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Prof Arthur Schafer


By Prof Arthur Shaeffer, posted Jan 30, 2012

Jonathan Kay claims that people don't go to Museums to learn about abstract concepts like "human rights". He ought to visit Ottawa from time  to time where he will find people flooding to visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization . The last time I looked a "civilization"  was a concept at least as abstract (and contested) as "human rights" . Yet, somehow this conceptual abstraction does not seem to have resulted in the desolate fate he predicts for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Kay's second argument strikes me as even weaker, if possible, than his first. He notes that there has been controversy about which events and issues  should be highlighted in the galleries of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights and from the existence of controversy he concludes that the Museum should not exist. Here's his case: If legitimate controversy exists about the contents of a museum then the museum can't be authoritative; and if it can't be authoritative then it shouldn't exist. Such plausibility as this argument possesses derives from the fact that the term authoritative  is ambiguous. Kay exploits the ambiguity to commit the fallacy of equivocation.  Here's how he does it.
Most museums (including the new CMHR) strive to be authoritative. That is, they try to present the consensus view of reputable scholars on the relevant  facts, issues and arguments. But when no scholarly consensus exists then any museum worth its salt will strive to present, in a fair-minded manner, the competing views and perspectives, indicating the best evidence and arguments for each side and thereby letting the viewers make up their own minds.  Dissensus can be presented as authoritatively as consensus. This obvious point seems to have escaped Mr. Kay, who assumes that there can't be an educational dialogue in a museum. His position appears to be that museums are solely about transmitting already settled facts and arguments. I respectfully submit that this is a wrong-headed view and it's the antithesis of what public education should be about. The CMHR is about stimulating thought, dialogue, interest. It's about education. On his view museums present established truths de haut en bas. What a dreary authoritarian position to take.
No good museum can be authoritative in the first sense; every good museum can  be and should be authoritative in the second sense. 

Professor Arthur Schafer is an ethicist specializing in bioethics, philosophy of law, social philosophy and political philosophy. He is Director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, at the University of Manitoba. He is also a Full Professor in the Department of Philosophy and an Ethics Consultant for the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. For ten years he was Head of the Section of Bio-Medical Ethics in the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Manitoba. He has also served as Visiting Scholar Green College, Oxford.

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