Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Conversation Out of Controversy

Often, people think of museums as institutions filled with artifacts and static exhibits, imparting information and stating historical facts.  But many modern museums are evolving from edifices with objects and answers, to arenas with questions and conversation spaces.  These museums discuss broad themes, stimulate debate, and encourage people to talk.

Well, people certainly have been talking about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.  There has been discussion surrounding the institution since it was established as a national museum in 2007, and five years later people are still talking - and the building is not even complete.

As a national museum, Canadians have a sense of ownership of the CMHR, and controversy has surrounded many aspects of its development.  Multiple issues are up for debate – from how much it is going to cost and who will foot the bill, to the architecture and location of the building.  Content and exhibit space are hot button topics as well.  Who and what will be represented?  Is the museum to commemorate those who lost their lives as a result of genocide and other atrocities?  Or should we celebrate those who have triumphed over adversity?  How much should focus on Canada specifically, how much internationally?

Conversations have been at the core of developing the CMHR and its content.  A Content Advisory Committee was put in place by the Minister of Canadian Heritage to gather input from Canadians regarding the content of the museum.  Focus group testing was done in 2008 in cities across Canada, and again in 2009.  The goal was not only ask what stories need to be told in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights; but also to start an early process of story-gathering, and to stimulate a desire to engage with the museum now and into the future.

Discussion is important; debate encourages a sharing of differing ideas and options.  The questions get hard, and the answers are not always pretty.  The CMHR has already provided Canadians an opportunity to contemplate the history of the struggle for human rights, both nationally and internationally.  Part of the museum’s mandate is “to encourage reflection and dialogue,” it has succeeded in this - even before there are official doors to open. 

The CMHR and the conversations it encourages, have the potential to provide us with a better understanding of Canada’s role in the human rights struggle – past, present, and future.

*This piece was written for an op-ed assignment for my Public History class.

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