How should a museum for human rights represent the past?

Prof. Ralph Stern (Architecture) and Dr. Stephan Jaeger (German and Slavic studies) discussed memory from a 21st century German perspective on Oct. 24, 2011.

Stern explained architectural development in German society as an attempt to somewhat reclaim a painful history. Post-war architectural changes masked old buildings and the underlying memories that accompany them. Interestingly, modern German society has come to favour a 19th century architectural style because many architects found it difficult to dissociate 20th century buildings from the trauma of the Second World War.

Stern hopes the Canadian Museum for Human Rights can take lessons from Germany.

It is important for the museum to “not just look inward and not just look at the displays, but also look at the memory of the city, and the history that has occurred there,” Stern said, noting the significance of The Forks site and surrounding neighbourhoods in Aboriginal history and contemporary struggles.

Jaeger provided an overview of some of the ways a museum can represent the past through a detailed description of the methods used by three of Germany’s most notable museums.

The traditional German Historical Museum in Berlin is an example of an informative, educational institution that connects to visitors in a depoliticized and objective manner. The Topography of Terror, on the site of former Gestapo and SS headquarters in Berlin, utilizes vast amounts of images and quotations to offer visitors different perspectives so they can construct a story. Finally, the Military History Museum of the German Federal Armed Forces in Dresden highlights a comprehensive exhibition of objects and focuses largely on how visitors experience these objects.

According to Jaeger, these museums produce narratives that differ in how they deal with a unique German past. He discussed how the Canadian Museum for Human Rights could deal with its own challenges of representation.

“Any discussion of human rights involves the question of past experience,” Jaeger said. “There are ways history and memory of human rights and human rights violations can be told so that it affects future human thinking and action.”

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The Critical Conversations seminar series is designed to start an ongoing conversation on The Idea of a Human Rights Museum. Each week we post some of the most interesting questions raised by our audience.

Issues discussed this week!

Does the building matter?

One audience member questioned whether memorials or museums are effective in eliciting change. He pointed out that even the architect of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin admits he was not thinking about the Holocaust when he designed the memorial, nor did he actually care what visitors were thinking when they experienced the memorial.

Does the design of a museum or memorial really affect how visitors experience the content?

Stern argues that it comes down to whether or not visitors actually notice the structures around them.

“Does one just simply read the display and say the structure in which it is housed is neutral? Or does one begin to read the structure in which it is housed as part of the story?”

Should a narrative be imposed upon museum visitors?

Members of the audience wondered if the Museum should attempt to provide a story or narrative to visitors or whether it would be more appropriate to simply let visitors experience the museum on their own terms.

Jaeger acknowledges that it all depends on what a visitor wants to see. However, he insists that a human rights museum should not bypass the possibility of using a narrative.

“Some sort of inscription of narrative actually allows for more reflection in a way about what happened in the past and engages people more.”

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