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Open Democracy | 10Oct2014 | David Petrasek

Inside and out at the human rights museum

Controversy at Canada'a new Museum for Human Rights about what gets in is unsurprising, but we should welcome -- not bemoan such dispute.
Few things are more undermining of the human rights project than the notion that human rights are beyond controversy.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened this month in Winnipeg, in western Canada, reigniting a long-running controversy over its portrayal of human rights issues. Before turning to that debate, however, an initial question arises -- what is a human rights museum?

At first blush, most people find the topic of human rights an odd concept for a museum. Museums are for history and relics -- objects from the past. Human rights, on the other hand, are an idea  -- some would say an ideology -- that is hard to encompass in historical objects. In any case, human rights are very much part of the present, rather than the past. Yet, the notion of the ‘ideas museum’ is hardly ground-breaking; the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which opened over 20 years ago, is a prominent example. And, indeed, there are numerous museums devoted to particular human rights struggles and which expose the mass denial of rights; consider the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, or the Holocaust Museum in Washington. 

This new Canadian museum, however, is the largest and most ambitious effort to date to curate, as a general topic, the subject of human rights. And not surprisingly, as this necessarily involves decisions on what to ‘display’ and how to do so, the project has been mired in controversy.

A debate erupted over the amount of floor space to be devoted to the Holocaust, for example, as compared to other genocides. Indeed, a bigger debate was over which instances of mass atrocity should be labeled ‘genocide’. Various groups and activists complained, moreover, that the museum was sidelining economic and social rights, along with issues like poverty. 

Some also allege that curatorial decisions were subject to political interference aimed at emphasizing the ‘good news’ about respect for rights in Canada, at the expense of the bad.

Some commentators point to these controversies as evidence of the project’s futility and likely slide into irrelevance. Coupled with the conceit of those in central Canada  that an ‘ideas’ museum can never succeed on the desolate prairie, many predict the museum will be a flop even before it has a chance to prove itself. 

These dismissals miss the point. Although controversy may not have been what the museum intended, it will be what sustains it. Few things are more undermining of the human rights project -- or more certain to discourage attendance at a museum dedicated to it -- than the notion that human rights are beyond controversy. In fact, we should welcome -- not bemoan -- debates about why the museum portrays some historical cases, and not others, of genocide and mass atrocity. We should also welcome controversy over whether the museum properly names poverty and inequality in Canada as human rights issues. 

Why? For three reasons. First, precisely because human rights are contested. They are claims on power, and a benchmark for judging the exercise of power; as such, they necessarily generate disagreement.  We might all agree that there is a human right to free speech, but we also hotly contest the boundaries of that right. One can understand why the museum wants to tell an uplifting story that all can unite behind. This sterilized account may be appropriate for schoolchildren, but it will ring hollow for a more mature audience.

I recall a Sudanese human rights activist describing controversies over rights by saying, “Human rights are for people you hate -- because if they have rights, you may still hate them, but you won’t act on those hatreds.  The people you love don’t need rights.” Too brutal perhaps; the idealist in all of us wants to believe that hatred, and not just its manifestation, can be overcome. But to strip rights of controversy is to strip them of their power to change the present.

Second, because debating historical wrongs -- the Armenian genocide, colonial atrocities in Africa, ‘residential’ schools in Canada (that First Nations children were forced to attend, deliberately cut off from their families, culture and communities) -- better ensures we continue to draw lessons they may teach about the present.  The mere portrayal of past incidences of gross human rights abuse is not necessarily the best means to prevent their reoccurrence. After all, President Clinton opened the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. just one year before he and his administration actively sought to keep the UN from intervening to halt the genocide in Rwanda.

This is not to approve those who would deny atrocity -- like the Holocaust -- to preach hate. But rather to argue that debate as to what amounts to ‘genocide’, or what incidents of mass atrocity deserve to be portrayed, is more likely to provoke an active, not merely passive engagement with past atrocity. This in turn may encourage deeper reflection about the present.

Third, the controversies about what current issues are ‘named’ as human rights problems in the museum, and which are not, opens another, much-needed debate. Just as displaying Andres Serrano’s "Piss Christ” photo prompted the question, ‘what is art?’, so too including -- or even more, omitting -- homelessness from the museum forces us to ask, ‘what is a human right?’

Moreover, the alleged interference of political actors in museum decisions will give the question added urgency. For whereas outrage over allegedly obscene art may point to prudishness or just mere philistinism, political censorship of the human rights museum suggests something more dangerous and illuminating. Who is trying to hide what, and why?

The museum’s narrative -- notwithstanding protestations of its independence -- will be perceived as an official one. If it is too timid, the disadvantaged and excluded will protest; if too risk-taking, the public funders will grow anxious. In either case, the dispute is certain to widen the public’s engagement with important questions too often glossed over by ‘good news’ stories or, if controversial, left to the courts.

Already, the press is reporting near daily protests at the museum’s front entrance -- long may they last!

COMMENT by Roman Serbyn:

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights continues to suffer from the confusion of human rights with human wrongs.

The article by David Petrasek illustrates this confusion. It suffers from the same misconception as the museum itself: it passes off human wrongs as a condition for the understanding of human rights, and claims that we cannot conceive and construct a museum with the focus on human rights. Why? David Petrasek answers:
"Museums are for history and relics -- objects from the past. Human rights, on the other hand, are an idea -- some would say an ideology -- that is hard to encompass in historical objects."

Human rights, like law, are in the realm of ideas and, like law their history can be traced and presented to the public in a museum. After all, no one questions the possibility of museums of law. They exist both in cyberspace and in material structures:

LawMuseum - www.duhaime.org/LawMuseum.aspx LawMuseum, the Law's Hall of Fame (and of Shame), Timetable of Legal History, legal artifacts and historical law documents.

The ABA Museum of Law, opened in November 1996 in Chicago, Illinois by the American Bar Association, was the only national museum that focuses on the role of law and the legal profession in America
and throughout the world. Its goal was to engage the public in the legal system and make it relevant in their lives. In an effort to increase understanding of lawyers and the work they do, the museum highlighted lawyers who were well known for other work as well as well-known trials.
The museum closed in late 2011, reportedly as a cost-cutting measure.

The Law museums did not think it was necessary to focus on crimes and to put injustice in the center of their presentation in order to justify their discussion of the history of legal ideas and principles, and the application of these ideas in legal institutions.

The Winnipeg Human Rights museum was originally conceived as a Human Wrongs museum, focusing on one specific human wrong, that of the Holocaust, and eventually surrounding it with other human wrongs, genocides and great atrocities, which would then be condemned by reference to human rights.

Human rights are basically cohesive of societies and not as the author claims divisive. And it is the role of a human rights museum to educate citizens, especially the youth, in common values of humanity, of which human rights are a key part. Human wrongs are basically divisive, both when they were committed, and later, when they are analyzed by the world society, composed of communities from which came the victims and the perpetrators.

Finally, the author is happy about the disputes, controversies and protests around the museum. Once more he misses the essential point of the role of a museum dedicated to human rights. The museum would fulfill its function if it encouraged discussion and even disagreement about the human rights themselves, about the the principles and their respect in our society. But what is happening in front of the impressive Winnipeg museum are protests and disputes about how some human wrongs are overemphasized while others are underrepresented.