Civic Engagement

Brooklyn Museum, First Saturday Party, July 2009. Photo credit: Eric, brooklynmuseum_073, Flickr.

The term “civic engagement” refers to both formal political practices and informal organizational activities that promote democracy by expanding citizen participation in problem solving and broadening access to social and political capital. Historians play at least three crucial roles in the promotion of civic engagement. First, they provide access to historical content and context which inform analyses of contemporary social, cultural, or political issues. Second, they promote collaborative practice, reflection-in-action, and facilitated dialogue as essential components of productive and inclusive political discourse. Finally, they participate in and often lead efforts to open up museums, historic sites, archives, libraries, and other institutional spaces for a variety of civic uses by individuals and communities. Because public historians, in particular, are employed in a variety of cultural institutions and in a growing number of colleges and universities, they have influenced the expansion of civic engagement as a defining value in both education and professional practice.

Historical Perspective

The rise of civic engagement as a central process of public history practice can be viewed through either a short or a long historical lens, but a truncated history tends to dominate the literature on civic engagement in academic and public history institutions. Throughout most of this literature, civic engagement appears to have emerged in response to the culture wars of the 1990s, a period during which political leaders repeatedly vilified universities and museums. A series of high profile controversies regarding federally funded museum exhibitions reflected a general sense that American cultural institutions had become too disconnected from their audiences and stakeholders. According to critics, this disconnection—not the conservative impulses embedded in institutional structures, collections, and interpretations—was to blame for a variety of ills including controversies, budget crises, and shrinking audiences. Politicians and citizens alike questioned the use of public funds to support institutions that appeared to serve so few. In response, museums and universities developed programs to demonstrate their civic value. The American Alliance of Museums, the leading professional association for museums in the United States (then called the American Association of Museums), initiated a challenge for museums to become more inclusive, making an effort to connect with their communities.[i]

Viewing civic engagement as a recent phenomenon can lead to a rather cynical reading of its value. The assessment of these programs has been focused on internal institutional impacts: student learning, curator and faculty research, success in winning grants, development of administrative infrastructure, and financial stability. The literature highlighting this recent history clearly indicates that strategies of civic engagement—including community partnerships and collaborative research—have indeed had a profoundly positive impact on both universities and cultural institutions. City administrators tout the value of civic engagement for improving fiscal management and promoting urban development. Experts on pedagogy have analyzed the value of civic engagement for improving students’ political awareness, empathy, and inter-personal skills. Experts on museums and other cultural institutions have accepted civic engagement as an essential component of best practices, a tool for diversifying audiences, enhancing the relevance of museums, and illuminating new perspectives on the past. Because there has been little emphasis on identifying and analyzing external impacts, however, civic engagement appears in the literature to best serve as a response to institutional crisis, not necessarily as a response to community needs and desires.[ii] In contrast, even a cursory effort to identify a longer history suggests that civic engagement is a potentially radical practice with deep roots.

Connections to Anti-Racist Projects

Looking for precedents and antecedents allows us to begin to recognize civic engagement’s potential value for addressing community interests. While recent trends helped institutionalize civic engagement as a value of public history, the practices that define it originated in older, experimental efforts to build inclusive forms of historical practice on a foundation of commitment to the common good. Many of these early experiments supported anti-racist intellectual projects, broadly conceived. In the early twentieth century, for example, Carter G. Woodson established a collaborative set of processes for the promotion and expansion of African American history. Recognizing the crucial importance of historical representation, he engaged university scholars as well as primary school teachers and members of commemorative organizations in a wide-ranging effort to preserve, interpret, and celebrate African American history.[iii] The organization he established in 1915, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, remains a broadly inclusive organization with members from a wide range of educational and cultural institutions. Similarly, the founding directors and curators in the black museums movement, which scholars trace to the middle of the twentieth century, recognized preservation and interpretation as relevant for addressing the immediate needs of black communities.[iv] Finally, the values and commitments that underpin civic engagement in institutions of higher learning have been most fully realized in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). HBCU founders, faculty, and administrators recognized their essential role in providing solutions to the problems faced by black communities in the United States and emphasized responsiveness as their guiding principle. While the forms of civic engagement codified during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries tended to reinforce, however unintentionally, a hierarchical relationship between universities and communities, this was not typically the case for HBCUs and the communities they served. Black students and faculty tended to have closer connections with surrounding communities, and they were more likely to view local people as peers and colleagues than clients.[v]

Viewed from the perspective of this deeper history, the potential of civic engagement becomes visible. Educational and cultural institutions can become more permeable and transparent spaces that foster inclusiveness and emphasize the co-creation of knowledge over top-down instruction. Approaching these aims can challenge deeply institutionalized beliefs about the nature and parameters of professionalism.

Effective Models of Civic Engagement

In the twenty-first century, crowdsourced digital collecting practices have emerged as an effective method for engaging average people in shaping the historical record. While the vast majority of crowdsourced digital collections remain subject to collections policies and curatorial discretion that impose some limits on collaborative practices, they nonetheless make collections processes more transparent and inclusive. Notably, a small but growing number of crowdsourced digital collections actively confront institutional practices that limit or control contributors’ efforts to define historical materials and their meaning. For example, the People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland actively involves Cleveland residents in decision making and empowers them to retain control of the collection. The collection is maintained through cooperation between Puncture the Silence, a local activist organization in Cleveland and an independent collective of archivists from around the country who are committed to its long-term preservation.

Examining the long history of civic engagement further suggests that leaders in museums, cultural institutions, colleges, and universities must be able to identify and respond to rapidly changing economic, social, and political conditions. Fostering this kind of responsiveness requires the development and maintenance of meaningful relationships between organizations and the communities they serve. Organizations are most successful in this work when it is integrated into their mission. For example, both the Jane Addams Hull House Museum in Chicago, IL, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT, have successfully made the case that active political engagement with their stakeholders is not simply important; it is central to each site’s history and preservation. Hull House founder, Jane Addams, established the settlement as a site for local residents to meet, organize, and problem solve. The institution’s staff continues that tradition, providing space for community meetings, English language classes, and other uses. Located in a historic structure associated with the abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center puts the methods of historical inquiry to work to promote dialogue and action around issues of incarceration, enslavement, and injustice.

Other institutions actively work to develop meaningful relationships with local residents and other stakeholders by encouraging innovative collaboration. For example, the Brooklyn Museum in New York has developed a process for enabling the community to design and lead museum programs. Anyone can submit a program proposal, and the museum staff accepts and reviews them on a rolling basis. Once a proposal has been adopted, museum staff can provide support and advice to aid community members in organizing their event. These community-designed programs are not “special events.” Rather, they are fully integrated into the museum’s regular schedule of weekend events, monthly First Saturdays, and weekly Thursday evenings. More importantly, community-led programming is a mode of reciprocal communication. It empowers local people to actively define their relationship with the museum, and it enables the museum staff to remain engaged with community needs and interests.

Finally, exploring the development of civic engagement over time suggests its highest aims are best served when practitioners recognize themselves as serving not only their typical constituencies, but also a wider community. The development of networks of practice can expand community engagement, amplify and broaden interpretive processes, and foster dialogue among people with divergent perspectives, beliefs, and experiences. For example, the Humanities Action Lab is a collective of universities, action organizations, and public spaces dedicated to the design and implementation of community-based history projects that provide a response to urgent contemporary issues. Action Lab projects have included the Guantanamo Public Memory Project, States of Incarceration, and Migration and Environmental Justice, each of which seeks to shed light on injustice and foster dialogue about the future. Similarly, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience provides educational resources and support to organizations and individuals who wish to use memorial sites, museums, and historic places to promote dialogue and reconciliation.


As these examples suggest, civic engagement is a means by which historians can challenge exclusive pasts and promote a more just and inclusive future. By valuing responsiveness and connection, by working to treat different ways of knowing and analyzing events as equally relevant for problem solving, and by privileging inclusiveness over authority, public history can play a role in expanding democracy and craft a strong foundation from which average citizens can become stronger advocates and agitators for social justice causes.


[i] American Association of Museums, Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 2002).

[ii] Roger L. Kemp, ed., Town and Gown Relations: A Handbook of Best Practices (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013); Susan Benigni Cipolle, Service Learning and Social Justice: Engaging Students in Social Change (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010); Christine M. Cress, Peter J. Collier, Vicki L. Reitenauer, and Associates, Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement across Academic Disciplines and Cultural Communities (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2013); Barbara Jacoby and Associates, Civic Engagement in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009); Gail Anderson, ed. Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation and the Paradigm Shift (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012); Viv Golding and Wayne Modest, eds., Museums and Communities: Curators, Collections, and Collaboration (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

[iii] Pero Dagbovie, The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

[iv] Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museums Movement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[v] Marybeth Gasman, Dorsey Spencer, and Cecilia Orphan, “‘Building Bridges not Fences’: A History of Civic Engagement at Private Black Colleges and Universities, 1944-1965,” History of Education Quarterly  55, No. 3 (August 2015): 346-379 (published online January 20, 2017),

Suggested Readings

Adair, Bill, and Benjamin Filene, Editors. Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Blouin, Francis X. Jr., and William G. Rosenberg. Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives. New York: Oxford University Press, Reprint Edition, 2012.

Coombes, Annie E. History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Gonzalez, Kenneth P. Doing the Public Good: Latina/o Scholars Engage Civic Participation. Stylus Publishing, 2007.

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Onciul, Bryony. Museums, Heritage, and Indigenous Voice: Decolonizing Engagement. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Rizzo, Mary. “Finding the Roots of Civic Engagement in the Public Humanities.” History@Work, July 21, 2014

Rocksborough-Smith, Ian. Black Public History in Chicago: Civil Rights Activism from World War II into the Cold War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018.

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. 2010.


Denise D. Meringolo is Associate Professor of History and Director of Public History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.