by Carly Ciufo
“Do museum workers do human rights work?” I ask ChatGPT.
The artificial intelligence’s (AI) answer is longer and, honestly, more robust than I expect:
While museum workers typically focus on the preservation, documentation, exhibition, and interpretation of cultural artifacts, their work can intersect with human rights issues in various ways. Museums have increasingly recognized their role in promoting social justice, inclusivity, and human rights awareness. Here are a few examples of how museum workers may engage in human rights work:
- Exhibitions on human rights: Museum workers can curate exhibitions that explore human rights issues, such as racial justice, gender equality, indigenous rights, LGBTQ+ rights, or the rights of marginalized communities. These exhibitions aim to educate visitors, foster empathy, and encourage dialogue on pressing human rights concerns.
- Restitution and repatriation: Museum workers may be involved in efforts to address historical injustices related to the acquisition of cultural objects and artifacts. This can include working with communities or nations to repatriate cultural heritage that was unlawfully obtained, looted, or displaced during periods of colonization or conflict.
- Community engagement: Museums can serve as community spaces for dialogue, empowerment, and the amplification of marginalized voices. Museum workers may organize community programs, workshops, or public discussions on human rights topics, aiming to create platforms for underrepresented individuals and communities to share their stories and experiences.
- Access and inclusivity: Museum workers can strive to make their institutions more accessible and inclusive, ensuring that individuals from diverse backgrounds, including those with disabilities or limited financial means, can engage with museum collections and activities. This focus on inclusivity aligns with the principles of human rights, promising equal opportunities and participation for all.
- Education and awareness: Museum workers may develop education resources, guided tours, or workshops that explore human rights concepts and historical struggles. By integrating human rights themes into their educational programming, museums can foster critical thinking and inspire visitors to become advocates for social justice.
While not all museum workers may directly engage in human rights work, the field of museums studies has increasingly recognized the importance of addressing social and ethical issues. Many museums strive to go beyond mere preservation and curation, actively seeking to make a positive impact on society and contribute to the promotion of human rights.
I’m a PhD Candidate who’s been especially anxious about my work’s path because the pandemic, a pregnancy, and my new role as primary caregiver have all stalled my dissertation. Combine this AI answer with my lack of time and space to get to my work, my immediate reaction on Slack to the other ActiveHistory.ca editors: “Ahahaha so, why am I even trying to do this work? ChatGPTFTW.”
My constant refrain to myself any time that I thought about how to write this post over the summer: “Well, shit.”
But these instant concerns have passed.
The big thing that’s missing from ChatGPT’s answer: proof. How did you figure this out, AI?! Where’s your evidence?! If I was grading this response, there wouldn’t be as many of the usual “So what?” markings in the margins, but there would be a lot of, “Sure, but how?” “Okay, but why?” There is nothing here that really proves to me that museum work has any relationship with human rights. Work through an exhibit, ChatGPT. Tell me about a local community whose story challenges the conventional narratives in a national museum. Discuss why it is a problem that too many museum positions are still filled by people who do not reflect the diversity of the stories that are (or should be) told inside of the institution.
And thinking about it further, I’m coming around to understanding that this AI response is actually a very good thing. ChatGPT’s answer is that museum workers and museums as institutions are directly connected to human rights in multiple ways. Exhibitions, repatriation, community engagement, access, and awareness are all clear human rights-oriented links for ChatGPT. To me, this just reads that human rights and museums are so obviously related that the claim that museums are neutral or disconnected from the societies that they exist in is immediately void. In what museums display, how they display it, what programs and events are put on, who gets paid and how, and a bunch of other ways, museums are human rights spaces and the work that is done inside of these institutions is human rights-oriented. ChatGPT is clear: Museum workers do human rights work.
So ChatGPT’s answer is incomplete, but it is provable. It grants students and scholars of museums, human rights, and their intersections the space to research the more interesting reasons around why ChatGPT’s response is true instead of wasting time explaining that it is right.
Carly Ciufo is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at McMaster University. She is an editor on ActiveHistory.ca and H-Material Culture. She investigates how human rights museum workers do human rights-oriented work.