Call to action at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights?

“Most museums explore the past. This one changes the future,” was the slogan of a promotional campaign for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) during construction. Today, how does the museum inspire us to change the future? Law Prof. Karen Busby, who is also director of the Centre for Human Rights Research, asked us during an Oct. 26, 2015, seminar to think critically about the museum’s mandate and exhibits. Do they challenge us to engage in dialogue and take action?

While dialogue is important, Busby questions whether it is really enough. The museum is named the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, implying that it defends and advocates for human rights. However, the museum’s mandate does not seem to proactively address this. Busby asserts that the museum’s change agenda emphasizes dialogue rather than a more active call to action. It is more passive than the change agendas and objectives of the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda, the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian, among others. For this reason, it is important to consider what the CMHR inspires visitors to do and what it could do differently in this regard.

Busby argues that the museum’s presence itself has inspired change. For example, the green space around the museum invites protests and people gathering for conversation. The CMHR also hosts interesting events, and prompts discussions among the citizens of Winnipeg. It has also propelled the creation and expansion of human rights curricula at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. The museum and the expectations it creates have catalyzed the idea of Winnipeg as a centre for human rights.

With this in mind, Busby critically examined a few of the galleries, including the Canadian Journeys gallery, the REDress exhibit, the same-sex marriage exhibit, and the Gallery on Inspiring Change. In what ways are they successful and unsuccessful in fostering dialogue and encouraging action? Based on this examination, Busby asserts that “the museum does not deal with current topics very well.” She says three questions should be asked of the exhibits in the museum: Do they encourage dialogue? Do they give you clues on how to respond? What do the exhibits say about collective action? Busby argues that the most of the exhibits focus on individual action rather than collective action, and do not ask good questions to encourage dialogue or provide clues on how to respond. This begs a final question, going forward: How can the CMHR better curate change?

Questions:

Who gets to decide which human rights narrative is promoted and what is the appropriate way to take action?

Busby says that, as it stands, the CMHR does not encourage visitors to even engage in dialogue on such questions. Perhaps galleries such as the Inspiring Action gallery could directly raise these kinds of questions.

Do you think the museum will improve on this aspect?

Yes, absolutely. The museum does great work and its presence makes a difference and changes things. However, as academics and citizens, it is important to critically examine the mandate of encouraging dialogue, and whether the museum is actually successful in doing so.

Audio podcasts of seminars in this series are also available.

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