Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Museum Visit: From Civilizing Ritual to Catalyst for Civic Engagement

by Courtney Brouwer, Assistant Director of School Programs, Civics

Today’s museums would be almost entirely unrecognizable to a visitor from the 19th century, when many of our most venerable institutions first opened their doors to edify and enlighten the public. Their galleries would have been eerily silent, so as to facilitate quiet reverence for the objects on display, and solemn contemplation of narratives crafted by an invisible cadre of curators that was hidden away in a proverbial ivory tower. The museum visit was a ‘civilizing ritual,’ through which ideologies—presented as unbiased presentations of facts—were conveyed and dominant cultural values affirmed.

But museums, by and large, have made significant strides in shedding this troublesome identity and transforming themselves into lively civic forums, where curators and visitors co-construct knowledge and meaning through ongoing dialogue. This dynamic discourse is happening in a variety of environments, including highly-interactive exhibits, on-site public programs, online activity, and even social media.

Despite this exciting evolution, museums—not unlike other aging institutions ranging from print journalism to bricks-and-mortar bookstores—are struggling to articulate their relevance and value in today’s society. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is ardently and, I would argue, rightfully positioning them as essential educational institutions and community anchors. The Center for the Future of Museums, an AAM initiative, expounds upon this premise and posits that museums will play a vital role in an emerging era of education, wherein an outmoded, school-based system will be replaced with a networked landscape of distributed resources that encompasses not only museums, but also libraries, online education portals, and community organizations that provide learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom environment.

Whether or not this systemic shift in the way we think about education occurs, museums, I would insist, are uniquely positioned to play a prominent role in fostering the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that underpin widespread participation in public life—in other words, the sort of education that is essential to sustaining a healthy democracy.

A wide range of museums are already leveraging their potential as both training grounds and catalysts for civic engagement. Through a panel discussion I moderated at a museum conference earlier this year, I learned how colleagues at the Museum of Tolerance, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, and Richard B. Russell Library are translating proven practices for improving civic learning in the classroom to great effect in the museum context. The latest issue of the Journal of Museum Education is devoted to the topic of promoting civic engagement; it highlights the work of several institutions that want visitors to leave their museums “with a sense of themselves as empowered actors in the story of creating a positive future.”

This work inspires me and continuously informs the way I think about our traveling museum, the Freedom Express. The idea of fostering civic learning and engagement is woven into our institutional DNA, and our exhibit content is tailor-made for this endeavor. The museum illustrates how the First Amendment enables a healthy democracy, where we can freely exchange ideas, learn from a diversity of perspectives, and take action on the issues that matter to us. Yes, we want visitors to understand our constitutional rights and their historical context. But, just as importantly, we want to generate discussion, spark debate, and inspire visitors to create positive change in our communities. We, along with so many of our colleagues at Cantigny Park and across the country, are embracing the museum’s potential as a powerful and enduring catalyst for civic engagement.

Courtney oversees the Foundation’s mobile museum, the Freedom Express, which travels to schools and community events throughout Chicagoland. The Foundation also encompasses two bricks-and-mortar museums at Cantigny Park in Wheaton: the First Division Museum and the Robert R. McCormick Museum.


  1. Museums are absolutely an essential piece of the collective effort it takes to raise, educate, inform, and engage our future citizens. In many cases, and especially in school settings where courses in social studies, civics, and government have been slashed to allow more time for the tested subjects, students receive almost no instruction or exposure to the basic function and structure of government. Models of effective and informed citizen engagement are often done away with altogether, or covered incidentally through literature, or spoken of only on specific holidays that connect thematically.

    There has been, over the past couple of decades, a tremendous focus on developing basic skills in literacy and math. These skills are essential for success, but without instruction in social studies, history, and civics, we miss out on how these skills should be applied outside the classroom and beyond the world of the standardized test.

    There is currently an emphasis on preparing students for College and Career, and yet the role of Citizen begins well before College and should continue even when one's Career has come to an end.

  2. Well said, Tony, and points well taken. With regard to your final statement, I'm very anxious to see what comes of the C3 Framework that's being advanced by the National Council for the Social Studies. The impetus behind this framework for formal education, whose three 'C's stand for college, career, and civic life, is the marginalization of social studies--which you cite--and concern for the subsequent, inevitable impact on our democracy. The initiative seeks to restore emphasis on social studies disciplines, build critical thinking, problem solving, and participatory skills that are requisite to civic engagement, and align academic programs to the emerging Common Core standards. Museum professionals will be well-advised to stay tuned to these developments, given our shared objectives with colleagues in the classroom, and the extent to which our own work is informed and impacted by developments in formal education. Thanks for sharing your comments--they've given me more to consider!

  3. Hi Courtney - Nice article - well thought out. We are always trying to develop interesting ways to let visitors interact with art in a simple way for our Museum projects that we work on. Our group has been developing simple and effective programs that bring static displays and art alive so the younger generation, that is now so used to interacting with their phones and IPads, can learn more about the artist or piece of art through hand held technology. We have been using software called Layar - which is similar to a 3-D QR Code process. It is simple and engages visitors to mix their everyday technology with yesterday's art - the nice thing is that we can do the voice overs in different languages to capture wider audiences as well and we can add updates frequently easily if needed.