Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Different Kind of National Human Rights Institution

In just a few months, on September 20, 2014, Canada will open its new Human Rights Museum, reputedly the first museum of its kind in the world.  Located in Winnipeg, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is supported by private donations, the national Canadian government, the provincial government of Manitoba and the city government of Winnipeg.  The Museum was created through national legislation passed in 2008, with the purpose of exploring "the subject of human rights, with special but not exclusive reference to Canada, in order to enhance the public's understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue."

At a time when "human-centered design thinking" is in vogue, the museum is putting those principles into practice in designing its educational exhibits.  A major focus  of the initial exhibits will be storytelling, and thousands of interviews were conducted around the country in preparation for mounting these exhibits.  The museum's website promises, for example, that "equality rights are relayed through stories about Indigenous Peoples, women, children, persons with disabilities and the LGBTTQ* community."

The museum has not been completely without controversy, however.  A number of groups have expressed concern that the exhibits will privilege some human rights violations over others, through the placement and relative size of the exhibits. Recently, First Nation groups in Winnipeg have criticized the museum's reliance on a water source traditionally used by native tribes; the museum has responded that the city of Winnipeg made that choice, not the museum.

Should there be a space on the Washington Mall for a U.S. counterpart to this Canadian innovation? Is it preferable to leave human rights to be addressed through private, independent museum initiatives such as the planned Armenian Genocide Museum of America, which can be more openly critical of the U.S. government's actions?  Or are U.S. human rights issues already adequately addressed through the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, among other national institutions?


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How does a place like the Atlanta Civil and Human Rights Center fit in? Its connections between civil rights and human rights have been criticized, but it shows a recognition of the relationship between domestic and international struggles: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/23/arts/design/national-center-for-civil-and-human-rights-opens-in-atlanta.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A10%22%7D&_r=0

Posted by: JoAnn Kamuf Ward | Jul 9, 2014 9:44:47 AM

Great question, JoAnn. Maybe the "human rights museum" is more of a trend than I'd realized. Atlanta's juxtaposition of Civil and Human Rights, as if they're competing for exhibit space, perhaps does reflect some of the realities of the current US human rights movement. Interesting that Canada is ready to have a museum where the idea of "human rights" stands on its own, and that apparently re-frames traditional civil rights issues like LGBT rights as human rights concerns..

Posted by: Martha Davis | Jul 10, 2014 10:56:34 AM

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