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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 ...



If museums have a purpose at all, it is to deal with the issues that are important to us as human beings. … If not, we're just sort of entertaining ourselves to death. Dean Oliver of the Canadian War Museum


In New Zealand, the Te Papa museum decided to tackle the country's history of bloodily forcing Maori populations off their lands, despite market research that showed New Zealanders were deeply uncomfortable with that aspect of their past. Part of what it did was to make the exhibition its most relaxed, peaceful space, complete with soft chairs.

"The [CMHR]has to have not just exhibits, and not just a pedagogic or didactic flavour, but also a flavour of providing spaces for people to rest, reflect, talk, think, meet people," Dr. Dickenson said.

Despite all these efforts to becalm, you might also argue that a little controversy is healthy, not just to attract attention, but to stimulate better thinking.

Monique Horth, the deputy director of the Canadian Museums Association, points out that museums in Quebec such as the Musée de la civilisation deliberately and routinely mount "difficult material."

For one exhibition there, about assisted-reproduction techniques such as in-vitro fertilization, visitors entered the exhibition hall through a space that looked like a pregnant woman's belly. Another exhibit, dealing with disabled people's issues, was designed to resemble the rooms of an apartment; in the bedroom, visitors were confronted with the question, "How do you make love when you're heavily handicapped?" They could listen to testimonials by laying their heads on the pillows of the bed.

"They do it purposely because they want public debate," Ms. Horth says. "They're not afraid of it - they look forward to the controversy. For them, it's the social role of a museum."

THE IMPORTANCE OF 'BEING DIFFICULT'

In early 2008, the Canadian War Museum hosted a conference called "Is Difficult Important?" that was attended by staff from many museums, including the CMHR. Their collective answer to the title question was yes.

"If museums have a purpose at all, it is to deal with the issues that are important to us as human beings," says Dean Oliver, director of research and exhibitions at the War Museum. "So we're almost duty-bound to take on things which are difficult. … If not, we're just sort of entertaining ourselves to death."

Already, the CMHR's public consultations have given Canadians a forum for some of their weightiest stories. Next to Jennifer at the Toronto roundtable sat Maria Eugenia Molina, along with two fellow Guatemalan-Canadian refugees, Nery Espinoza and Marta Hernandez. Ms. Molina speaks little English, but wanted to be there to hand over her testimonial, which took up little more than a single typed page.

In the early 1980s, she wrote, her sister, Emma, was arrested for her role as a student leader in Guatemala and taken to a military barracks. She was allegedly tortured, raped and denied food and water while her captors demanded that she name other politically active students.

Emma escaped in October of 1981, but the next day three men arrived to search her house. Not finding her, they bundled her brother, Marco Antonio, into the back of their truck and sped off. He was never seen again, and is now on human-rights groups' lists of about 50,000 such "forced disappearances" in Guatemala. Before long, Ms. Molina's whole family was forced to leave the country because of death-squad threats.

Ms. Hernandez, whose sister was similarly "disappeared," asked politely whether Guatemala could be included as "a case" in the museum - to represent "some of the people who have immigrated to this country because of human-rights abuses."

The CMHR's burden - and privilege - is to choose from among thousands of such experiences, and to try to get the telling right.

"We're looking at them from afar," Dr. Oliver says, "thinking this may be one of the greatest museum challenges the country has ever faced. And wishing them good luck."

James Bradshaw is a Globe and Mail arts reporter.

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