Why I’ll wait to visit the Canadian Museum of Human Rights

aboutthemuseum-610.jpgBy B. Trofanenko

On September 20, 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) opened its doors to the world. Considering the CMHR a “great national project,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper remarked how the museum will stand for “freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law” and as a “monument to Canada’s embrace of humanity’s highest ideals.”  The opening of any museum is cause for celebration. It not only affirms the permanency and monumentality of a physical structure – in this case an imposing spiral building of glass, limestone, steel and concrete – but it also advances the museum’s historic intellectual traditions of democratic, universal, and public education as well as contributing to urban revitalization and economic improvement.

Like other museums, the CMHR will use the framework of human rights to provide the public with opportunities to learn about contemporary political, social, and cultural issues facing Canadians. According to its own mandate for research, exhibition and education, the museum will seek to “enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection, dialogue, and action.” As an ‘ideas’ museum, the CMHR is less tied to collections of objects (the few included in the museum are on loan from other institutions) and more focused on the desire to ‘teach’ moral lessons and to advance, as noted in their mission statement, the “understanding of the history of and continuing global struggle to define human rights including Canada’s important role in that journey.” This provides opportunity for the museum to invite discussions about human rights issues, including past injustices and current-day violence and oppression, that realize the tension between defining human rights on a local, national, and global scale.

Notwithstanding such noble aspirations, success could be difficult to achieve in the short term.From the time it was conceived by noted philanthropist Israel Asper years ago, the CMHR has been embroiled in public controversies that have stymied its progress. The most recent debates focused on museum funding, administrative turn-over, and exhibition content. Furthermore, its opening occurred at a challenging time for cultural heritage in Canada. Wide-ranging budget cuts to the Canadian Heritage portfolio and difficulty fundraising have pressed the museum’s financial security. The positioning of the Holocaust (entrenched in the Museums Act, Bill C-42) as “a separate zone at the centre of the museum, showing the centrality of the Holocaust to the overall human rights story” (CMHR CAC, 2010, p. 62) has provoked claims of an “Oppression Olympics” that falls into a useless ‘my oppression is better/worse than yours’ argument. Its geographic location on indigenous territory at a historical meeting place where the Assiniboine and Red River join combined with a weak indigenous presence during the museum’s consultations prompted protests from First Nations and Métis communities and continues to raise questions about Canada’s implications in its own settler colonialism. Finally, a coalition of descendants of people held in internment camps during the First World War has called for a virtual boycott of the museum.

Though some have felt that the museum’s prospects for long-term success are “as grim as a Winnipeg winter” (Moses p. 234), I remain hopeful that this rocky start will not prevent it from flourishing into a museum that serves its constituents, and itself, well. The CMHR will never be exempt from public commentary. Like all museums, it is both a “temple and a forum” (Cameron, 1971). As such, the museum’s future will hinge on its ability to offer, as part of its public educational mandate, self-reflexive opportunities for discussion. It will need to educate the public about the changing uses for objects in museum spaces and advance the value this change will provide. It will need to deal with the ongoing questions about what is to be included and excluded, how museum rights are to be represented, and whether multiple and contested histories are told. It will need to address questions of competing agendas from diverse publics with an interest in having their stories told in Canada’s newest national museum. Finally, as perhaps the museum’s greatest challenge, it will need to turn a reflexive eye on itself so as not to perpetuate a ‘feel good’ conceit Canadians hold about themselves, their histories, and their government concerning human rights.

I am certain the CMHR will meet its mandates, but this will not occur within a vacuum. Scholars at the University of Winnipeg, the University of Manitoba, and from across Canada have initiated discussions with the CMHR as it takes its place as a national museum with a singular, but broad, focus on human rights.[1] Collaboration between the museum and the academy can support the museum as it grapples with the challenges I’ve listed above. The public scholarship that will result from this type of collaboration can put a more nuanced understanding of the limitations and the interminable difficulty between commemoration and human rights activism front and centre.

Will I ever visit the CMHR? As a scholar who has examined the pedagogical imperative of museums over the last fifteen years, I will eventually. But it may take a while. I do not subscribe to the naïve belief that  ‘if they build it, people will come,’ which suggests a museum may rest on its laurels of being an important social institution. Museums know that; academics know that; and, the public knows that. Its value cannot be overlooked but the CMHR will need convince the public that any hesitation they may hold in attending the museum lies not with the inability to gain explicit and discrete knowledge of human rights but with what can be gained by attending a museum committed to an ongoing critical reflection on itself. Such a dynamic offering will require a more explicit pedagogical engagement by academics, the museum’s own curatorial staff, and the public to remaining open to an on-going process by asking critical questions about who and what the institution is and what it hopes to be.

Dr. Trofanenko is a Canada Research Chair & Associate Professor at Acadia University.

[1] See Busby, K., Woolford, A., and A. Muller (eds.) (in press). The Idea of a Human Rights Museum, Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press for an edited collection of papers dedicated specifically to discussions about the Canadian Museum of Human Rights presented during the Centre of Human Rights Research Critical conversations on the Idea of a Human Rights Museum seminar series (2011-12) and at a research roundtable in February, 2013.


Cameron, D. (1971). The museum, a temple or the forum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 14, 11-24.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights,  Content Advisory Committee (2010). Content advisory committee final report to the Canadian museum for human rights

Hancock, A. M. (2011). Solidarity politics for millennials: A guide to ending the oppression olympics. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Moses, A. Dirk (2012). The Canadian museum for human rights: The ‘uniqueness of the holocaust’ and the question of genocide.” Journal of Genocide Research 14 (2), 215-38.


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