Canadian Heritage Centre

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Inside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

I’d never seen a museum quite like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, so why the déja vu? The answer came while I was reading a 2007 article by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik on the evolution of the museum. Its earliest iteration was “the museum as mausoleum,” a place like the Louvre, or the pioneer museum in Simcoe County, “where you go to see old things … and re-enter the past.” This was succeeded by the “museum as machine,” not a place “where you went to commune with the past” but “a place where you went to learn how to be modern.” Like the Guggenheim in New York. More recently, Mr. Gopnik argues, we’ve seen the rise of the “museum as mall” – not a citadel in other words, but an accessible “arena” of y’all-come sociability and ritual.

At that, I realized the weariness I’d felt at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was akin to the lassitude I used to feel years ago wandering through the sprawl of the West Edmonton Mall. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, of course, has no wave pool, no NHL-size skating rink – but it does partake of the same sense of spectacle we seem to require of our public places, whatever their raison d’être. Hence, among other features at the museum, the Stuart Clark Garden of Contemplation, an oasis of plants, water and rugged basalt rock lumps mined from the dormant volcanoes of Inner Mongolia.

Last month, Mr. Appelbaum told a group of travel writers that museums today are part of the “reality-based entertainment” industry complex. Extraordinary architecture, – more architecture perhaps than necessary, – audacious presentation, cutting-edge technology, – “it’s about protecting the museum” from all the other distractions we have to choose from.

If all that dazzle, be it in a shopping mall or cultural emporium, can be exhausting, it is necessary, perhaps, to simultaneously compete with even just the 20 or so other “museums of conscience” already out there in the world and to animate human rights, an abstract concept, “more field than discipline,” in Mr. Applebaum’s words, for a broad public.

Legislation passed in 2008 outlined the Museum’s primary roles as preserving and promoting Canadian heritage, contributing to collective memory, and inspiring research and learning.

Stuart Murray, President and CEO said in an interview “it took the museum a couple of years to turn the channel from what we weren’t, to start talking about what we were.” But the Canadian Museum for Human Rights realized the best way – the Canadian way – to be a human rights museum was not to dwell inordinately on human wrongs. In late 2012, the then Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore, warned that the museum had to be a forum for unity and conversation – “the museum as the nation’s kitchen table,” to quote the ever-pithy Mr. Appelbaum – “because taxpayers are not going to pump in $21-million a year to operate this museum if they see it as a perpetual source of division for the people of Winnipeg, the people of Manitoba and the people of Canada.”

The approach, then, was to focus on “the broad issue of human rights through a human-rights-education lens,” grounded in Canadian history, Canadian experiences,” noted Mr. Murray. The museum would organize itself around particular themes and ideas. Stories, – told through digital technology, passive, interactive and immersive, – would constitute its “collection,” not artifacts.

Content, moreover, would change, not every day or every week, because “we’re not a news agency,” said exhibitions and digital media co-coordinator Corey Timpson. “But because we know and we believe the subject of human rights is adapting and evolving and changing and we have to keep up with that.”

from Inside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
James Adams, Globe and Mail, September 19 2014

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