Museum mission

“Where are human rights?” Dr. Adam Muller asked at the opening of his Sept. 21, 2015, exploration of missions, mandates and other meta-narratives related to human rights museums. The associate professor in the Department of English, Film, and Theatre presented the second in a series of Critical Conversations on the Idea of a Human Rights Museum.

Muller says human rights are intangible; they are most visible to us when they are absent. “Human rights are an important way of talking about what we care about,” he says. They are also social constructions created by people. Even so, Muller argues that human rights can still be universal.

He also discussed meta-narratives, which he defined as: “the story that allows us to make sense of the stories we tell ourselves.” Is the story the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) tells an accurate representation of the history of human rights and current human rights issues in Canada? Muller agrees with Christopher Powell that the architecture of the museum, including its tower, reinforces the view Canada has already risen to the challenge of correcting most human rights abuses and there’s only a bit of work left. That makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that human rights work is often a struggle against state power. He said it is important to consider the extent to which state power influenced the development of the museum and its narrative.

Muller concluded by questioning the function of the CMHR: should it engage museum-goers in learning from human rights, as Angela Failler suggests? “Why isn’t silence the appropriate response to the degradation of human lives?” Muller asked. “If there is a language left after genocide, then we haven’t learned the lesson well enough.”

Audio podcasts of seminars in this series are also available.

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