesting material in your article and in the comments above. I am an audience researcher who spends a lot of time observing visitors in museum spaces. For me engagement is about reciprocal relationships between the museum and the visitor. Museums spend time and effort into presenting collections and exhibitions that we think will attract and engage audiences. We want them to trust our brand and return to our spaces again and again, so “engagement” is about our long term relationship with the visitor or museum member and not just a once off. From my observations, it starts at Front of House and continues with all our staff – security, volunteers, teacher guides, invigilators, cafes and museum shops and exhibition spaces. All these things contribute to long term engagement with our audiences. Museums are primarily about life long learning and being safe spaces to discuss all kinds of issues, but many of our visitors are coming weekly or fortnightly and they are not always coming for exhibitions – they just like us!


    1. Great point, Lyndall! I haven’t done enough to explore the other side of the visitor-museum relationship. My interest was starting from the visitor perspective, but I’ll need to get further. Thanks!


  6. Nice post, Ed! Lots to think about.

    One thought: At my museum, we also think about “engagement” as a kind of relationship (a nod to the “engagement ring” definition of “engagement”) This brings in ideas of commitment, duration, transformation, and, perhaps most importantly, mutuality. It takes two to be engaged in this way. It’s not just visitors engaged to the museum, it’s the museum engaged to visitors. It’s not just about how visitors are changed by going to an exhibition, it’s about how are the museum is changed by having visitors at the exhibition. (Hat tip to my colleague Nina Pelaez, who speaks to the metaphor much more eloquently…)

    Also–it’s a bit of a time capsule, but Ashley did a “What is engagement” session at NAEA in 2013 that compiled some thoughts from across the field. “Engagement” has changed since then, but may be of interest. Amazingly, it’s still on the web.


    1. Hey Chad,

      I acknowledge your +1 to Lyndall’s observation about engagement being a relationship. Thanks for the NAEA reference! I’ll add it to my follow up pile!


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