Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

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

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

Jennifer looks nervously at the strangers around the table and says she is almost afraid to tell them what she is thinking.

The teacher in her early 30s, who works with students with learning disabilities at an all-girls school (she requested The Globe and Mail withhold her last name), is one of more than 100 people who have come to a Toronto convention centre this evening to talk about what they want - and don't want - from the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights when it opens in 2012.

She's sitting with a trio of refugees from Guatemala, a retired teacher whose family was once interned in Austrian-controlled Ukraine and a museum-sciences student who is a former Oxfam volunteer.

Story continues below advertisement

She musters her courage and tells them that although she considers herself a feminist, she disagrees with giving women the right to have abortions. "I think the voice of someone like myself often gets shut out," she says.

To Jennifer, a fetus is a person, with his or her own human rights - and she is hoping the new museum will provide a serious forum to discuss them.

So far, abortion isn't high on the CMHR's tentative topic list. But what is already pencilled in is nearly as contentious, from the abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools and the wartime internment of Japanese Canadians to violence against women.

In principle, there's no reason abortion should be left out: What is the argument about if not who has what rights and how to protect them? But imagine the outcry that might arise if even a corner of a government-sponsored museum were devoted to exploring that question.

More plausibly, what will happen when it addresses what happened to Armenians under the Ottoman Empire?

Canada and 19 other nations, along with many international scholarly associations, officially recognize the campaign of forced marches, massacres and abuse that began in 1915 as amounting to genocide. The Republic of Turkey and many Turkish expatriates, including in Canada, strenuously disagree. Every newspaper editor knows that stories on the subject lead to onslaughts of enraged letters. Memorials are met by protests and counter-protests.

That's the challenge facing a museum whose mandate is to grapple almost entirely with the world's touchiest subjects.

Story continues below advertisement

"It is a museum of ideas. And ideas, of course, are never static," says Yude Henteleff, the chair of the museum's Content Advisory Committee.

If human rights are a human construction, a set of collective ideas, then the public view of them will be forever shifting, amorphous and vulnerable to attack. And a museum that tries to document that process on its walls promises to have its combustible moments.

Some groups of people will feel shut out if their causes are not included. Others are sure to accuse the museum of imbalance in the exhibitions it does mount.

[It]has to have not just exhibits … but also a flavour of providing spaces for people to rest, reflect, talk, think, meet people. Victoria Dickenson, Chief Knowledge Officer - that is, curator - of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Jennifer's session was part of a 12-month, cross-Canada consulting tour by the museum's content committee, a group of 17 specialists and human-rights experts. It's trying to put out fires in advance, though it can't douse them all.

The committee is also looking at how prickly issues are handled at places such as the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Most of those institutions focus on specific issues or communities, while the CMHR promises to be "the most comprehensive human-rights museum in the world."

Story continues below advertisement

It was the dream of the late CanWest founder Izzy Asper, the son of Jewish-Ukrainian émigrés, and was brought to fruition by his daughter, Gail. In 2008, the private project became a federal Crown corporation, and a substantial part of its $310-million budget is made up of federal and provincial funds. The project broke ground last year at The Forks in Winnipeg, a locale backers have dubbed, a bit hopefully, "the heart of the North American continent."

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 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.

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."


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.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to