Now comes the hard part: How can a museum convey human rights?
The arresting stone and glass shell of Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights is waiting to be filled with exhibits designed to change how we think and feel.
Creating an “ideas museum” has unique challenges, University of Manitoba English professor Adam Muller told lawyers gathered at the Fort Garry Hotel for the 2013 Pitblado Lectures.
Existing ideas museums such as the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles or the peace museum in Normandy focus less on historical artifacts than on immersing visitors in concepts.
Muller said it’s hard to depict human rights in a positive way, since they’re most visible when they’re violated and people are suffering.
“That can be overwhelming,” he said, suggesting museum visitors could be in danger of experiencing empathy fatigue. “We have developed mechanisms for shutting down our capacity to feel. This is a challenge that needs to be confronted by the CMHR and all atrocity museums.”
A second challenge is which human rights issues to include. “We all know what that discussion has looked like in the public sphere,” Muller said. “It has been parochial and often mean-spirited and, I think, in crucial ways kind of uninformed and ungenerous.”
He was referring to the debates about how much museum space will be devoted to which European genocide that dominated the early years of construction.
Muller thinks the museum’s architecture is itself a challenge, since it predetermines what kind of exhibits are possible and how they will be perceived. Ascending to the Tower of Hope via alabaster ramps implies that Canada is triumphing over human rights challenges. Meanwhile, the building’s unusual structure creates weird internal gallery shapes for which it can be difficult to design engaging exhibits.
To overcome these challenges, the museum is turning to cutting-edge technology. Muller is part of a university-based Embodying Empathy team investigating whether virtual reality technology depicting atrocities is likely to increase empathy. He is also co-editor of a book on The Idea of a Human Rights Museum he hopes will be published at about the same time the museum opens in September 2014.
University of Winnipeg Prof. Angela Failler shared her insights into how the Winnipeg museum can care for difficult knowledge. She hopes the focus will shift away from which stories should be included in the museum to asking, “What am I supposed to do with these stories?”
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights should not reassure Canadians that the dark chapters in Canada’s history are over, she said. “The risk is that we fail to acknowledge the transformative potential of giving voice to horror and despair.”
Several University of Manitoba law professors also spoke at the Pitblado event.