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  • The Idea of a Human Rights Museum ed. by Karen Busby, Adam Muller, and Andrew Woolford
  • Peter Krats
The Idea of a Human Rights Museum, edited By Karen Busby, Adam Muller, and Andrew Woolford. Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 2015. ix, 371 pp. $27.95 Cdn (paper), $25.00 Cdn (e-book).

Editors Busby, Muller, and Woolford sourced this book on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (cmhr) from a year-long University of Manitoba seminar series entitled "Critical Conversations on the Idea of a Human Rights Museum." Brief by design, the eighteen papers reflect "the provisional and forward-looking qualities of the original oral presentations" (3). The book has four sections — first comes "The Idea of a Human Rights Museum," next "Spatialization and Design," then "Curatorial Challenges" and, finally, "Parallels and Obligations," broadly imagined themes allowing great latitude. The editor's Introduction not only outlines what is to come but, more valuably, discusses the cmhr as a structure, an idea, and more. Hoping to "contribute meaningfully" to the museum's progress (23), they recognize that museums are not disinterested purveyors of data but idea-shapers. Dealing with "the brutal realities of settler colonialism" (2), and its implications for the Indigenous populations, is especially important. [End Page 385]

The first essays focus on the "Idea" of a Human Rights Museum. Ken Norman argues that the Museum must takes risks to grow "a culture of rights in this country" (36). A. Dirk Moses examines the many, contradictory and competing impulses shaping a museum of human rights. The next two pieces reflect the diverse approaches found herein. Helen Fallding's work on media coverage describes media pre-occupation with Holocaust issues, to the detriment of Indigenous and other elements within the Museum's purview. Meanwhile, David Petrasek worries that the cmhr will take too "Whiggish" a view that overstates Canadian rights progress. Petrasek's work is all the more compelling because he limits detail in favour of clear, concise argument.

The book next turns to "Spatialization and Design." Illustrations (sketches) reveal the "idea" of the museum from architectural infancy, with few hints of the later "love-hate" response to the building. Karen Busby follows with a thorough, if list-like, look at the inaugural displays at the cmhr; most interesting here is her struggle to gain information. One thinks of "redacted" records (112) in terms of "spying" not museum strategy. Christopher Powell, for his part, writes as an "interested party" (130), urging that the museum be disruptive and provocative. How one does that matters: a rather dense piece by Adam Muller, Struan Sinclair, and Andrew Woolford examines the "Embodying Empathy Prototype" and more. Readers who persevere learn the "pros and cons" of technological museum displays.

Technological assessment provides a useful transition to the next section — "Curatorial Challenges." A fine essay by Angela Failler, developed from work by the late Roger Simon, discusses museum practices. She offers an interesting distinction — learning from and learning about; she calls for the collective recognition of the cmhr as a site of difficult knowledge. Mary Reid's piece is more specialized and inclined to wordiness, but her thoughts on signage and the role of "trigger warnings" in curatorial practice are thoughtful. The book then turns to social justice issues: papers on agricultural migrant rights (Armando Perla) and hybridization of human rights museum practices (Jennifer Carter) link to practical issues more than theory.

How rights museums operate also feature in the final portion of the book — "Parallels and Obligations." Studies of the Military History Museum in Dresden (Stephan Jaeger) and the Khalsa Heritage Centre in Anandpur Sahib (George Jacob) are interesting; similarly, Amanda Grzyb offers a fine discussion of museums in Rwanda, the United States, and Mexico. All these papers show how rights issues can be handled, but offer few direct reference to the cmhr. In contrast, Jorge Na´llim's useful comments on "what" and "how" to remember, while focussed on the Space for Memory and Human Rights in Argentina, nonetheless offers direct suggestions, not least that "the cmhr must engage with public disagreement about the past" (293). [End Page 386]

Contentious issues propel the final paper: Ruth B. Phillips calls for a re-awakened...


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