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.
Through 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:
- April Antonellis, National Park Service
- Christine Arato, National Park Service
- La Tanya Autry, University of Delaware
- Aleia Brown, Middle Tennessee State University
- Rachel Feinmark, Lower East Side Tenement Museum
- Joan Fragaszy Troyano, Smithsonian Institution
- Lyra Monteiro, Rutgers University-Newark
- Porchia Moore, University of South Carolina
- Emma Murphy, University of West Georgia
- Laura Schiavo, The George Washington University
We also invite you to join the discussions here on History@Work or on Twitter (#MuseumsCivicDiscourse and #ncph2016).
- Elena Gonzales, independent scholar and curator
- Jennifer Scott, Director, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
- Nicole Ivy, American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums
- Robin Grenier, University of Connecticut
- Clarissa Ceglio, University of Connecticut