Engaging with “Engagement”

Happy holidays, comrades! Here we are, on the cusp of 2020, and I want to ring out the old year by reflecting on some of the very insightful comments I got at the beginning of the month.

As I mentioned in my last post on engagement, I have been wrestling with understanding what we mean we talk about engagement in museums. What I wound up doing was defining the aspect of engagement I was interested in. And people had thoughts and feelings about it. I got emails, DMs, and some comments on the blog, many of which were provocative and helpful. And I’ve spent the past few weeks pondering how best to respond to them. So, thanks to you all for your pushing and prodding. It is remarkably clarifying.

There is engagement, and then there’s engagement. Which one are we discussing?

Everybody engages, even hipsters. Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

My initial interest in defining engagement was to understand and define what is happening to the visitor who is engaged. Part of the challenge I have before me is being consistent and explicit about distinguishing between the empirical–what visitor engagement comprises physiologically, neurologically, intellectually, and emotionally–and the aspirational or instrumental–how might we experience designers deploy our deeper understanding of engagement to do our work better.

In doing so, though, I muddied the waters by veering into flow experiences. I have been deeply influenced by Csikszentmihalyi’s work, and I think that flow experiences are an example of the kinds of deep engagement that would be an unequivocal sign of success. However, I am also painfully aware that flow states are rare occurrences and they might be too serendipitous and dependent on multiple variables that are extremely personal. Thanks to Koven Smith and Carter Gillies for pointing out some of the obvious problems with using flow as an example of engagement. A person can dream, though…

Despite my clumsy framing, I am convinced that in a Venn diagram of experiences, the circle of “flow experiences” sits entirely within the circle of “engaging experiences”. Flow experiences themselves do not define engagement, but no useful definition of engagement can exclude them. I wonder if I’m starting to see the beginning of a spectrum of engagement with flow experiences being at the extreme end of deeply engaging experiences. I am reminded of Nina Simon’s diagram of participatory experiences in her first book.

I was also taken by the link Chad Weinard sent of Ashley Weinard’s 2013 musings on engagement. In addition to pointing me at Eliaichi Kimaro, who wrote about engaging museum programs as ones that “ignite dialogue and inspire deep introspection.” I especially appreciated having a program-focused discussion of engagement and her breakdown of her four elements of engagement:

  • pausing—catching the flow of a moment in time
  • listening—seeing, hearing and inquiring of each other, perhaps for the first time
  • sharing—telling new and old stories to strangers, friends, enemies; contributing to a corporate collection of ideas
  • reflecting—(re)considering previously unknown or all-too-familiar ideas in light of new perspectives and perceptions; imagining ways this new vision or awareness might change one’s course

There’s some substantial overlap between our definitions, and some interesting divergences; namely sharing. Does engagement require sharing? Can it be a purely personal experience?

Does engagement need a definition?

Clearly, I need to do more work to avoid conflating the particular and the general when defining engagement. Or do I? Carter forcefully challenged the very idea that engagement is a thing that can or should be defined.

“The point being that ‘engagement’ might be a term of convenience rather than science or strict definition. 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.”

I didn’t expect to get pushed so hard on something I thought so obvious and uncontroversial, but that’s why I blog. I especially appreciated his distinction between terms of convenience and definitions. It is helpful to have a shorthand that is understood just well enough to let us talk about the subject. I agree that there are contexts where “engagement” serves a useful role as a term of convenience. But, I disagree in the sense that I think there is a need to be able to understand what happens to a person in the process of being engaged in a museum experience. This is a critical prerequisite to being able to design for your desired outcomes whatever they are. The “engagement” I’m interested in having us better understand is the visitors’ embodied perspective of being engaged. As an experience designer, that is paramount to my very instrumental desire to use that engagement to advance the institutions’ goals for whatever I’m designing, be it a label, a media piece, an exhibition, or a building. So, I guess I have a bigger job to do disambiguating this type of engagement from the others.

Engagement as a relationship

Photo by Jasmine Wallace Carter on Pexels.com

I have been focused on engagement as a personal experience–a thing that happens to people when they decide to pay attention to something. But, as many of the commentators have pointed out, the much more common usage in museums and the business sector is to talk about engagement as a relationship between “visitors” or “users” and organizations. Several commentators spoke about engagement as being a reciprocal relationship between the museum and the visitor, and as Chad Weinard wrote, includes notions of commitment, duration, transformation, and, perhaps most importantly, mutuality.

“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.”

This idea of an organization being able to have a “relationship” with individuals is the kind of useful fiction that I am always leery of accepting too readily, though I do it myself all the time. It’s the same tendency that makes us talk about companies like they’re people. But they’re not. No matter how much I love a particular museum, it’s never going to love me back. So that kind of relationship is different. How to address this kind of engagement is really important, because it is far and away the most common use of the term as Paul Bowers and others pointed out. And this idea that it is a long-term affair is something both Chad Lyndall Linaker nicely summed up.

We talk about engagement in marketing and particularly digital marketing and social media all the time, and it’s doubly fraught in the digital realm because it’s a manifestation of a physical entity engaging with users whom you may never encounter in the flesh, and whose engagement can only be measured by looking at traces of their activity. Boudewien Chalmers Hoynck van Papendrecht asked on LinkedIn, “What does this mean for digital engagement? Where we look at engagement from a behavioral aspect measuring it in likes/shares/comments.” What I think it means is we need to work a lot harder to find out what it happening with those audiences.

Being “engaged by” versus being “engaged with”

Understanding engagement is a big deal. Seph Rodney pointed out (in his book on the subject) that engagement has become institutionally important, and even essential to museums. “Engagement is now widely considered in museological discourse to be one component of a triad of key responsibilities that encompass and describe museum practice“ along with preservation, and curation/interpretation. This kind of engagement is extremely broad and cuts across every field of museum work. I especially appreciated his description of Peter Welsh’s definition of engagement for it’s ability to embrace the diversity of audiences that museums engage with:

“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 places education, programming, and exhibitions, but also marketing, publicity, and donor development, all on similar footing.”

This quote resonated very strongly with a report I’d read earlier from Bronwyn Mauldin of the LA County Arts Commission. In “To Measure Engagement, You First Have to Define It” she looks at a report from the National Center for Arts Research report on the health of the U.S. Arts and culture sector, which uses “community engagement” as an indicator of health. And what they include as “engagement” is illustrative.

This definition of engagement combines traditional, passive activities like watching a show or walking through an exhibition with art-making activities like hands-on workshops that might be for adults or children. It also includes two very traditional arts activities many in the field might not have considered to be “engagement,” namely volunteering and donations.

Now, that’s a much bigger lens through which to view engagement than I’m used to using. It is also much more in keeping with the recent trend towards viewing visitor experience as holistically as possible. Witness the emergence of “Chief Experience Officers” CXOs as a sign of this desire on the part of institutions eager to more effectively engage with their audiences. And I wonder if that is the crux of my entanglement; this distinction between being engaged by something, versus being engaged with someone.

Now what?

Going forward, it is clear that if I’m going to stick with my definition and framing of “engagement”, which I am, I need to ground it more in the confusing welter of “engagements” that are out there, all of which are arguably more common than what I propose.

All the talk about Venn diagrams and different levels of engagement have me wondering Nina Simon’s five stages of participatory experiences feels like it has some value here as a model for thinking about engaging museum experiences that can be as deep as flow experiences, but as quick as reading something that makes you stop and think.

The tl;dr version is that Chapters One and Two need to be redone. So, back to the drawing board, and hopefully a new outline in the next few days, and a real draft of Ch 1 shortly thereafter.


I’d been thinking and reading so much about engagement that I asked at the end of my last post what I thought was a tricky, provocative question. “Can you imagine an activity that you would find both engaging and unsatisfying?” I honestly couldn’t come up with an answer to that myself, which shows how deep in it I was. Luckily, Koven Smith could. For him, most social media qualifies, along with bidding at an auction (and I’d now add most gambling ). They’re highly engaging, but ultimately unsatisfying. The second I read his reply, I thought, “Duh! What didn’t you think of that?”

And Claire Blechman also added the pithiest response, “Dealing with fascists online”, which I appreciated for grounding this all in the reality of life at the end of 2019, and giving me a chance to make a Good Place reference.

Proof again of the value of not being too afraid to expose one’s blind spots. So, onwards to 2020!


  1. Bravo! This has been an interesting discussion and I’m grateful to you for asking the question and for broadening the scope of my own understanding. I think the way you summed up the experience probably counts for many of us: “Going forward, it is clear that if I’m going to stick with my definition and framing of “engagement”, which I am, I need to ground it more in the confusing welter of “engagements” that are out there, all of which are arguably more common than what I propose.”

    There is nothing wrong with picking particular forms of engagement as the more relevant to your task. It isn’t engagement as such that needs to be harnessed but the sorts of engagement that matter for what you are doing. The inclusivity of engagement in general is much too broad to be useful in the context you require. And that is why a general definition, if it is even possible, is merely the background to the specific uses of engagement that suit your purposes. The plurality of engagement as a whole needs to be acknowledged, but can be left aside as its more relevant aspects impinge on our interests. Yes, these things you describe ARE engagement. But they are not the whole of the story, and that’s okay.

    Thanks for including us in your discussion!


  2. Hi Ed,

    Thanks for the shout out. I am not enthusiastic about being very particular, but in this case I have to mention: My book isn’t about engagement; it’s about a paradigmatic shift in the ways that museum professionals think about visitors and in the ways that both visitors and people who work in museums think about what should happen during the visit. It’s an examination of museum history to see how we got to this point.


    On Mon, Dec 30, 2019 at 1:21 PM Thinking about Museums wrote:

    > Ed Rodley posted: ” Happy holidays, comrades! Here we are, on the cusp of > 2020, and I want to ring out the old year by reflecting on some of the very > insightful comments I got at the beginning of the month. As I mentioned in > my last post on engagement, I have been wrestl” >


  3. Hello!

    I’ve followed your blog for some time, but it was the discussion of engagement that really got my attention. I’ve given a lot of thought to this too, though from a living history perspective. On that note, if you’re interested, another avenue for reading/thinking about experience and engagement is through reenactment. I don’t know if you’ve considered the topic already — I did look at your book outline (looks very useful!) and couldn’t find any mention of it — but it is definitely another method of engagement. A few years ago now I did research with reenactors about their experiences; for what it’s worth, you can find some of their thoughts on my blog, especially here: https://enactingthepast.wordpress.com/2016/11/01/what-is-reenactment/

    And, finally, I wrote a post inspired by yours on engagement (I hope you don’t mind!), though it takes a different turn based on other conversations I’ve had lately. That can be found here: https://enactingthepast.wordpress.com/2020/01/12/questions-of-engagement/

    That’s all — sorry for the long post, and thank you for your discussion of this topic!


    Samantha Hartford


Comments are closed.