Museums as Cradles of Democracy

by Courtney Brouwer, Assistant Director of Civic Learning 

"Every museum, whatever its mission statement may be, is a cradle of democracy" – Eric Liu, author, civic entrepreneur and founder of Citizen University

Just recently, I had the privilege of organizing a luncheon at the American Alliance of Museums annual conference that was co-sponsored by the McCormick Foundation. Captivating keynote speaker Eric Liu, who once served as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and now spearheads the Seattle-based Citizen University, underscored the crucial role that museums play in nurturing democracy and promoting what he calls the art of powerful citizenship. He called on an audience of museum professionals to acknowledge their institutions—whether they interpret collections of history, science, art, or animals—as cradles of democracy that foster meaningful participation in public life.

Eric noted that documentation status is entirely extraneous to his conception of citizenship, a regrettably politicized and therefore polarizing term. Instead, in its most ideal form, the word evokes for him a sense of commitment to our communities, where the spirit of fellowship thrives. He posits that museums nurture this spirit by illuminating the interconnectivity of our lives and commonality of our concerns.

Using metaphor to powerful effect, Eric likened museums to places of worship. Just as cathedrals offer refuge for reflection and communing with something greater than ourselves, so, too, do museums offer sanctuary from the pressures and mundane concerns of everyday life. They remind us that we are connected across generations, inheritors of the past and stewards of the future.

I encourage you to watch Eric’s remarks and join the dialogue we began that day. What do you think museums should be doing—or doing better—to realize their potential as cradles of democracy?


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