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Woman in professional clothing stands in front of bank of windows with the Winnipeg cityscape in view behind her.

Isha Khan has built a career in human rights. Photo credit: Canadian Museum for Human Rights

New museum president privileged to lead transformation

February 18, 2021 — 

When Isha Khan [BA/94] was a philosophy student debating ideas in the University of Manitoba’s Arts lounge or procrastinating in the nearby video game arcade, she had no grand plan for her career.

She never expected to work for an establishment law firm in Calgary and no one could have guessed that she would eventually lead a yet-to-be-dreamed-up national museum back in her home town.

Khan joined the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as chief executive officer last year during a moment of reckoning, after simmering complaints about racism, homophobia and sexual harassment boiled over.

“The work to build relationships or to repair relationships is going to take time because it involves trust and true, meaningful partnerships and friendships,” said Khan, who considers it a huge privilege to share that work with her team.

Human rights experts are optimistic that the museum might fulfill its potential now that it is finally led by someone with solid human rights experience, including nine years with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

However, Khan advises students that the best preparation for a human rights career might not be what they expect.

“Sometimes it’s the experiences that don’t really look like they’re lining you up for a human rights job that actually do,” she said. “If you have a retail job or you work in a restaurant, that’s a great job in terms of meeting people who you might not normally interact with.”

Khan is often questioned about her plans for training and hiring to improve diversity. However, she said transforming museums and arts institutions that evolved from a colonial history of collecting artifacts and telling stories about other people’s cultures requires deeper change.

She is proud of the work done to protect the Witness Blanket art installation through a unique agreement that recognizes the museum and artist’s shared responsibility to care for something no one should own.

“That’s a model for other work that we might do together.”

A video interview of Khan by Dr. Adele Perry, director of the Centre for Human Rights Research, can be viewed online.

 

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