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About the Bridging Cultures Initiative

April 4, 2012 | By NEH Staff

"What has always interested me most about history is trying to understand how people see their own world.  If you can understand how someone sees the world differently from you, then you learn something about your world, too."

Drew Gilpin Faust
President, Harvard University
NEH Jefferson Lecturer, 2011
From an interview with James Leach, Humanities, May/June 2011


A World of Ideas

During a time of rapid global change, the vitality of our twenty-first century democracy depends on a commitment to understanding the historical and cultural forces that have shaped and continue to shape our world.  To that end, NEH has developed a special initiative, Bridging Cultures, which engages the power of the humanities to promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives within the United States and abroad.

The Bridging Cultures initiative encompasses a broad array of themes and programming informed by the best in humanities research and scholarly insight.  Chairman Leach has noted, “The sharing of language, philosophy, literature, and art – the history of peoples – is the most profound bridge between societies and across cultures.”


  • White House hosts Bridging Cultures through Law series  Hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement, four screening events of NEH-funded films -- Freedom Riders, Prohibition, I Came to Testify, and The Loving Story – have brought together law students from five Washington area law schools, legal experts, scholars, filmmakers, and, in some cases, the people who lived the history, to engage in discussion of jurisprudence, historical context, and the relationship between American law and American society.
  • Twin Cities Public Television broadcasts a documentary based on the NEH-funded conference, Shared Cultural Spaces: Islam and the West in the Arts and Sciences.  The cultural and scientific exchanges that have occurred over centuries between Western and Islamic nations have led to countless advances in literature, philosophy, architecture, mathematics, physics and the visual arts. Those exchanges are discussed by scholars gathered from around the world to attend the NEH-funded conference. 
    Learn more about the conference and watch the documentary here.


The NEH provides selected grants to fund the most competitive of peer-reviewed proposals for conferences, forums, studies, public programming, and workshops.  In the most recent grant cycle, grants were awarded in the following categories:


Building on the foundation created by the Bridging Cultures Planning Grants, NEH has funded follow-up projects aimed at expanding regional and national opportunities for humanities-based discussions of the two initial themes:  civility and democracy and humanities and the Muslim world.

  • Poetic Voices of the Muslim World.  City Lore, in partnership with the Poets House in New York City and the American Library Association (ALA), will implement a two-year program that uses scholarly interpretation and performance of oral and literary Muslim poetry tradition to increase understanding of Muslim cultures.  Programming will take place in six public library systems across the United States.
  • Civility and Free Expression in a Constitutional Democracy – A National DialogueThe American Bar Association Fund for Justice and Education will implement a series of thirteen public programs plus on-line resources exploring the balance between civility and constitutional guarantees of free expression, and the roles of each in a democracy.  The ABA will host thirteen two-hour programs in nine states.  Five areas of focus: 1) public discourse; 2) cyberspace; 3) popular culture; 4) the public square; and 5) among cross-cultural perspectives.  Access videos, lesson plans, and discussion starters here.


To stimulate a rich dialogue informed by the best in humanities research and scholarly insight, NEH held an initial grant competition in 2010 and out of nearly one hundred applications, selected eight pilot projects at cultural and educational institutions around the country to bring together scholars and members of the public in discussions of two pressing national concerns – the role of civility in democracy and the need for a deeper understanding of the Muslim world.

These Bridging Cultures events, held during the first half of 2011 showcased the work of academics and public intellectuals through public forums on ideas ranging from “cyber civility” to Islamic intellectual history to the development of Western humanist and scientific thought.

Four of these forums took up theme of Civility and Democracy:

Four other Bridging Cultures forums examined various aspects of Muslim societies and the humanities:

Each of the eight forums was accompanied by workshops in which experts were convened to create specific plans for using exhibits, library discussion groups, or other public programs to bring new ideas to communities across the nation.  Expert input from state humanities councils was a key part of planning this public outreach in several of these projects.  In the case of California Humanities, that state council took the lead in a broad collaboration with diverse community partners who engaged in dialogue about civility and democracy, while the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities incorporated books on Muslim cultures and histories into its annual Festival of the Book program.


Over the course of the Endowment’s history, many projects related to Bridging Cultures themes have been an important part of NEH’s support for the humanities, and these topics continue to be welcome in all programs of the agency. 


As the Bridging Cultures initiative develops, we expect to take up new themes and encourage the study of many cultures and parts of the world, with a focus on the potential for the humanities to deepen understanding of a wide variety of intellectual and cultural traditions.