Leonard Steinbach

Civic Engagement in a Digital Age – Museums Meeting the Challenge

The trajectory which has taken museums worldwide from simple treasure boxes to trusted cultural repositories with education at their core has continued to propel them, more recently, into the universe of civic engagement.  Science museums use exhibits on climate change to promote changes in government policy.  One art museum and a car company is sending a “laboratory” around the world to “address issues of contemporary urban life through programs and public discourse” while another sends its community out to scout local artists for an upcoming exhibition. A museum’s “Hall of Human Origins,” is not complete unless “museum staff and volunteers [can] participate in a respectful conversation where science intersects with cultural and religious interests.” A holocaust museum sees its job as “sensitizing the public to the universal perils of anti-semitism, racism, hate and indifference” and an online museum shares stories and fosters conversation to “inspire creativity, awareness and action on vital global issues for women.” In Hong Kong, the development of a major new cultural district demands extensive public conversations and many are shared with the world online.

International Museum of Women

Among the few truly trusted public institutions, museums are well suited to embody civic engagement by sharing information, fostering dialogue and inspiring calls to action.  The spirit of civic engagement may have pre-dated the internet, but the web and social networking have enabled and amplified it well beyond any expectations.

In Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, he writes, “One minute before the end of the world, everyone gathers on the grounds of the Kunstmuseum. Men, women, and children form a giant circle and hold hands. No one moves. No one speaks…” That may be one form of museum civic engagement, but not in our world. Museums speak more than ever. Men, women and children also speak. And today’s museums listen. This presentation will explore what museum civic engagement means today, and how technology, social media and the web provide increasingly exciting potential.


Leonard SteinbachLeonard Steinbach is currently a Visiting Fellow at City University of Hong Kong, in the Cultural and Heritage Management Program. He also teaches The Business of Museums in the Graduate Museum Studies Program (online) of Johns Hopkins University. Steinbach consults with museums in the U.S. and internationally on technology use and strategic planning. His career includes CIO positions at The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (NYC). He is a past president of Museum Computer Network (MCN), long-time member of the Horizon Report – Museum Edition Advisory Board, and serves on a museum Board of Directors. His publications include “Analyzing Return on Investment…. Process of Champions” in AAM’s The Digital Museum – A Think Guide (2007) and more recently,  “3D or Not 3D – Is that a question? “ published in Curator — The Museum Journal (Jan 2011).  Steinbach has long advocated civic engagement by museums, but when AAM published Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums in 2002 he was not all that happy; the book had virtually no mention of technology. However, AAM Museum News soon published his response, Civic Engagement in a Digital Age: An Even Greater Challenge to Museum (May, 2003).  In a way, this presentation looks at how far we have come, ten years later.



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