Questions of Engagement

Over the holidays I noticed an interesting conversation about “engagement” on one of the blogs I follow, Thinking about Museums by Ed Rodley. And yes, that’s engagement in a museum context!

For those not in the museum field, “engagement” is a big buzzword right now at all sorts of museum conferences and discussions. Generally when we as museum or history folks talk about engagement we mean some variety of public engagement, as in, ways that members of the public feel connected to, changed by, or free to have a conversation with a museum’s collection, site, content, etc. As you can imagine, this covers a huge range of possibilities! My own personal feeling, coming from the research I did on experience and reenactment (which I just realized was nearly four years ago . . . time flies!), is that “engagement” can really only be defined as an umbrella term under which many things, reenactment being one them, fit. However, if you want to read much more informed and eloquent thoughts about the definition of engagement, check out these two posts on Thinking about Museums: Defining Engagement and Engaging with Engagement.

All that said — my thoughts about engagement have gone in a different direction lately. While I do believe engaging the public and engaging with the public are very important, I’ve also been thinking a lot about how museums and historic sites engage internally. This came up briefly when I wrote about my experience at the EAA conference. In that post, I expressed some frustration with the fact that many of these related fields — public archaeology, public history, museums and museum studies, etc — didn’t seem to be engaging often with each other. I go to a variety of conferences and workshops and I hear the same buzzwords, but they often seem to come with their own field-unique definitions and expectations. Sometimes I worry that, as colleagues, we aren’t listening to each other very much.

And if that’s the case, I can certainly understand why it might be — after all, especially in this age of tweets and blogs and ebooks and virtual workshops, there’s so much to look at in one field, say museum studies, that a person might well never have time to look into, say, community archaeology. But even if it is difficult to engage with each other as professionals, we can at least engage with ourselves. By which I mean: having meaningful conversations and soul-searching thoughts about our processes and intent, just as we would like visitors to do. It’s a time of change and excitement and yes, some disillusionment too in the museum world, and to my way of thinking that’s a perfect time to be really cognizant of what buzzwords we’re chasing and how we’re getting what we want and if what we want on a grand scale is going to work at each individual site. (Granted, if pressed I would say any time is a good time to be reflexive in both thought and practice — but still!) There’s a lot of progress out there to make, and many ways to engage; but, me being me, I can’t help but think we ought to do so thoughtfully.

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