The Idea of a Human Rights Museum ed. by Karen Busby, Adam Muller, and Andrew Woolford (review)
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Reviewed by
Karen Busby, Adam Muller, and Andrew Woolford, eds. The Idea of a Human Rights Museum. University of Manitoba Press. x, 376. $27.95.

The Idea of a Human Rights Museum is a new book that assesses the Canadian Museum for Human Rights's aspiration to be an authentic, transformational, and transactional space for Canada and the world. With sixteen contributions from museologists, journalists, curators, design-builders, and academics, the resulting anthology is somewhat jumbled, but it serves to track the development of this remarkable museum, from contested concept to tumultuous completion.

In 2010, the museum's former president and CEO Stuart Murray invited me to join a new advisory council that would follow the Content Advisory Committee, whose story is told in the book by Ken Norman, one of the few people who sat on both the CAC and the council. Members of the advisory council signed a confidentiality agreement about their work "during the currency of this agreement or at any time thereafter" unless "required … by law." My experience on the council sits uncomfortably with the chapter written by journalist and researcher Helen Fallding on the importance of radical transparency, but it serves as a useful perspective from which to consider whether the museum is at risk of simply perpetuating illusions of understanding and progress, as contributor David Petrasek cautions, or if it can engage in a more daring and vivid exploit.

Conflicting discourses surrounding the CMHR's controversial mission are part of the museum's history, and they have found their way into [End Page 248] the book itself; the editors describe an Indigenous contributor (who also happened to be a CMHR curator at the time) who had to abandon her contribution, thus weakening the Indigenous perspectives in the book. The incident is a microcosm for how broader concerns about voice, inclusion, and colonialism permeate discussions about whether the CMHR has has done enough to surmount its own history and to represent excluded voices in its exhibits, as Armando Perla discusses in his chapter on agricultural workers.

In this sense, The Idea of a Human Rights Museum reflects and even embodies the very "dissensus" on questions that have surrounded the museum from Izzy Asper's 2003 vision to inauguration in 2014. Should the CMHR become a "voice" for human rights? Which rights? The answer to these questions are not resolved by the authors, nor in the afterword by CMHR senior staffers Clint Curle and Jodi Giesbrecht, perhaps because it is too early to make such pronouncements.

As the editors and Jennifer Carter point out, some museums commemorate particular genocides and specific human rights issues, while others promote tolerance. The CMHR has tried to do all of these things, while mediating difficult conversations and "difficult histories," as Ruth B. Phillips and Jorge A. Nállim both underscore in their chapters, while still trying to offer a sustained narrative about the evolution of human rights.

No one has ever really tried to do all of this before. Placed at the nexus of memory, discourse, and dissent, the CMHR sharpens rather than resolves vexing questions about whether we can ever avoid the politicization of human rights. While the Harper government may have breathed life into a dying idea by making the CMHR a national museum, nothing is free. The book includes accounts of the Harper government's desire for more "positive stories" about Canada (it was a standing joke that a War of 1812 gallery might suddenly appear – it didn't) and of the deep discomfort with the issue of cultural genocide and the stories of missing and murdered women. Karen Busby's important contribution, "A Change of Plans" is a case in point, comparing gallery profile texts from 2013 to the inauguration exhibit text a year later, revealing a shift to smoothed-over, decontextualized language.

Against all odds, the Museum and its "idea" of a cultural human rights institution located somewhat improbably in Winnipeg are experiencing some success. Between inauguration in September 2014 and September 2016, Antoine Predock's visionary building has had more than half a million visitors. It has won thirty-two local, national, and international awards, including the 2015 Mahatma Gandhi Peace award...


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