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Museum for Human Rights


by Lionel Steiman, October 16, 2011

The following is the complete text  written by Prof. Lionel Steiman, for the  OUTLOOK Brunch, that took place on Fort Garry Hotel, October 16, 2011.


Lloyd Axworthy once said that the most important thing Izzy Asper did for Winnipeg was to stay here. Asper’s most important legacy will undoubtedly be the Canadian Museum for Human Rights He wanted to put Winnipeg on the world’s map, and give it an architectural icon like the Eiffel Tower. Asper had introduced a Bill of Rights in the Manitoba legislature in 1971, and ten years later promoted Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The catalyst that made him champion human rights was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1993.   Four years later, the Asper Foundation began its Human Rights and Holocaust Studies Program, combining lectures at home with a tour of the Holocaust museum in Washington. The program proved transformative for students and teachers alike, and this gave Asper the idea of providing a similar experience in Canada so students wouldn’t have to go to Washington. Thus he conceived a centre with a human rights focus, and a travel program that would bring students from around the world to Winnipeg.   In July, 2000 he discussed the idea with the Executive Director of the Asper Foundation; three years later, in April 2003, plans for a national human rights museum in Winnipeg were unveiled at the Forks. Six months later, Izzy Asper died. Two weeks after his funeral, the architectural design competition for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was launched, marked by a ceremonial sod turning at the Forks. Fundraising resumed under the energetic leadership of his daughter.
The building now rising above the Forks is an architectural marvel. It promises visitors an experience of enlightenment, growth, and transformation. Architect Antoine Predock designed it as leading the visitor from darkness to light. Starting in the Museum’s “roots”, the path ascends from grounds where Aboriginal peoples came to resolve conflict and live together in peace; it continues to a series of bridges, leading visitors to the Tower of Hope, a 20-storey glass structure overlooking the horizon. Along the way they encounter stories of human rights and the heroes who championed the cause of those rights. Continuing on their journey towards light, visitors pass through twelve zones or galleries, each of which is designed to enable them to experience successive chapters in human rights history, through personal stories and interactive exhibits. The journey is designed so that visitors will experience the past primarily as it relates to Canada’s development as a multi-cultural national community.  
 The Master Exhibit Designer for CMHR, is Ralph Appelbaum, who had earlier designed the Holocaust Museum in Washington. His role is to ensure the overall coherence of individual galleries with the museum’s human rights vision, with its Canadian perspective on human rights, and with its commitment to our national community. Under this governing vision, the actual work of designing exhibits and displays for the twelve zones is being done by a team of bright young researchers and designers in Winnipeg. They are of various research backgrounds, and with varying experience in current human rights issues. Design proposals are subject to final approval by the museum’s Board of Trustees.
 Almost as soon as the CMHR project was announced, a multicultural coalition raised alarm bells that a museum seeking federal tax dollars should not be exclusively devoted to the Holocaust, and insisted that it should give equal representation to the suffering of other groups. Let us be clear: Asper did not embrace the cause of human rights in order to promote a museum primarily of Jewish interest. But it is equally clear that memory of the Holocaust weighed on him so heavily that Holocaust awareness and human rights awareness became one. Holocaust museums everywhere—in the U.S., the U.K., Europe, South America, in Japan— are institutions that promote human rights. In any case, protests alleging CMHR’s privileging of the Holocaust were met by repeated insistence that this was not a museum of genocides, but of human rights; the emphasis would be positive, the focus would be Canadian, and the museum would be a “catalyst for change.” 
Some critics see it as a fundamental flaw that the museum’s planners never set forth a clear definition of its subject or of the concept “human rights” that would guide its development. Nor are these critics disarmed by the following statement in a recent brochure: “The Canadian Museum for Human Rights does not define human rights—it invites people from all walks of life into a dynamic discussion.” In a recent talk at the University of Manitoba, museum CEO Stuart Murray stated that there is no single definition of human rights, which he called an “umbrella term” for a whole range of rights of individuals and groups. Murray emphasized the museum’s inclusivity and that it invited open-ended critical dialogue and debate on the part of visitors. Implicit throughout his talk was that educating about human rights was about respecting individual differences and differences based on group identities, and getting people not simply to tolerate differences in others but to respect and to value those differences. 
 When Ralph Appelbaum was asked why so many young people visited the Washington museum, he replied simply: “Moral clarity.” The Washington museum proved that you reach the young not just by offering moral principles, but by enabling them to identify with individual exemplars of those principles. Thus when CMHR officers speak of “moral transformation”, they are not suggesting that visitors will experience a spiritual epiphany, but that illustration by storytelling, for example, would “personalize” moral principles and thereby promote the personal identification with heroic acts of self-sacrifice as well as with the suffering of defenseless victims. This was the idea behind the Washington museum’s issuing visitors with “identity cards with the name and basic biography of an individual Jew in Nazi occupied Europe. Visitors would have their cards up-dated at various stations in the museum and would discover their “fate” only at the end of the tour. The experience would not only be morally engaging, but “morally transformative”.
 Do we really need “manufactured intimacy” to teach basic moral lessons? Perhaps not. But by illustrating through personal examples how actions exemplify or violate moral principles, museums can communicate with greater “moral clarity” than otherwise. Current technology can intensify our empathy so that we not only identify with victims but also feel what they suffered. With ‘Augmented Reality’ and ‘Augmented Virtual Reality’ technologies, designers can augment or enhance real-world environments with computer-generated sound, graphic or other inputs; they can also insert physical objects or people in “real time” into “virtual spaces”, and thus configure and furnish space so as to elicit any feeling they want to. Current technology can also allow visitors to leave “traces” of their responses in a given exhibit, which traces then become an integral part of the experience of subsequent visitors.
 “Virtual and interactive” stories and settings can allow visitors to interact with each other as well as with subjects, and will be designed to increase the likelihood that they will become committed to the pursuit of particular human rights goals. A “virtual and interactive story world” about residential schools, for example, should increase visitors’ empathy with aboriginal victims of residential schools and thereby promote their “moral transformation”.   But are such technologies manipulative? Just as cinematography and sound tracks can make movie audiences feel what directors want them to feel, makers of “Augmented Virtual Reality” exhibits might do the same thing. The ethical issue here might be addressed by considering the intent of the exhibit, which of course would be to attract visitors and enhance their sensitivity to human rights. 
 Clearly, technology opens possibilities but also poses challenges. The inputs that interactive and other participatory displays elicit from visitors will depend on visitors’ prior knowledge, emotional profile, and psychological defenses. A visitor to Washington’s Holocaust museum , for example, found the experience of getting into the freight car used to transport Jews to death camps like “getting into someone else’s coffin,” an experience other visitors found positive, if somewhat unnerving.   Images of suffering evoke sympathy in some and repulsion in others.   Some visitors might be offended by an exhibit that others would find moving. 
 Another potential problem relates to CMHR’s commitment to relying on the stories and testimony of witnesses and survivors. These do have greater impact on visitors than do secondary accounts or even film footage. The problem with many first- hand accounts is that they are impossible to corroborate, and their impact depends on our cultural affinity to the witness and the event in question.   With the passage of time their words and the images to which they bear witness may only pique our curiosity. Once survivors and witnesses are gone, technology will be our only means of recalling what they experienced. Already there are ways of giving people “memories” of events that they themselves never experienced. In the trade these memories are called, appropriately, “Prosthetic memories”.   But the visitor still remains an isolated user with no real investment in the victim, and no engagement beyond the moment. Interactive technologies may only create inter-passivity, and the feelings they spark may be a substitute for the action which a real moral transformation would inspire.
 In deciding which human rights triumphs and tragedies to feature in its galleries, CMHR planners faced a daunting task because of the inclusiveness implied in the museum’s name. Despite the fact that it was made clear almost from the outset that the aim was not to include all assaults on human rights and every group that suffered, the public continued to believe that it would, or should, do so. Letters to local and national newspapers gave the impression that a competition was under way, a sort of “victim Olympics”. This competition was itself an offshoot of an old debate over whether the Holocaust was “unique” in the annals of human inhumanity. When African Americans and American Indians appropriated the ‘H’ word to characterize the suffering of their peoples, Jewish Americans insisted all the more on the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust, which struck others as the assertion of a claim to moral superiority and righteousness.  CMHR had insisted from the outset that the museum’s focus would be on human rights and not human wrongs, and that while exhibits would indeed feature well known genocides and other mass atrocities, their purpose was not to horrify but to educate, and to effect a “moral transformation” in the visitor. 
 CMHR intends to emphasize the positive aspects of human rights history. As CEO Stuart Murray stated repeatedly in a recent speech at the University, the museum is being designed to “engage and empower” visitors rather than deluge them with waves of atrocity. Its goal will be to encourage “critical thinking” through creative exhibits rather than to offer visitors preconceived “lessons”.   And the museum would be more than a learning centre,-- it would “challenge” visitors to “break barriers”; it would make them feel they have a direct stake in “changing the world”; it would “put the pen in their hands to have them write the next chapter of human history.” The desired “moral transformation” of visitors would result from a process of empowerment --and from conversation with other visitors on what we need to change and how. Murray acknowledged the complexity of the issues but was optimistic about what he called “the magic of dialogue”, and its power to make opposing sides change their points of view.
 In an effort to ensure the widest public consultation on museum content, CMHR invited public input via an open-ended on-line questionnaire and struck a Committee to hold open hearings across the country, collecting stories about human rights abuses. Museum officials emphasize that the Content Advisory Committee’s 100-page report is neither a blue-print nor a road-map for the museum, although the CMHR does intend to implement the Committee’s most controversial recommendation, which is that “the museum should position the Holocaust as a separate zone at the centre of the museum.” Two major Ukrainian Canadian organizations launched a campaign against this recommendation. The Canadian Ukrainian Civil Liberties Association claimed that the results of a poll showed that most Canadians wanted the human rights museum “to cover all genocides equally.”   CMHR’s director of communications responded, in a March 25 letter to the Globe and Mail: “The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is not a museum of genocide. It is a catalyst for change.” Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress insisted that it was promised a separate gallery for the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of 1932/33; CMHR responded that it promised only to feature the Holodomor, “clearly, distinctly and permanently”, which it insists it will— but in a gallery along with other mass atrocities. When the CUCLA circulated a postcard with anti-Semitic overtones, insinuating that supporters of a permanent Holocaust gallery were pigs--, over a hundred internationally renowned scholars from across the world signed a letter in protest, which by the way cited CUCLA’s links to pro-Nazi organizations, some of whose members are or were alleged war criminals living in Canada. 
 There is a consensus among experts that the Holocaust is the most thoroughly documented and exhaustively studied mass atrocity in history. But what makes it unique is not the number of its victims or their indescribable suffering, but that its execution involved every agency of the state acting with cooperation from every sector of its population—and that of every country in Europe that yielded up its Jews to the Nazi killers. The problem is that to provide even a minimal understanding of how this vast process evolved would require far more time and space than CMHR could possibly give to it. It would have to convey at least some idea of the Christian roots of Jew hatred, and how it permeated European culture high and low; it would have to show that what we condemn as “antisemitism” was not a “prejudice” but the common sense of people everywhere, openly expressed at all levels of society everywhere. Antisemitism was a necessary cause of the Holocaust. CMHR’s initial plan for a Holocaust gallery didn’t mention antisemitism, and would have considered the persecution of Jews only in Germany— where only 5% of Jewish Holocaust victims came from.   Fortunately gallery designers have moved beyond this, possibly in response to a critique from Winnipeg’s foremost academic authority on the Holocaust, Dr. Catherine Chatterley. They have now re-framed their Holocaust presentation so as to provide necessary historical background, and ensure that the “lessons” they draw are related to actual particularities of Holocaust experience.
 In the months preceding the Washington museum’s official opening in April1993, American television screens were filled with images reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. These were not Jewish Holocaust survivors in 1945; they were Muslim prisoners in Bosnia in 1993. There were anguished cries of “do something”, “get involved.” But the question was what to do. Few Americans including their leaders really knew who was fighting whom, or why. Memories of the Holocaust urged robust intervention in the former Yugoslavia, but memories of Vietnam warned against being caught in another quagmire. If Serbian actions against Bosnian Muslims constituted genocide, the UN convention on genocide could mandate intervention; so the U.S. State department warned its officers to avoid using the ‘G’ word in reference to Serb atrocities. 
Fast forward two decades: our magnificent museum for human rights stands gleaming under prairie skies. Inside, visitors will be able to share experiences and exchange ideas, offering their views and leaving their traces. Sophisticated mechanisms will process visitor input, assess the public mood, and even accommodate criticism. But, if CMHR sees its role as a “catalyst for change”, and visitors want to see government apply human rights “lessons” to crises around the world, will CMHR serve as a conduit for the public exert influence on the federal government? And will government policy then be shaped more by humanitarian considerations than by political calculation?  Countless national and international issues short of genocide involve the abuse of human rights— three of CMHR’s proposed permanent galleries will focus on human rights issues today. Given its claim to be a “catalyst for change”, and given its dedication to conversation and dialogue, our human rights museum is bound to become a centre for human-rights activism—of all kinds. But as a Crown Corporation and institution for all Canadians, it must also be non-partisan and neutral on every issue of contention.
 CMHR’s goal of “moral transformation” may be intended for individuals, but it likely assumes that a critical mass of transformed individuals will translate into positive outcomes on a larger scale. But even in limiting its objective to individuals, CMHR may be opening itself to criticism and even possible derision. The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, for example, attempts to link slavery and genocides with prejudice and sundry acts of social discrimination. Children touring the museum are urged to see a connection between piles of corpses and the epidemic of bullying in their schools. Some of these school kids leave written testimonials to the evils of discrimination; others may decide that compared with genocide, bullying really isn’t so bad; while others will simply feel confused. One hopes that in seeking “moral clarity”, our human museum will avoid “moral confusion.”
 One of the first principles children are taught in nursery school, kindergarten, Sunday school, or wherever else they’re sent is that of simple kindness. Do we really need Holocaust and Human Rights museums to teach the “Golden Rule”? Perhaps not, but maybe we still need them to teach about taking a stand against injustice. The Holocaust Museum in suburban Chicago provides an area where children can brainstorm strategies on how to speak up for kids experiencing hatred, prejudice and discrimination through bullying or other acts of intolerance.” Some of their strategies imply that the difference between Buchenwald and bullying is only a matter of degree. Most people who know anything about either would call the implied analogy ludicrous.
 In the course of ascending to the Tower of Hope, CMHR visitors will experience a deluge of voices and images from all over the world. But in what ways are their many issues comparable? The museum wisely declined to rank atrocities, but historical comparisons will be unavoidable since CMHR will encourage visitors to discuss areas of possible human rights violations in the world today. Even if the museum’s designers will not decide if and how far various violations are comparable, visitors will want to know. For example, is Israel’s treatment of Palestinians comparable to South Africa’s treatment of blacks under Apartheid? The museum will surely not apply the term ‘Apartheid’ to the conditions which Israel imposes upon Palestinians, but some of its visitors will, and they will want to convince others of their point of view. CMHR encourages dialogue, and CEO Stuart Murray has expressed his belief in the “magic of dialogue.”
 CMHR will be a spectacular gem that will more than repay the huge investment of energy, creativity, and hope that made it a reality. Praise for the building and its superb location is sure to come, but what about the response to its contents? The main concern of historians will not be factual accuracy, which is relatively easy to establish, but the contextual fullness of displays and their interpretation of events. Proper historical understanding of an event requires that the event be situated in its full context, framed within the maze of cultural and other elements in which it is embedded and which conditioned it.   But if CMHR’s intent is to draw lessons and celebrate progress, it might be impossible to do all this and still take from the event the lesson desired. Will the museum be able to focus on human rights and still be true to history? Will it present the rich and ambiguous context in which all significant events are embedded? Or will today’s morality and political correctness violate the integrity of the past? 
 The completed museum may also face criticism on the ground that the toleration and understanding it seeks to promote are western values, not human rights. What we regard as beneficent some cultures see as dangerous. Recently the U.S. opened an “Office of International Religious Freedom”, and there is talk that Canada may follow suit. The mission of this office is to promote religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. Some fear that the new office is a cover for promoting the spread of Christianity. Some think this fine, but others see it as the imposition of alien values, cultural colonialism, or even as cultural genocide.
 Should all “values” be respected just because they are in the fabric of a culture? Some non-western cultures oppose equal rights for women because gender equality conflicts with their social and family values. CMHR encourages the appreciation of differing points of view, but our governments are often reluctant to open debates. Will the museum follow the government of the day on such issues? CMHR has refrained from defining ‘human rights’, preferring to use that term an umbrella for a variety of issues affecting  human beings everywhere. But in so doing it risks the confusion of human rights with civil rights and constitutional rights, which vary widely across the globe. Will the Canadian perspective promised by CMHR respect differences we find offensive? Or will it assert the superiority of values we might see as ‘human rights’ but which other cultures find unacceptable?
 A museum which purports to address so wide a range of issues as does CMHR is bound to displease some groups and organizations both by what it omits and by how it treats what it includes.   Despite its repeated disclaimers that it is not a “museum of genocides”, the public may still view CMHR as an institution for show-casing historic wrongs suffered by ethnic groups in our population. And no matter how much the museum tries to focus on “rights” rather than “wrongs”, we wouldn’t be so concerned about rights if it weren’t for all the wrongs. But too much emphasis on suffering will not be attractive.  Also, since the museum seeks to promote progress in human rights, too many displays devoted to atrocities might only convince viewers that progress is impossible. On the other hand, the museum’s “celebration of human rights heroes” could provide encouragement and education and as long as the celebration doesn’t become self-congratulation and lead to complacency. But whatever the balance between its use and abuse of history, or the gap between its ideals of human rights and our human rights record, the presence of this structure will be an enduring reminder of the hopes that inspired its building, and a constant admonition to strive for their realization.                                 
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