I’m Engaging, You’re Engaged

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November 11, 2012 by Lorna Richardson

The Strategies for Digital Engagement in Archaeology conference on the 7th & 8th of November was an interesting experience, as every single paper was directly relevant to my research. And I missed most of it as I had a job interview and then the ague.  Although I wasn’t there for most of it in person, I followed as best I could through Twitter, and joined in the back channel.  Something that really stood out for me was the use of the extensive use of the term ‘engagement’. Almost every paper mentioned it. And it was not really clear what it meant. Each paper, each person I spoke to, had a different definition of digital ‘engagement’.

Now, on my darkest days, when the black dog is on my back and I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep for weeks, I get to the point where I’d like to bundle up the term ‘engagement’, along with ‘community’ archaeology and ‘outreach’ (that’s another story) into a sack with a couple of bricks and throw it in the river.

What does this language of ‘public engagement’ mean?  What does it mean in the context of archaeology, and don’t you think it needs a spot of unpicking?  Surely understanding what it means impinges on quite a lot of the work we do as Public Archaeologists – and the very important issues of archaeological authority, multi-vocality and participation?  It’s the buzz word du jour, peppered across grant applications, job descriptions and mission statements.  There must be a clear definition of it somewhere? I’ve done a bit of digging around, as this’ll turn up in one of my thesis chapters, and well,  interesting stuff…
The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement describes the term thus:

Public engagement is a term that is widely used in a variety of sectors – from arts and heritage to science policy and local government. We’ve talked to many different people across the HE sector and research community to synthesise their views of what public engagement means to them, to inform our definition.

We think it’s important to be inclusive and not to try to narrow the definition down too far. We also believe that the other types of engagement – for instance ‘civic’ or ‘community’ engagement – are part of the same family. What they all have in common is describing an aspiration to better connect the work of universities and research institutes with society.

OK, so that’s as clear as mud. Do we even know what we’re talking about?  Is it ‘participation’?  Is it ‘sharing the results of my research through this talk/blog/photo/leaflet’?  Is it ‘getting non-archaeologists taking an active part in archaeology’?  Is it ‘asking the public what they think/feel/need from/want from/like about archaeology’? Is it ‘telling the public about our research but not sharing authority’? Is it is a prerequisite of any organisation that wishes to attract funding? And how do we measure it’s success if we don’t even know where the edges are?

So what does the term ‘Public Engagement’ mean to you?  Best answer wins a Cornetto.

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