Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A visitor looks at an installation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.John Woods/The Canadian Press

Walking through Curacao’s harrowing Museum Kura Hulanda, which chronicles the brutalities of the transatlantic slave trade, I felt flooded with sorrow and a little queasy. Holding a pair of tiny shackles made for a child slave, museum guide Rudolf Allie told me, “Some people break down in tears when I explain what happened to slaves here.” There were piles of shackles in the room we’d stopped in, a whole range of instruments used to punish slaves and brands used to sear ownership marks into their flesh.

I felt a similarly visceral reaction viewing photographs of laughing Nazis standing before concentration camp smokestacks in the Holocaust hall at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg, and seeing at how huge and lethal looking rubber bullets were at the Museum of Free Derry in Northern Ireland, which documents Bloody Sunday and the Troubles that marred the region for so many years.

Such museums have helped shape my world view. They remind me of what I have, how fortunate I am to be a Canadian (perhaps a white Canadian not living in a Northern community would be more accurate) and what others had to fight so hard for. I understand that not everyone wants to visit somewhere depressing on their vacation, but enough of us do that museums about civil rights thrive around the world. And that’s an important and good thing.

“It’s really important to consider historic and contemporary issues from multiple perspectives so we can combat bias and prejudice – which we might not even realize we have until presented with an alternative view. This is fundamental to understanding and promoting human rights,” says Dr. Jodi Giesbrecht, CMHR director of research and head curator. “Throughout history, and even today, we can see patterns of denial and minimization of human-rights atrocities, along with efforts to silence the survivors and witnesses. These issues are not easy or comfortable, but it’s our role and responsibility to provoke thought and conversation that leads to education – which is the most powerful force for human rights in the world.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Museums such as the CMHR are meant to make visitors uncomfortable.Szabolcs Bobor/iStock Editorial / Getty Images

When visiting the CMHR, or any other museums focusing on civil rights and social injustice, it can be shocking to realize that these awful things happened not all that long ago – and may still be happening even if it isn’t on our doorstep. With so much injustice going on in the world, and so many challenges to civil rights just across the border, we should feel uncomfortable.

“It’s important for people to be aware that human-rights violations are not confined to the past or to faraway lands,” Giesbrecht says. “We try to show that human-rights challenges are playing out all around us right now, in our own communities, in our own country and around the world. The global refugee crisis affects every one of us in some way – and is becoming increasingly dire for people in many parts of the world. As a museum, it is our role to help people understand what’s going on, what our responsibilities are as a nation dedicated to upholding universal human rights and the importance of taking action.”

Or put differently: Ideally, visiting places such as the Inquisition Museum in Cordoba, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta is just the first step toward feeling greater empathy toward our fellow humans.

One other important common thread to these museums is that they also present narratives of resistance and resilience. They put names to people who would otherwise be faceless victims, making a point of telling individual stories to show their strength in the face of hardship.

For those who haven’t had such a privileged life as mine, and actually lived through what these museums present, visiting could, in some cases, help them to heal. So could volunteering to guide visitors through the exhibits.

Jimmy Toye was right there on Bloody Sunday, and watched two men die in the streets before him. He volunteers at the Museum of Free Derry because, “In a few years, it’ll be 50 years since the massacre, and soon there won’t be anyone left to tell these stories first hand.”

Toye says that he’s shown many British soldiers – who still suffer trauma from tours of duty in Northern Ireland – through the museum. “Coming back here and visiting this museum helps them get over it,” Toye explains, “as well as helping others learn what actually happened, and why it should never be allowed to happen again.”

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland, Curacao Tourist Board and Tourism Winnipeg. None reviewed or approved this article.

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.

Interact with The Globe