Are museums “lean forward” or “lean back” experiences?

“Lean forward” and “lean back” are terms that emerged in digital media to describe different engagement styles with screen-based experiences.

Lean back behaviour is envisaged as a passive, kick-back-with-a-beer-in-front-of-the-TV type of behaviour, whereas lean forward implies more hands-on engagement such as with gaming or surfing the web. Therefore, it has often been assumed that lean forward experiences require a higher level of engagement than lean back ones. But as this post argues, that doesn’t necessarily follow. Indeed, lean forward experiences are often hyperactive: full of distractions, shortcuts and multitasking. In contrast, lean back experiences can be conducive to engagement with more long-form media such as a book or a movie. Our level of intellectual absorption doesn’t always correspond with our level of activity.

I’m wondering what this means for museums, which under different circumstances may offer both lean forward and lean back experiences. Do certain types of visitors expect one type, and then disappointed if they find the other? Is this part of the reason why James Durston complains about Why He Hates Museums, meanwhile Judith Dobrzynski laments when High Culture Goes Hands On? (To bring in of the most talked-about museum articles in the mainstream press this past month or so. . . )

I first got on this train of thought while thinking about the word “entertainment” in the context of museums. We’ve well and truly moved on from the days when it was assumed education and entertainment were polar opposites. Even so, entertainment may not be the best word to use – “enjoyment” is spontaneously mentioned far more frequently by visitors than entertainment is [1]. I started off thinking that entertainment conjured up an image of a more passive kind of engagement – entertainment as something that is done to you.  On the other hand, enjoyment implies something that was more active and participatory- you enjoy doing something. I thought this might relate to lean forward versus lean back experiences, but now I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that.

What do you think?


[1] As reported by Tiina Roppola in Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience, 2012 (Routledge)

3 Replies to “Are museums “lean forward” or “lean back” experiences?”

  1. I’d definitely say “lean forward”.

    You don’t go to a museum to passively experience a museum. It’s not about the ambiance. The purpose is to actively look at things and, apart from the fact that this often requires you to literally lean forward, it’s also about the intent of this action. You want to see the textures, the fine detail, the craftsmanship of objects that take your interest.

    According to your definition (and I like the concept, I’ve never heard of this distinction before) this would be a lean back experience if all you wanted to do was sit quietly and listen to the acoustics (which I’ve done), but I don’t see how anyone could be disappointed if something demanded their attention and made them go and take a closer look. Surely that’d be a good thing!

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for the comment – and yes you’re right I think for a lot of people museums are lean-forward, but that some people do go there for the lean-back experience from time to time too (e.g. “rechargers” described in

      I think the reason “lean backers” are annoyed is not so much that something has captured their attention to make them lean forward, I think it’s more that they don’t like all those people noisily having lean-forward experiences and getting in the way of their nice quiet lean-back time 🙂

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