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.