- The Idea of a Human Rights Museum eds. by Karen Busby et al.
In 2003 a Winnipeg businessman and philanthropist, Israel Asper, launched an effort to garner financial support for the creation of a new museum: the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) to be located in Winnipeg, Manitoba. When Asper died his daughter, Gail, took up the effort to raise the needed funds and to help clarify the aims and scope of this new entity. The Canadian and Manitoban [End Page 253] governments also pledged money for this new endeavor, which planned to focus on Canadian human rights history and challenges. With such an ambitious focus, there were high hopes and expectations from various groups who expected their stories of human rights issues to have a prominent place in the new institution. Finding a way to balance these expectations and to create a museum, “to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue” was a challenging process for the staff. Creating CMHR took more than a decade to accomplish with the museum opening in 2014.1
Among the groups interested in the project was the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Human Rights Research. Before the CMHR opened, the Centre organized a year-long seminar series to explore issues connected with the launch of CMHR. This volume, The Idea of a Human Rights Museum, includes presentations made during the course of the seminar. The presenters came from a wide range of backgrounds, including university scholars, museum professionals, architects, and community leaders. Each shares both their concerns and their aspirations for the CMHR. In light of the diverse backgrounds of the presenters, the editors divided the volume into four sections. The first part, “The Idea of a Human Rights Museum” explores the evolution of CMHR from conceptualization to realization. The section, “Spatialization and Design,” examines the physical structure of CMHR and its unique design. The third part, “Curatorial Challenges,” looks at the practice of creating the exhibitions and the risks which accompany that process. The final section, “Parallels and Obligations,” offers comparisons of CMHR to other institutions around the world with similar missions.
The authors of the essays are generally supportive of the idea of a museum of human rights, but are concerned about how the realized entity would function and whether it would engage the issues in ways the authors feel are most efficacious. They especially were concerned about the impact government sponsorship might have upon the message offered by the museum. Since the Canadian government was complicit in some of the human rights violations, especially those related to the indigenous population; these authors wondered if CMHR could look at these issues objectively or would they downplay governmental shortcomings. This apprehension was magnified when before CMHR opened the Minister of Canadian Heritage publically reminded CMHR that it must not “be a source of division.”2 David Petrasek captures this disquiet in his essay as he councils CMHR not to seek points of census on human rights issues, but rather to face the conflicts squarely. It is through engaging and exposing these points of conflict, which are central to human rights questions, he argues, that the idea of the importance of human rights progress “can remain relevant and compelling and gain new adherents.”3
In the face of the public conflicts, which emerged during the development of CMHR as the Jewish community, Indigenous people, Armenians, Ukrainians, [End Page 254] Japanese, and African Canadians sought proper representation, how the museum would accommodate these issues was of concern. Would it present a hodgepodge of stories, would it privilege some stories over others, or would it become a museum of genocide detailing atrocities over the years? The essayists in the first section of the book, “The Idea of a Human Rights Museum,” wanted proper representation of key groups, especially the Indigenous population. But they also wanted CMHR to serve as a vehicle for ongoing conversations about past challenges, as well as...