The Impact of a Dialogue

For the last few months, I’ve been looking for a short-hand definition of engagement—one I could hold in my hand. A beautiful and thought-provoking array of engagement models and reflections have been shared in the recent NAMAC blog salon, on the ArtsEngage tumblr and on this blog Musings. However, I finally found what I’ve been hunting for in the words of filmmaker and ArtsEngage blogger Eliaichi Kimaro. She writes that the gift of her ALLY project is its power to “ignite dialogue and inspire deep introspection.”

That handful of words is so simple, yet the impact of such engagement in the lives of individuals and our community can be profound. If we use those words as a guide, we can break the process of engagement down into these four actions:

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

We know that the arts are key to this process of engagement and unique in the way they bring about change. Whatever the form, art can reveal who we are, what we fear, or what we hope to become. Art tells or begs a story. To be engaged is to want to respond. What that reaction looks like takes many forms—from silent musings to passing on a good idea to active dialogue to creative product to deep relationships.

Suran Song tells us, I have learned that to engage your community in public art, you have to be willing to manifest your idea into a middle ground, and then let it go.” Where and how far the circles of impact go is unpredictable and often immeasurable. Don’t worry. Change will happen. How could it not?

This exercise of reflecting on engagement became a model of engagement itself—the blog salon, Tumblr, Twitter conversations, NAEA conference sessions, and silent musings opened a cycle of dialogue and reflection on a topic that is part of our everyday story.  Thanks to all the contributors who paused, listened, shared and reflected. May we see and feel the ripples of this dialogue in the most unexpected places.

Lingering Questions

We have been ruminating on the meaning of engagement for a few weeks now. We have a kind of group consensus on the qualities and conditions for engagement. We have been able to generalize about what engagement is and what it is not. We have seen how the perspectives of others, especially those outside the museum education field, amplify and reinforce our own understanding about this ideal(?) state of being that we work so hard to bring about in our audiences. These outside perspectives lend weight and refreshen our own, however they also reveal differences.

When we first started the conversation on this blog and in our conference session, we thought it would be the thin vs. deep experience of engagement that would be most contentious. (My methodology is better than yours, or that kind of thing.)  But, as it turns out, we are most provoked by the differences of opinion around the what–or focus–of engagement. Some want to draw visitors into deep relationships with works of art. For others, the what is the museum experience as a whole and all that is associated with it (memberships, collections, programs, the cafe, concerts, etc.). Another group feels it is some piece of knowledge, skill, or action that is essential to the museum experience. In any case, it is our personal backgrounds, job titles, and our museum missions that determine the focus of engagement and it can set us at odds.

Even though we continue to debate over the what, we can use the broader term of engagement as a way to connect and communicate with our museum colleagues. We have learned that engagement is a common and critical goal across the museum. It matters to us professionally and personally. It is a word we share and can gather around, even if our interpretations, applications, and personal experiences with it differ. Our different understandings and diverse methods for achieving it don’t dilute the term or the experience of engagement itself. We can build upon each others applications, experiment, and design an array of experiences that challenge visitors’ own expectations about what engagement can look and feel like. In this way, we can begin to model engagement for our visitors and rediscover it for ourselves.

While we may have made a few discoveries about engagement during the course of this experiment, we have also accumulated a long list of new questions to consider. We will be exploring some of these questions over the next month in collaboration with the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. We invite you to reflect on these questions, offer your insights, or submit additional questions for consideration. Please follow the conversation on Musings, the NAMAC blogENGAGE Tumblr (launching April 3), and on Twitter (#artsENGAGE).

Lingering Questions:

Why does engagement matter?

How does the state of engagement affect individuals, populations, relationships?

How much engagement do people need in their lives?  

How do human beings benefit from this state of being?

Can engagement be modeled?

What is the actual distinction between “thin vs. deep engagement” and does one have a more significant impact than the other?

Does a person have to be engaged in order to learn?

Is engagement contagious? Can it spread from person to person? Does peer pressure have an impact? How do group dynamics and environment make a difference?

Beginning to Synthesize

A smaller group of museum educators met yesterday to muse a little more about engagement. We reflected on the meaning and experience of engagement, we explored how others outside the Museum Ed field use and understand this term, and we (began) to consider how these new perspectives might shape our practice. Camille and I shared the collection of different perspectives featured on this blog to spur our group’s thinking and dialogue. Predictably, we did not come up with a one-liner to encapsulate the meaning of this evasive term. Instead, the group generated a list of some conditions, qualities, and activities associated with the activity of engagement.


The terms in black are those that museum educators (in our group, or featured on this blog) associate with the term. The words in orange represent ideas from beyond our own field…offered by classroom teachers, technologists, evaluators, writers, etc.

A few thoughts on our group exercise and what emerged from the conversation:

  • Classroom teachers suggest that we might use the active verb “engage” to talk about what we really want to happen in learning environments—that “engagement” may indicate a more passive state.
  • We noticed that additional ideas offered by professionals from outside the museum education field do not dilute the conversation or our nascent definition of engagement. These perspectives, in particular, provide us with a fuller picture of the qualities of engagement.
  • Engagement occurs in layers….layers of style, impact, depth, context, time.

Let these ideas and associations percolate in your mind. Experiment, observe, reflect again. Then, share with us the new ways you are thinking about engagement. We hope this will be an ongoing reflection and conversation.

Ways to contribute: email Ashley, leave a comment on our Voicethread page, or tweet a thought (#EngageMuse).

Museum Educators Reflect Together

Yesterday, museum educators from around the country gathered at the NAEA Museum Education Division Preconference to consider Visitor Engagement in a Participatory Culture. The goal was to reflect on new models for visitor engagement and explore ways of sharing authority and knowledge with our visitors. The day offered ample time for reflection, solution finding, collaboration, and looking at art. What a joy!

The morning featured a panel discussion on the meaning of engagement, which was moderated by Anne Manning, Deputy Director, The Baltimore Museum of Art. Here are some of the panelist’s perspectives on the meaning of this ubiquitous word. Food for thought…

Melora McDermott-Lewis, Director of Education, Denver Art Museum

  • Defining engagement is messy, and that’s ok.
  • We need a variety of verbs to describe just what engagement looks like at the Denver Museum of Art.  The museum…

supports, inspires, enlists others in supporting, creates conditions for…

                                    personally meaningful experiences with…

art, each other, creativity, other(?).

Rob Stein, Deputy Director, Dallas Museum of Art

Engagement involves:

  • Participation
  • Relevance
  • Learning
  • Reflective moments
  • Creative expression
  • Meaning making
  • Civic impact

Participation is the new currency of membership. DMA Friends.

Josephine Ramirez, Program Director, The James Irvine Foundation

A responsive, engaging organization…

  • listens to nonconventional audiences in nonconventional ways using nonconventional venues
  • increases relevance
  • is constantly self-assessing, refining, adjusting, experimenting

Musing in Ft. Worth

Thanks to all who have contributed light musings or deep thoughts about the meaning and experience of “engagement”. Here’s a visual summary of the comments we’ve collected so far from technologists, teachers, evaluators, writers, filmmakers, and museum educators.


We will be sharing these comments at this week’s NAEA conference in Ft. Worth. Our session “Musing on Engagement” (Thursday, March 7, 11:00, Meeting Room 108, Center, 1st Floor) and this blog aim to put the oft-used term in question in order to stimulate reflection and dialogue about museum practices. Our hope is that the different perspectives offered here will help us see the term from a new angle so we can examine our work with fresh eyes.

We welcome your reflections on the topic! Please leave a text comment on our Voicethread, tweet a thought (#EngageMuse), email Ashley, or drop by our session to share your ideas. 

Chad Weinard, Manager of New Media, North Carolina Museum of Art

Engagement is the electron in museum technology: we look for it, we know it’s there, but often it seems we can only see its effects. It can be the source, the process and the result. It’s something we can measure precisely and not at all. Working at an art museum, my goal is to nurture deep connection with a work of art: a life-changing discovery, a daily wrestling, a persistent need, a mysterious allure, perhaps an epiphany.

As a social media manager, “engagement” can simply mean interaction with my content. It’s a constellation of metrics provided by the most popular social networks: likes, shares, comments, retweets, mentions, favorites, repins. The more, the better. On its own, this is a shallow interaction. At its worst it’s a variation of a traditional broadcast model, where I control the content and push it out as far as I can…at it’s best, though, it builds a community around a shared value, it shows personality, humanity, joy. It can even model a deep connection with a work of art, or point it out in others. There’s a chance it can nurture an epiphany. (Educators and docents, with their knowledge of open-ended question strategies in the galleries, may be the best guides here.)

As a web manager and designer, “engagement” relates to content discovery. In web analytics, we can see how often visitors access content, how much time they spend with it, what they download and search for, and what page they see next; these are perhaps the faint fingerprints of “engagement”. The real engagement came when the student found the linchpin image online and uses it in their thesis (imagine they found it on the first page of a collection overview! Barely any time spent on the site, but so important!); or when a designer solves a problem by finding the work of a like-minded artist; or when a poet finds a visual metaphor.

Mobile technology gives “engagement” a disruptive new context and agency. Visitors can now explore our collections from wherever they are, doing whatever they do. Mobile can turn the traditional broadcast model on its head. Visitors post photos of artworks to Instagram while strolling the galleries; they tweet their questions, disdain, amazement to their friends in front of paintings; they pose like sculptures to show their families; they return to the same artwork daily to write a blog post. They are starting the conversations, determining the topic and the participants. Sometimes a post on social media is just the tip of an iceberg of deep engagement in the gallery. A strategy for encouraging and sharing such experiences is helpful. (Can technology help us to look deeper, longer, better? I think yes.) This requires infrastructure (wifi in the galleries), a commitment to open data, liberal photo policies, and a comfort with the unknown on the part of the museum. This is also where things get interesting, at scale.

Curiously, perhaps, the highest form of engagement for me personally is one-on-one, quality time in the gallery, looking. I want to know a painting inside and out, from near and middle distance. I want to visit it again and again, like a friend. I want to wonder why the artist made that move and not another, this choice but not that. I’ll draw it, paint it, take photos, videos, to make it mine. Little of this interaction takes place online, or makes it to social media. At least not directly. Yet much of it informs my work.

Susan Glasser, Director of Audience Engagement, Smithsonian Institutions

Never ask someone who just wrote a dissertation on the topic in question–you can’t shut us up. Here are excerpts from the tome:

Excerpt from the Introduction
“For the purposes of this study, I am using the term “engrossing” to refer to an art encounter that can be described as an intense, absorbing mental episode—phenomenological or cognitive—in front of a work of art, one that produces a sense of deep satisfaction or pleasure that is self-defined by each viewer. It is, in effect, an aesthetic experience broadly defined. . . .”

Excerpt from Chapter 2
“. . . . At its most basic, such an [engrossing art] encounter can be understood as an absorbing experience prompted by a work of art. It occurs in a specific place (a museum) during a particular interval of time. Its duration can vary from a moment to minutes to months (the latter consisting of a reoccurring engagement with a work not dissimilar to reading a book over time); more importantly, it has a beginning and an end. It is a special place/time event. It is an ecstatic experience in the original meaning of the term: ex stasis—a break from the status quo.[1] It stands apart from the business of daily life and the practical concerns of work, bills, and what’s for dinner.[2] As one writer aptly observed, “there cannot be any experience of the ordinary. . . . The ordinary is what is there when there are no experiences going on.”[3] Despite the fact that this special place/time event has duration, the sensation is more akin to timelessness: time itself seems to change or stop, one floats in a precious, insulated bubble of nowness. During this heightened sense of being in the moment, the viewer’s somatic self slips away—one loses oneself to the experience. It engenders deep personally defined satisfaction which is its own reason for being. Csikszentmihalyi refers to such experiences as autotelic: “The term ‘autotelic’ derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self and telos meaning goal [and] refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.”[4]

It is not necessary to be dogmatic and insist that every art experience possess each of the characteristics described. Nonetheless, the four distinct ways of engaging with art described above all share multiple aspects of an engrossing art encounter [four different art encounters are described at the start of the chapter]. Each is an intense, absorbing, place/time event prompted by a work of art. Often time stands still; the past, the future, even one’s own sense of self temporarily evaporate. All of them culminate in a mental episode—phenomenological or cognitive—that produces deep satisfaction or pleasure that is self-defined. It is the experience of art as an ontological event.

[The dissertation then goes on to demonstrate how engrossing art experiences have very similar characteristics to play experiences; this similarity led me to then look at some of the major tenets of game design thinking to see if they might offer some clues for designing high engagement experiences in museums–and it does.]

[1]. James S. Hans, The Play of the World (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press 1981), 30.
[2]. Being “marked out from what went before and what came after” is what makes experiences noteworthy according to John Dewey. Dewey, Art as Experience, 36 (see chap. 1, n. 21).
[3]. Philip Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 20.
[4]. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (NY: Harper & Row, 1990), 67.

Best example of a high engagement museum experience that I’ve seen was the following:

. . .  a work by the sound artist Halsey Burgund, Scapes (2010), that was on exhibit at the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, from July 13 through December 31, 2010.[1] Burgund uses open-source platforms, GPS technology, and interactivity to engage visitors as they walk through the Museum’s sculpture park.[2] Using their iPhone (or one borrowed from the Museum), visitors stroll through the park listening to a “spatially related musical composition” that changes depending on their physical location; an algorithm ensures that the tour is never the same twice.[3] Visitors have the option to listen to the soundtrack or add to it by answering one of five questions in forty-five seconds or less:
1. Scapes is an excuse to talk to yourself about anything at all. Go for it.
2. Ask a question of those who come after you.
3. Tell a story inspired by something you see or feel here.
4. Look straight up and describe what you see.
5. Tell us about someone you wish was here with you right now. Talk to him/her.[4]
The visitors’ spoken words are added to the soundtrack in real-time. Visitors have called it “absorbing and hypnotic,” and “profound [and] exciting.”[5]

[1]. I am indebted to Nancy Proctor, Head of Mobile Strategy & Initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution, for bringing this sound piece to my attention.
[2]. Decordova Sculpture Park + Museum web site, scapes.html.
[3]. “Not Your Father’s Audio Museum Tour,” a recorded interview by Adam Ragusea with Halsey Burgund for Radio Boston, scapes-at-the-decordova/&title=Not+Your+Father%26%238217%3Bs

MuseumMobile Wiki, October 21, 2010

Kristen Martin Thomas, Literacy Coach, Wake County, NC

Engagement: we hear this word so often, and yet, it’s difficult to tease out exactly what we mean.  Many of my colleagues and I have defined an engaged student as one who regularly reads (or views), writes (or creates), speaks, listens, and most importantly, thinks.  An engaged student actively interacts with his or her environment, and this can look different according to the task, purpose, or individual.

I believe that an engaged learner questions, makes connections, relates parts to the whole, and offers his/her thoughts to the group, among other things.  This could look like a think-pair-share, a journaling activity while reading/viewing a text, or many other things.  What engagement isn’t, in my opinion, is a lengthy large-group conversation in which only one or two speakers offer their opinions to the group.  There is certainly a place for large-group instruction, but I think it’s critical that we work to ensure maximum engagement for all students by rethinking how we can distribute the reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking across the room in order to draw all students in to the conversation.

Kenny Dalsheimer, Filmmaker and Educator, The Groove Productions, Durham, NC

I’ll share about engagement from my work as a filmmaker and media educator. In most cases, I feel engagement is seen, felt and experienced in ways that reach to deeper levels of our daily lives and tap into something new or something deeply meaningful and/or connected…

First, in my work as a teacher/artist in residence, engagement often comes when students begin handling and experimenting with video cameras and microphones. My folk theory is that students today are so locked into a video/media filled world that when they can become creators of media, they feel empowered and, that’s right, engaged. When workshops focus on documentary arts and students are asked to interview adults, teachers or folks in their community, I often can see changes in how they carry or present themselves to adults and how they relate to and connect with the topics, questions and themes that are a focus of our work. In some ways the technology of video production invites students to engage in their world in new ways.

Another important way I see engagement happening with my students is during projects which ask them to self-reflect and document their own lives and experience. I feel strongly that many disciplines can tap into this ‘key’ to unlocking student wisdom and experience by respecting and inviting youth to explore and share their worlds with others (through video, writing, dance, music, poetry, etc.)

As a filmmaker I wanted to share reflections on engagement from very different moments in my work. I often share that editing films is when I can truly get lost and locked in to my work and creative process. Sometimes this editing work is technical and not very fun. But on some days (or hours) I get into ‘the zone’, or have a very good feeling about how a film project is coming along after cutting away at a particular sequence or scene. This feeling or experience comes after I have been engaged with my material in a different way. And I think I lose track of time as well.

Deborah Randolph, Curator of Education, Southeast Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA)

My first thought of engagement is in the classroom. I believe it is the wonderful combination of focused attention to something – whether it be a scientific experiment or work of art – and an eagerness to communicate about it with peers and teachers. Sometimes the focus is so deeply internalized that time seems suspended. The communication may be as simple as an exchange through eye contact that validates a thought or opinion. At other times, the engagement is so strong that verbal communication does not suffice and curiosity must be expressed in other ways. I think that may be why arts integration often results in deep student engagement.

Outside the classroom in the contemporary arts center where I work, I find that engagement occurs when the art (and often the interpretation) takes the audience to places that are simultaneously familiar and unexpected. While the familiarity helps us pause for a moment and focus on a work of art, the unexpected is what we communicate to others and take with us to share with our communities.