From racial injustice to climate change, from gun control to immigration, our communities confront a range of complex, divisive issues. In response, many scholars and practitioners working in public history, museums, and allied fields have renewed calls for our institutions to foster civic deliberation and constructive action. They point to model examples of such work but also to the larger number of museums wary of tackling controversial topics or ambivalent about the compatibility of “social work” or civic activism within museums’ traditional mandate to collect, preserve, and interpret.

At the same time, and also from within these fields, others have revitalized the work of making museums, themselves, more equitable places. An important and energetic part of this discourse is taking place on social media channels. Nodes in these interconnected, still-unfolding conversations and activities include: Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole’s keynote address at the 2015 American Alliance of Museums annual meeting (available as a transcript and YouTube video); #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson, an initiative that recently marked its first anniversary; and  #MuseumsWorkersSpeak, which asks museums to “turn the social justice lens inward” on labor practices. So, in asking, “What roles have—and can—museums play in developing strategies and solutions to support civic discourse,” we must also engage the institutional inequities in hiring, governance, and other operational functions that limit museums’ ability to serve as credible partners to diverse constituencies.

In considering these and related questions, the working group aims to bring historical and interdisciplinary perspectives to bear on museums’ work in and understandings of this area. Indeed, the visions and practices of U.S. museums as public agents have long stood in tension with their shortfalls as democratic institutions. Developed in the matrices of imperialism, nationalism, and the cultural values of elites, the museum form has undergone signal, if uneven, transformations across the last century in order to become more inclusive, responsive, and open. In the U.S., these developments include museums’ gradual entrée into the work of proactively cultivating civic discourse, constructive debate, and creative action. There is, however, no recent critical accounting of this history, no overview that can be used to contextualize and inform current deliberations over future paths that museum work in this area might take.

Concurrent with these developments in museum work, the meanings of the term “civic discourse” have undergone change as well. The phrase and the practices associated with it remain differently understood within the fields that connect it to museums. To further complicate things, the distinctions and overlaps among other descriptors, such as civic engagement, social practice, etc., remain slippery, too. Not to mention the fact that “civic discourse” is jargon, an insiders’ phrase. While parsing these distinctions is key to the project’s historical work, we define civic discourse within the museum context as: social forms of collaborative meaning-making around topics and issues of importance to a community that open pathways to understanding, action, and change. Social forms include, but are not limited to, dialogue-based programs.

pdp_blueshortThrough the NCPH Working Group and other convenings, both off- and on-line, we hope to hear from colleagues whose work, experiences, and questions will bring the past, present and emerging futures of museums and civic discourse together in interesting and productive ways. As an outgrowth of these conversations, and with support from UConn’s Public Discourse Project, we will develop the framework for a collaborative digital-first, open-access volume. A Zotero group library will serve as the project’s literature survey—and, we hope, as a ready reference tool for colleagues who are working, writing grant proposals, or undertaking research in this area. Although still in its raw, early stages, that resource can be found here and we invite you to check back as it takes shape. We also encourage you to add citations to the library for your own or others’ work, from primary sources, books, and journal articles to blog posts, videos, project web sites, etc.

The first contributions to this effort come from our working group collaborators, whose case statements you can access below:

We also invite you to join the discussions here on History@Work or on Twitter (#MuseumsCivicDiscourse and #ncph2016).


  1. April Antonellis says:

    Two statements specifically referenced the Center for the Future of Museums’ reference to Ferguson as a “headline issue of the day.” Both seemed dissatisfied with where this misses the point: major issues which do require attention and understanding start somewhere, and we do both a disservice and indeed damage by neglecting this. How do we recognize and respond to the major areas of interests within our diverse society?

    This relates to another point of intersection: the need for resources to support the training, education, and professional development of museum professionals to understand the full range of complexities pertaining to society today, and how it impacts how museums interface with diverse visitors, and how these visitors engage in our institutions.

  2. Christine Arato says:

    Many of our projects probe the connections between civic discourse and social justice, the nexus between critical self-reflection and action. As a few colleagues have shared, an “equitable distribution of risk and reward” requires museums (and other cultural heritage institutions) to “turn the lens inward.” How do we attempt and evaluate the “decolonization” of cultural heritage institutions and deconstruct the language of “service” that tends to reflect and re-inscribe inequitable relations of power and authority?

    I am also quite fascinated by our occasionally intersecting, but often disparate attempts to grapple with the spatial dimensions of civic discourse. We struggle with issues of social dislocation through mental and physical geographies, expressed in terms link “mental mapping,” “bridging gaps,” and “transitional spaces.” Where is community constituted? Where are the spaces for change?

  3. Joan Fragaszy Troyano says:

    I enjoyed reading these statements and found some interesting tensions between developing specific programming to cultivate civic discourse (such as an announced speaker or event on a specific topic) versus “found” programming, like the conversations around the table at the Tenement Museum, or the participatory events at the Providence WaterFire. Do we want visitors to anticipate and intentionally choose to be part of tough conversations, or is it better to catch them by surprise, and thereby reach some who wouldn’t necessarily have made an effort to join? Perhaps some of each along a continuum of programming? I look forward to speaking about this and the other important issues raised by the statements when we gather in March.

    1. Rachel Feinmark says:

      I love your point here, and I think that it strikes at the heart of one of the major problems I see as museums strive to do this work: how do we avoid self-selection biases and open this work to everyone? I think that these efforts can only be truly successful when they’re as diverse as possible (in race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, yes, but also age, region, and educational background). How can we achieve this diversity? Do we need to bring the conversation to where people already are (as in WaterFire), or can we trust that “if we build it they will come?” How can we mitigate cost and knowledge barriers to make sure that all visitors feel like equal participants? Finding audiences, of course, can be one of the fundamental challenges for museums and cultural sites, but when we talk about creating real social change, is there something more at stake?

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