Humanities Advocacy and the Power of Public Engagement in Kentucky

Bowling Green, Kentucky is home to nearly 5,000 Bosnian-Americans, many of whom came fleeing war and ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. In late September 2017, the Bosnian-American community of Bowling Green came together to open “A Culture Carried: Bosnians in Bowling Green” at Western Kentucky University’s Kentucky Museum. The exhibition, which was recently extended through May 11, 2019, represents a product of the university and community’s ongoing collaboration to document and present Bosnian-American culture.

The project developed out of a chance encounter between Brent Björkman of Western Kentucky University and Denis Hodžić of the Bowling Green Bosnian community. As the two spoke, Björkman recalls learning that around 7.5 percent of Bowling Green is Bosnian-American and resolved to work with Hodžić to tell their story In monthly meetings with partners from the university and the community, they learned oral history methods and conducted interviews.

Through our Humanities for All initiative, we are working to bring a higher profile to collaborations and projects like these, which we see as essential to making the case for the public value of the humanities.

By engaging diverse communities like the Bosnian-Americans of Bowling Green, publicly engaged humanities projects increase the number of people who understand the value of the humanities to their lives. As members of the Bosnian-American community participated in the oral history project, they had the opportunity to reflect on the experience of war as well as cultural traditions in Bosnia and Kentucky. The exhibition itself has proven to be a fruitful recruiting ground for collecting oral histories, which it solicits from community members in Bosnian and English. The project’s continuing success at attracting new participants attests to the positive impact of the experience. At Western Kentucky University, the exhibition has been so popular that it became the centerpiece of a campus-wide year of programming about Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2017-2018.  

Publicly engaged humanities work also showcases the importance of humanities knowledge and methodologies to addressing issues of public concern. In this case, the collaboration between the Kentucky Museum and the Bosnian-American community, the majority of which is Muslim, bred much needed intercultural conversations. At an early stage, Björkman reached out to Bowling Green’s imams. The four mosques in Bowling Green saw the project as an opportunity to build relationships with the broader community. The exhibition did exactly that, sharing the experiences of Bosnian-Americans in Bowling Green and broadening conceptions of what it means to be Kentuckian.

Finally, by making clear the role that humanities scholars and students can play in public life, publicly engaged humanities work has the potential to shift narratives about the humanities and higher education. These narratives are too often narrowly focused on the return on investment for individual students. Western Kentucky University's work with the Bosnian-American community benefits all in Bowling Green. Opportunities for meaningful interactions like these with universities and colleges are critical to broadening support for the humanities in higher education, which a 2017 Pew Research Center survey shows to be in decline. With this in mind, Humanities for All works to tell the story of publicly engaged humanities work in U.S. higher education institutions.


Photo Credit:

Thumbnail image: A Culture Carried: Bosnians in Bowling Green exhibition. Image courtesy of the Kentucky Folklife Program.

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