Why have human rights museums?

Where does the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) fit into the history of museums? Historian Dr. Jean Friesen answered this question at the inaugural seminar of the Critical Conversations on the Idea of a Human Rights Museum series. From classical Alexandria to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (with a brief detour to the Spam Museum!), Friesen provided a historical tour of the development of museums as major public institutions. She reflected on the history of private and public museums, the implication of social change on museums, and their challenges in the contemporary Canadian context.

While the ancient tradition of private collections and viewings continues to exist, the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries brought public galleries to the fore. During the 19th century, museums were like department stores, where people could see and be seen in a safe, uplifting space. Museums as public institutions served “not only to regulate and improve behaviour, but to carry an overt message of national identity,” Friesen said.

How does the CMHR fit in with our traditional idea of what a museum is and should be? According to Friesen, the CMHR is “a museum which is at once extraordinary and new and, yet…which also reflects many of the older versions of the idea of a museum; continuities and changes which historians delight in.”

CMHR is often referred to as “an idea museum” but that, according to Friesen, “suggests that other museums don’t have ideas. And there is no museum which does not have ideas.”

In his lecture, education professor Dr. Jerome Cranston explored the relationship between museums, ideas, imagination and education. Leading the audience through a thought exercise that required closing our eyes and thinking of an educated person we know, Cranston said, “In your mind, you had an idea of someone you consider to be educated.” Ideas are important due to “the impact they have on decisions we make about how we live our life,” he said. CMHR, like other museums, is special because it captures our imaginations and allows us to think thoughts and experience emotions, without actually having acted.  According to Cranston, “to use our imaginations and ideas, and connect things, including our own sentiments and emotions, is fundamental to how we learn.” Cranston said the museum is called the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for a reason. The name of the museum reflects the value placed on education for human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because, ultimately, in Dr. Cranston’s words, “if we can actually understand some of the things we have done…we might be able to better make choices about how we want to interact with each other…and the planet we live on.”

Questions:

What can someone learn about rights from human wrongs? I.e. why the focus on atrocities?

Friesen said that museum administrators may have felt that their audience is more likely to know about atrocities that can engage and elicit empathy from individuals and families, rather than the minutiae and technicalities of human rights law and theory. Thus, the atrocities are a starting point in the engagement and educative process.

Is the CMHR a postmodern museum?

In Cranston’s opinion, it is not. A modern museum emphasizes teaching while a post-modern museum emphasizes the user. While the CMHR has embraced the educative dimension, what is the experience of non-students who attend? As well, he believes that a museum self-declaring as “post-modern” is contradictory to the philosophy of post-modernism.

Audio podcasts of seminars in this series are also available.

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