When the Canadian Museum for Human Rights officially opens its doors in Winnipeg in September 2014, it will be the latest example of a new concept of museum dedicated to human rights. “This is an international phenomenon,” says Jennifer Carter, a professor in the department of art history at Université du Québec à Montréal who is studying this trend. “I can give you examples in Chile and Paraguay. There are several in Japan. South Korea recently inaugurated one. There are a couple in Taiwan in the making, in Indonesia, and one planned in Pakistan.” Nearly all of these, she adds, were conceived of or inaugurated since 2000.
There are other museums that don’t identify themselves specifically as human rights museums in their title but nevertheless address human rights in an important way in their exhibitions and programming, she says, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., or the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England. These museums have traditional displays of historical subject matter, she says, but also have exhibits which bring these issues into contemporary perspective. For example, the Holocaust Museum has a space called Take Action that looks at genocide in recent contexts such as in Darfur and Rwanda.
Dr. Carter thinks these museums are “a response to broader human rights movements in society” and serve “to raise awareness about the need to defend human rights.”
They are also, in a sense, a return to a more ancient concept of the museum. “If we think about museums as institutions that, for the most part, evolved in the late-18th to early-19th centuries, they’re focused on collections,” she says. But the term dates back to antiquity and referred at the time to a place of dialogue and exchange (from the Greek mouseion, a temple to the muses). “So I think we’re reverting to that model when we think of museums today as sites of public discourse and dialogue.”
But the concept of human rights can have many different geopolitical and cultural contexts. Dr. Carter has embarked on an international comparative study of the various self-identified human rights museums to see exactly what they are doing and how they address these issues. Her research is being funded by the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et la culture. She has also received another grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to look at Canada’s human rights museum.
Canada’s new museum will address various themes, including human rights in relation to our aboriginal peoples. This has already raised some controversy involving the terms that will be used, such as whether to use the word “genocide” to describe Canada’s past treatment of aboriginals. Dr. Carter doesn’t see these controversies, in themselves, as a bad thing. “It’s in the heart of that discussion that we can best realize the practice of human rights and its understanding,” she says. “It can be very instructive … learning how to make that controversy a pedagogical experience.”