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This 1914 photo shows Sikh refugees turned away by the Canadian government.
This 1914 photo shows Sikh refugees turned away by the Canadian government.

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It takes a lot of wrongs to make a museum of rights Add to ...

The CMHR will enjoy arm's-length status, but given its dependence on the government, how comfortable will it be with issues that make Ottawa anxious?

Washington's Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, gets nearly half of its funding from the U.S. government. Many in the American Jewish community were enraged in 1998 when the museum extended, revoked and then renewed an invitation to Yasser Arafat to offer the Palestine Liberation Organization leader deeper insight into Jewish history. Ultimately the museum's director, Walter Reich, was forced to resign.

The Canadian museum found itself under that sort of uncomfortable scrutiny after the federal Conservatives, in an unusual move, hand-picked its first chief executive officer in mid-September: Stuart Murray, the former leader of Manitoba's Progressive Conservative Party. Gay and lesbian groups objected that the new rights museum head had voted against a bill to extend adoption rights to same-sex couples.

THE CONSCIENCE OF A CURATOR

The job of shaping the museum's innards weighs heaviest on Victoria Dickenson, its Chief Knowledge Officer - in effect, its chief curator. Every curator faces the kinds of decisions that will confront Dr. Dickenson, the former head of Montreal's McCord Museum, but in the case of human rights, it's an especially delicate dance.

"There's no cookbook," says Alison Nordstrom, curator of photographs at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y. "We have to do our best [as]responsible human beings."

In her long career, Dr. Nordstrom has helped to present exhibitions on genocide in Darfur and conflict in Afghanistan. She says combustible material is best handled by sticking firmly to the intellectual conclusions gleaned from research and resisting the temptation to soft-pedal.

Still, the final calls are personal. "It's like an ethical decision in your own life. What do you do? You talk to people you trust."

But with funding scarce, museums are increasingly preoccupied with getting bodies through the turnstiles and do sometimes "knuckle under to public opinion," she says.



It is a museum of ideas. And ideas, of course, are never static. Yude Henteleff, the chair of the human-rights museum's Content Advisory Committee
The trend in the U.S. is to try to prepare visitors in advance for what awaits them. The main instrument is the advisory panel, made up of community leaders invited to discuss plans and report back to their constituencies.

"People like surprises as long as they know they're going to be surprised," Dr. Nordstrom says. "The most problematic thing is when people come to a museum [expecting]to see a picture of one thing and they see something else. They feel hijacked."

Advisories on exhibitions are becoming more commonplace, including parental warnings, she adds, although the initiative often comes from marketing and education departments.

These are attempts to avoid what the Canadian War Museum went through in 2007, when a number of veterans, backed by a Senate subcommittee, decried a Second World War exhibition there. They complained that a text panel had portrayed participants in the bombing of Dresden and other German cities as war criminals. The museum resisted, but eventually gave in and rewrote the panel to appease them.

The CMHR might take similar heat for featuring some of the more unsavoury chapters in Canadian history, such as the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which a boat carrying hundreds of Sikhs was turned away from Vancouver because of anti-Asian public sentiment and government exclusion orders. Returning to Calcutta, they were detained, arrested and, in some cases, killed by colonial police.

How frankly would the museum treat the Komagata Maru? The curators would have to put the story in historical context, but not so much that, for example, an Indian-Canadian visitor might take it that they were trying to excuse or explain away Canada's actions.

To encourage dialogue, not just in the design of the CMHR but throughout its existence, Dr. Dickenson says it might host "kitchen tables" where thinkers could congregate to hash out conflicts face to face. The model comes from the Philosopher's Café at Simon Fraser University, which philanthropist Yosef Wosk founded to discuss "burning issues of the day" in a comfortable, informal setting.

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