Research Spotlight

Terms of Family “Engagement”

Finding ways to “engage” visitors or create more meaningful “engagement” has become a standard goal for many museums. If we are going to talk about engagement it is incumbent on us to understand and address the values that are associated with this idea both institutionally and within the research literature. The concept of engagement, especially when we think about families, is widely used, but it is an amorphous concept with different uses and interpretations across institutions. Often the idea of engagement is more intuitive; we know it when we see it. But, as with all research, it is important to be sure that we find a way to articulate what it means and what it looks like so that we are measuring what we say we are measuring.

When it comes to families and what an “engaged” family looks like in a museum, having an operational definition becomes very important. What assumptions do we have about an “engaged” visitor? What values do we put on behaviors? Does engagement have to be object- or activity-based? Is it about the process or is it the end result? Similarly, taking into account the context of family dynamics, we should consider the role of families in the learning process, and the values held by both families and museum are all factors that can play a role in evaluating the experience.

Perhaps most importantly it is important to remember that museums cannot always engineer family interactions or connections to exhibits. Thinking about the role that parents want and choose to play in supporting the family learning experience is equally as valuable as whether or not they play together in an exhibit, share a memory, or explain to each other the significance of an exhibit concept.

Suggested articles on the idea of defining the role of parents in museum settings:


Elee Wood
CARE Membership Liaison
Director, Museum Studies Program and Associate Professor of Museum Studies, Indiana University-IUPUI