Museums are Civic Spaces

By Stephany Fry, Director of Public Programs

Stop and think about the first time you visited a museum. 

It might be a faint memory from the past steeped in nostalgia featuring what, at the time, seemed like larger than life animals or endless fields of grass in a place that the adults assured you was important. You may recall being encouraged to ask questions, talking excitedly with the people around you about what you see and what it reminds you of or even wondering why the things you were looking at were there. These shared experiences we have in museums are just some of the many ways museums act as civic spaces.

Museums provide context that helps develop informed citizens.

Museums use different techniques to illustrate and explain concepts related to their collections and community. There are exhibits, programs, hands-on experiences, activities, and self-guided materials, all of which we hope help positively shape the experience in the museum. History museums will use research that leads to historical facts that help us better understand the world we live in. Programs create opportunities to speak with experts on topics who can answer in-depth questions and discuss at length abouthow they connect different events of the past to explain our present. Learning about the history of where you live helps you make informed decisions, understand where you can make a difference and become engaged in your community. Visitors, staff, and volunteers all interact with one another, talk about what they see, ask questions, and learn from each other. The questions that visitors ask staff continue to inform what museums offer and prompt further learning and research just as we hope that we inspire curiosity in visitors that makes them wonder about themselves, the people around them, where we live and consider what they want the future to be.

Museums are a space for questions and asking questions is essential to democracy.

Students taking field trips that encourage discovery and exploration based on their own curiosity and questions are practicing core democratic values by thinking critically about the world around them. Museums work to develop gathering spaces for conversation that encourages learning. As we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know and start asking questions. As you develop critical thinking skills, you ask questions of those around you and expect them to explain their actions and why things happen or are done the way that they are. Museums follow this process by sharing findings and drawing connections, but also pose questions to ourselves and to visitors. We might ask: How does this painting make you feel? What are you still wondering about? Why do you think this historical figure acted this way? What might you do differently, or would you not? Questioning leaders is essential to democracy and museums encourage active questioning and discovery. Historians, scholars, curators, and experts are always realizing there’s more to learn and new lenses to apply to our past as people, society, and culture changes. Museums are spaces for learning and growth that celebrate realizations and findings, providing a safe and comfortable space for people to develop tools to shape their communities.  

Museums involve community members in an impactful way that creates changemakers.

Museums can be key gathering places in their communities, with even small museums having thousands of visitors a year. This often means that in your own city there are thousands of other people with this shared experience. You can talk with others who have looked at exhibits you’ve seen, learned the same facts that you did, and maybe even asked questions similar to yours. As museums continue to evolve in an ever-changing world, we’re creating more opportunities to incorporate community voices, go beyond our walls, and take learning to new spaces like schools, parks, and festivals. Museums are also inviting more community partners in to share their expertise on topics that the museum might not be the right fit to talk about. These community partners offer new perspectives, introduce new ideas to the museum space, and invite community members to civically engage in new ways. With continual changes in communities, all stakeholders have the opportunity to be changemakers by understanding the power of their actions and decisions, and museums help provide the context, tools, and space to inspire action to create a more equitable society. 

Your local museum is a civic museum and so is mine. 

Heurich House Museum is preparing for Civic Season with Made By Us, a celebration of self-discovery and civics co-created by Gen Z and cultural institutions that unleashes access to history and showcases the power of democracy. Check out some of our events coming up between Juneteenth and July 4th. 

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