Another forum on museums and civic discourse

Today subscribers to the listserv H-PUBLIC received the following invitation. Read all the way to the end to see how you can join in what proves to be an interesting discussion!

FORUM: What difference can museums make by engaging the public in civic dialogue?

This is a second question around the Winter 2008 issue of The Public Historian journal. The issue explores the topic of “Sites of Conscience: Opening Historic Sites for Civic Dialogue.” Editor Randolph Bergstrom writes in his forward, “At sites in the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, museums are inviting the public into conversation about contemporary civic concerns, linking remembrance with current issues to affirm and build civic voice and critical democratic engagement.”

The Public Historian and H-Public would like to know what you think!

“What difference can a museum make by offering spaces for civic engagement and/or dialogue for addressing contemporary issues?”

Along with the guest editors, we are inviting commentary and conversation about the articles and ideas in this issue. We hope that H-Publicans will join in by:

* sending a message to H-Public ( Tell us whether you agree or disagree that museum can make a difference by offering spaces for civic engagement for addressing contemporary issues. Have you seen or can you see these types of discussions happening in your community? Share with us about examples from your experience. This is a question for everyone interested in public history – students
as well as professional practitioners!

* staying tuned for blog reports from the National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference in Louisville, Kentucky next week, where there will be a session devoted to discussing the special issue of The Public Historian and the questions it raises. (If you’re planning to be at the conference, the session is #27, held on Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m.)

Through the conference, the listserv, and the blog, we are hoping to create a more extended conversation around this stimulating collection of articles – so please feel free to join in! A link to the conference blog will go out to H-Public subscribers on each of the four days of the conference.


Visit the table of contents of the “Sites of Conscience” issue.


“Sites of Conscience: Opening Historic Sites for Civic Dialogue”

Sites of Conscience are historic places that foster public dialogue on pressing contemporary issues in historical perspective. This foreword to a collection of essays from members of the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience highlights diverse approaches to opening historic sites for civic dialogue. The collection explores the challenges sites around the world face to hosting public conversation on difficult subjects in their different political contexts, and some of the strategies they have used to address those challenges. The foreword reflects on the perspectives international examples provide for U.S. museums that seek to serve as Sites of Conscience.

Liz Sevcenko and Maggie Russell-Ciardi

In 1999, a group of historic site directors from around the world came together to explore how their museums could serve as new centers for democracy in action. Directors from the National Trust of Britain and the National Park Service in the United States shared their experience preserving sites like the Workhouse and the Martin Luther King National Historic Site–places that confronted the failures of their long-standing democracies, and how citizens fought to improve them. Others were activists who had only recently struggled to deliver their countries from violent repression, like directors of the District Six Museum in South Africa and Memoria Abierta in Argentina, and who believed that remembering sites of both abuse and resistance were critical in the transition to democracy. From these wildly different perspectives, the group emerged with a common commitment:

“We hold in common the belief that it is the obligation of historic sites to assist the public in drawing connections between the history of our sites and its contemporary implications. We view stimulating dialogue on pressing social issues and promoting democratic and humanitarian values as a primary function.”

With this statement, the diverse group challenged themselves and museums around the world to take responsibility for promoting public engagement in the contemporary civic issues that matter to them most– that is, promoting the democratic process. They called themselves the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience. Since that meeting, these and hundreds of other museums around the world have joined the Coalition’s ongoing dialogue about how to put its founding statement into practice.

To explore the role of historic sites in building democracy, it’s important to define the processes we think comprise it. In recent years, increasing numbers of institutions in the museum field in the United States have advanced the idea that museums should serve as centers for “civic dialogue” and “civic engagement.” There is no consensus about what these terms mean, but several institutions have put forth their own definitions and issued challenges to the field to recognize the importance of these kinds of initiatives and explore what they can represent in various local contexts…

(You can read the full text of the Foreword online.)

If you’re not a member of H-PUBLIC, you can join through the H-PUBLIC home page. Simply click “Subscribe!” at the top of the left-hand column.

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