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Dr. Catherine Chatterley

Dr. Clint Curle

Canadian Museum for Human Rights


Dr. Catherine Chatterley & Dr. Clint Curle, April 3, 2013


Dr. Curle generously offered to answer Dr. Chatterley’s questions about the Holocaust gallery in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) for an article she is publishing on the history of Holocaust memorialization in Canada. The Winnipeg Jewish Review thanks both scholars and the museum for permission to re-print the following interview.


Dr. Chatterley: Can you please tell me how the creators of the CMHR define the museum as an institution.


Dr. Curle: The CMHR was created as a National Museum to provide a place for Canadians and people from all over the world to explore the subject of human rights, to promote respect for others, and to encourage reflection and dialogue. The aim of the Canadian Museum for Human Right is to foster an appreciation of human rights, spur informed dialogue, and invite visitors to identify the contemporary relevance of human rights events of yesterday and today. It is a place where people can truly feel that they have a direct stake in helping to protect and advance human rights.


Dr. Chatterley: How is a museum that teaches the public about genocides, the Shoah, and the development of human rights not by definition a history museum?

Dr. Curle: It is a question of how historical content is framed.  Many historical museums take the presentation of the past as an end point.  This look to the past is especially common in institutions devoted to memorialization (a completely valid museological approach).  As a human rights museum, our mandate is forward-looking.  This does not mean that we will not present (or responsibly contextualize) historical material, but that our emphasis is on the present and the future.  How did (and do) these historical events inform understandings of human rights and human dignity?


Dr. Chatterley: Please explain why there is a Holocaust gallery in the CMHR.

Dr. Curle: The organizational framework for the museum has evolved over time.  One of our challenges has been to conceptually locate the Holocaust and the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in the Museum.  The historical proximity of these two events suggested an inspiring relationship between violation and response. As content development moved forward, the Museum, with the input of experts in this area, realized that this relationship oversimplified both the history of the Holocaust and the history of the Universal Declaration, and exaggerated the actual historical connections between the two.  In its present conceptual articulation the Museum has de-linked a direct causal relationship between the Holocaust and the Universal Declaration. Taking the Holocaust on its own terms in this way speaks powerfully to broader human rights concerns regarding the power of the modern state, the vulnerabilities of civil society to become an instrument of oppression, and the controversial relationship between war and human rights protection, but does not instrumentalize the Holocaust to tell a creation myth about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 


The gallery “Examining the Holocaust” (working title) explores the Holocaust thematically, emphasizing themes drawn from the specific history of the Holocaust (and that are frequently explored in Holocaust scholarship).  These themes are at the same time of clear relevance to human rights today.  The exhibits are focused on the Holocaust, and allow the visitors themselves to draw the connection to contemporary human rights.  As such, the exhibits avoid reducing the Holocaust to a series of human rights lessons.


From its earliest conception, the CMHR has included plans for a gallery devoted to the subject of the Holocaust.  This even appears explicitly in the legislative summary behind Bill C-42 that created the museum as a crown corporation. In the content development for the museum, the CMHR has strived to responsibly contextualize this gallery within a Canadian human rights museum framework. Examining the Holocaust as an entry point to learning (and teaching) about human rights is a mainstream pedagogical approach to human rights education.  For the CMHR, the Holocaust has utmost relevance for modern constitutional democracies such as Canada.  In fact, many of the features that underlay the Holocaust are those that bear structural resemblance to modern nation-states today.  These include a strong constitution, western-educated population, tradition in Christian values, long history of anti-Semitism, commitment to rule of law, access to modern technology and a powerful bureaucratic state.  Of course, the historical specificity of Weimar and Nazi Germany cannot be wholly conflated with the contexts of other modern nation-states (and the CMHR does not imply such conflation).  However, we want our visitors to think about how such features of modern nation-states were mobilized in Nazi Germany’s genocide against European Jewry and attacks against other groups.  Because of these structural affinities, the Holocaust holds special relevance for countries like Canada.


Dr. Chatterley: Please tell me about the design and content of the Holocaust gallery.

Dr. Curle: The gallery invites visitors to consider vulnerable aspects of modern political life by analyzing the ways that these vulnerabilities were exploited in Nazi Germany’s implementation of Hitler’s anti-Semitic and totalitarian ideology.  Personal testimonies and associated artefacts and images make the themes accessible for visitors.  The featured themes are (titles are all provisional):

i) State Power, such as police, judiciary, education, and laws and regulations, that the Nazis deployed in order to acquire total control of German society, and target Jews for social exclusion and persecution, culminating in a genocide.

ii) Group Persecution, or the increasing intensity of systematic oppression toward Jews, (building on long-standing prejudices such as antisemitism), and the spread of targeted persecution to additional groups, once a society accepts that some people are less than human;

iii) War and Genocide, which explores how the genocide against the Jews, from confinement within ghettos to mass murder in gas chambers, was waged under cover of the Second World War.


Dr. Chatterley: How will Antisemitism be explained and depicted in the Holocaust gallery?



Dr. Curle: There is material in the gallery on the history of Christian/European antisemitism through text, artefacts and images.  The gallery looks at both the history of religious antisemitism, as well as the racial/pseudo-scientific/ideological underpinnings in the history of European antisemitism.

Antisemitism was an integral factor in the Nazis’ perpetration of genocide against Jews.  From the beginnings of the party in the early 1920s, they leveraged existing prejudices against Jews to build popular support.  We need to consider other motivations for the genocide that were particular to Nazi Germany as well, since antisemitism proliferated in many parts of the world – but the Holocaust was waged by Nazi Germany.  We cannot understand the Holocaust without reference to antisemitism. The challenge is to consider how many different motivations and causes (including antisemitism as a primary motivator) combined to create the conditions under which the Holocaust was perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.


Dr. Chatterley: Will contemporary manifestations of Antisemitism be represented and explained as a human rights issue anywhere in the CMHR?


Dr. Curle: Yes, for instance, our current plans include examples of contemporary Holocaust denial as a form of antisemitism in the gallery tentatively called “Breaking the Silence.”  Another example includes content on contemporary domestic implementations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to combat antisemitism today in the Hope and Hard Work gallery.


Dr. Chatterley: Will the CMHR address the history of Antisemitism in this country?

Dr. Curle: As a Canadian Museum, it is important for us to inform and educate Canadians about their own history of antisemitism.  The Holocaust gallery will include a theatre that will screen a short film on Canadian antisemitism during the 1930s and 1940s.


Dr. Chatterley: Increasingly, today, people and institutions are conflating the Holocaust (or Shoah) with the general brutality of Nazi Germany, misleading the public and students into thinking that the Holocaust included any number of groups who suffered under the Third Reich. How will the CMHR define the Holocaust?


Dr. Curle: The CMHR is using the term “Holocaust” to refer specifically to the Nazis’ oppression and genocide against European Jewry.  We feel that such a definition is valuable, as it does not conflate different aspects of one historical period.  At the same time, it is ahistorical to treat the genocide of the Jews in complete isolation from the Nazi assaults on additional groups in their effort to create a racially pure and expansive Third Reich.  The gallery clearly demarcates the Holocaust as Nazi Germany’s genocide against Jews, and also shows how this genocidal attack was perpetrated in the context of National Socialism’s war for race and space.


Dr. Chatterley: According to the CMHR, who were the victims of the Holocaust and who were its perpetrators? And when does the Holocaust begin and end?

Dr. Curle: The Nazis’ intended victims of the Holocaust were all Jews, although it was European Jewry that fell under control of Nazi Germany and its collaborators that suffered most directly during the genocide.

The perpetrators of the Holocaust were Nazi Germany and its collaborators. Collaboration took both active and passive forms. Sadly, the list of collaborators is too long to include here.

As we are taking the Holocaust to include the oppression and genocidal destruction of European Jewry by Nazi Germany, the working date range that we are using is 1933-1945. This does not imply that the ramifications of the Holocaust ended immediately after the Second World War.


Dr. Chatterley: Will other groups of people persecuted under the Third Reich be included in the Holocaust gallery?

Dr. Curle: In the thematic section related to group persecution, the gallery’s focus is on how the Nazis leveraged long-standing prejudices in order to encourage targeted persecution of specific groups.  Jews were the primary victims of this targeted oppression.  The chronological frame of this section is between 1933 and 1939, as this is the period in which the Nazis legislated that specific groups (especially Jews) were unworthy of rights.  It includes material on antisemitism (including both historical and Nazi-Germany-specific antisemitism), as well as the Nazis’ persecution of Romani people (also known by the word “gypsies”), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and persons with disabilities.


Dr. Chatterley: How is the question of causation dealt with in the Holocaust gallery?

Dr. Curle: The CMHR’s position is that reducing the Holocaust to a single cause would be questionable history.  No scholarly consensus exists on this question. As indicated above, there were many factors (including antisemitism as a primary motivator) that interacted with each other and, in Nazi Germany, created the context in which the Holocaust was perpetrated.  Many of these factors will be explored in the gallery, and visitors will be able to draw connections themselves. In terms of the question of responsibility, primary responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Nazi state and society, although the perpetration of the Holocaust could not have happened without the (active or passive) collaboration of many, from individuals to nation-states.


Dr. Chatterley: Would the CMHR agree to change the name of the gallery from Holocaust to Shoah?


Dr. Curle: The gallery titles are currently provisional.  We will take your recommendation under advisement. 


Dr. Chatterley: How will the Holocaust gallery convey the catastrophic loss of European Jewish civilization; how will it depict the great diversity of its people and the massive contributions made to European societies by this most significant minority?


Dr. Curle: The gallery includes an exhibit on the concept of genocide as developed by Raphael Lemkin, which foregrounds the Holocaust specifically as a genocide.  In order to help visitors further understand the concept of genocide as an attempt to eradicate an entire people-group, the exhibit also includes information on other historical instances of mass killing that Lemkin considered genocides.  These will include the Armenian Genocide and the Holodomor, as well as the Spanish colonization of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas and the British colonization of Indigenous Tasmanians. The Lemkin exhibit will demonstrate how the Holocaust, as a genocide, was an attempt to destroy Jewish culture. The Holocaust gallery will include material showing the participation and contribution of Jews in German culture prior to the Nazi seizure of power.  This is juxtaposed with information on historical antisemitism that Jews have experienced for centuries in Europe.  Also, in the selection of stories for this gallery we have made efforts to show the diversity of the Jewish communities targeted during the Holocaust.

Dr. Chatterley: How will the need for refuge during and after the Shoah, and the necessity to re-establish a Jewish homeland, be conveyed to the Canadian public in the Holocaust gallery? 

Dr. Curle: The film on Canada and the Holocaust will explore how Canada (and many other nations) closed their doors to Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis.  Material on eventual Jewish immigration to Canada is also included in the Breaking the Silence gallery.  Additionally, Canada’s rejection of the S.S. St. Louis is treated within a thematic exhibit on Canadian immigration policy in the “Canada’s Human Rights Journey” gallery.

The CMHR has chosen not to include material on the establishment of the State of Israel in the Holocaust gallery.  The Holocaust gallery is not intended to be an exhaustive or comprehensive treatment of every aspect and result of this genocide.


Dr. Chatterley: What artifacts, if any, will the Holocaust gallery use to convey and explain the history of the period; will the exhibits be primarily electronic?


Dr. Curle: There will be many artefacts featured in the Holocaust gallery. We are in the process of selection/procurement at present. Content will be delivered through a combination of both built and digital exhibits. There will be many different types of material that will be conveyed through the digital displays, ranging from testimonies to primary source documents.  In addition, the Breaking the Silence gallery will carry additional Holocaust survivor testimony.


Dr. Chatterley: How long does the museum expect visitors to spend in the Holocaust gallery?


Dr. Curle: Studies show that the average museum visit in North America is 2-3 hours.  If visitors spend equal time in each CMHR gallery on a three-hour visit, this works out to approximately 20 minutes in each gallery.  Certainly, visitors may choose to spend more time in particular galleries related to their interests.  This is an estimate based on empirical studies.  The CMHR’s Learning and Programming department may develop tours along particular themes which may result in groups spending more time in some galleries than others.


Dr. Chatterley: How will the CMHR interpret and explain the behavior of the murderers (some prefer the term perpetrators) in the Holocaust gallery; will these people be presented to the public in a sympathetic manner?

Dr. Curle: The CMHR is interested in exploring some of the reasons why perpetrators did what they did.  We do not feel that this is a “sympathetic” portrayal, but that exploring motivations including (but not limited to) antisemitism, ideology, fear and self-interest are important to consider in wrestling with the “how” and “why” of the Holocaust. 

We are interested in helping visitors to consider some of the reasons that people made the choices that they did.  But they were choices, not inevitabilities.  The theme of “repentant perpetrators” is not included in the current gallery plans.

The gallery plans do include material on how the Nazis tried to control every aspect of German society, including youth.  We do not feel that this is a revisionist approach. The desired visitor takeaway is not sympathy for the perpetrators (or collaborators). The total control of the Nazi state over civil German society, and the broad cooperation of German society with the state, is intimately bound to the efficient and massive scale of the Holocaust.  Moreover, it shows the interplay between the state and individual roles in society in the perpetration of the Holocaust. 


Dr. Chatterley: It is common for museums to use respected leading historians to help them determine the content of galleries and to be certain that the story being told adheres to historical truth as established by the fields of scholarship involved. Please tell me how historians and other scholars have been involved with the CMHR and its Holocaust gallery.


Dr. Curle: Both Holocaust historians and human rights experts reviewed this gallery. Human rights is a multidisciplinary field.  The CMHR has a number of different scholarly professionals on its staff team, including three individuals with earned PhDs in History, as well as several more staff members with graduate degrees (including PhDs) - all have specializations relevant to human rights.


Final decisions on gallery content and design rest with the CMHR. However, we have engaged individuals for their expertise in their respective fields, and thus take their advisory role very seriously.  Their recommendations have informed content development.


Consultation has taken different forms at different times in the gallery development process. In some cases, the general approach for the galleries have been reviewed and commented on by experts.  Some experts have been contracted to prepare content packages, which have formed the basis for content development.  In other cases, we have consulted with experts about specific exhibit elements. 


Dr. Chatterley: Who is designing the exhibits for the CMHR and those of the Holocaust gallery in particular? Who is responsible for the content and design?


Dr. Curle: Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA) is and has always been the exhibit designer for the CMHR.  The museum does have an internal design department and an internal research and curation department, but the exhibit design for inauguration is contracted to RAA.  RAA takes an active role in every aspect of these exhibits.  CMHR staff (including internal content experts) and RAA work in very close collaboration in this process. 


The blend between content, design and visitor experience for all of the CMHR galleries, including the Holocaust gallery, has been developed in dialogue between CMHR staff and RAA, including Mr. Appelbaum.

The final decisions on content and design, including the Holocaust gallery, rest with the CMHR.


Dr. Chatterley: How will the Arab-Israeli conflict be represented in the CMHR?


Dr. Curle: The human rights situation in Israel and Palestine will be addressed in the museum. Plans are still in development.  The CMHR’s concern is for the human rights of everyone touched by this conflict.  The CMHR as an institution holds final decision-making authority on how these issues will be presented through museum exhibits and programming, as is the case with all museum content.


Dr. Chatterley: Could you please tell me about the main galleries of the museum and what they will contain?


Dr. Curle: There are 10 galleries (all titles are tentative): 1) Introduction to Human Rights, which explores various approaches to the concept of human rights; 2) Indigenous Gallery, which looks at Indigenous approaches to human rights and human responsibilities; 3) Canada’s Human Rights Journey, traces various human rights struggles and victories in Canada’s history; 4) Canadian Challenge, which looks at how Canadian legal traditions incorporate human rights; 5) Examining the Holocaust; 6) Hope and Hard Work, which covers the growth of international human rights law and social movements since the Second World War; 7) Breaking the Silence, which looks at how people have used human rights to respond to and reconstruct from gross human rights violations, so that they cannot remain hidden; 8) Canadians Making a Difference, which highlights specific stories where Canada (or individuals Canadians) have made valuable contributions to human rights; 9) Human Rights Today, which focuses on current human rights issues in Canada and globally; and 10) Take Action, which challenges visitors to join the struggle to promote and protect human rights.



Dr. Chatterley: Will there be a genocide gallery in the CMHR?


Dr. Curle: There is no gallery devoted wholly to the topic of genocide per se, although content related genocides does appear in several exhibits.   But there is no “genocide gallery.”  There is material related to genocide in the Holocaust gallery, Hope and Hard Work (on the UN Genocide Convention), as well as in Breaking the Silence, which looks at how people have used human rights to respond to a cross-section of gross human rights violations, including a number of genocides.  In Breaking the Silence there is also an exhibit called (tentatively) Canada Speaks Out that explores how individuals and communities in Canada have worked to break the silence surrounding genocides around the world.  The scope of this exhibit is the five genocides that have been formally recognized by Canada’s parliament, but again, the focus is on how people have used the rights available to them in Canada in order to speak out and raise about gross human rights abuses.


Dr. Chatterley: How will the Soviet Famine (1932-33) be presented in the CMHR?


Dr. Curle: Material about the Holodomor will be carried in the Breaking the Silence gallery, as well as in the Lemkin exhibit in the Holocaust gallery. People from many ethno-national groups died as a result of Stalin’s agricultural policies.  As a genocide, the Holodomor targeted Ukrainians and the Ukrainian nation.  The CMHR’s position adheres to Canada’s Ukrainian Famine and Genocide (“Holodomor”) Memorial Day Act: “WHEREAS the Ukrainian Famine and Genocide of 1932-33 known as the Holodomor was deliberately planned and executed by the Soviet regime under Joseph Stalin to systematically destroy the Ukrainian people’s aspirations for a free and independent Ukraine, and subsequently caused the death of millions of Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933”.


Dr. Chatterley: Will the crimes of Stalinism, Maoism, or of communist regimes in general, be included in the CMHR?


Dr. Curle: Along with the material on the Holodomor, the Breaking the Silence gallery will contain content on the Great Leap Forward and the Cambodian Genocide.  Referring to these different historical events with the blanket term “crimes” is not a practice the CMHR adopts.  The Breaking the Silence gallery looks at a cross-section of gross human rights violations from around the world, including the five genocides that the Canadian parliament has formally recognized.


Dr. Chatterley: How has the museum dealt with the politicized assault on the Holocaust and the attempts to remove the gallery from the CMHR?


Dr. Curle: The plans for the Holocaust gallery have not changed in response to criticisms questioning the inclusion of a devoted Holocaust gallery in the CMHR. The CMHR has endeavored to have constructive dialogue with many of the parties involved and continues to do so.


Dr. Chatterley: Has the museum become reluctant to share information about the galleries with the media and the public because of how uncivil these battles over content have become?


Dr. Curle: The CMHR has not been reluctant to share information, but has shared what can be provided responsibly, given the fact that much of our content is still in development.


Dr. Chatterley: What role will scholars and scholarship play in the CMHR? And what role will activists and activism play in the CMHR?


Dr. Curle: The CMHR intends to develop a human rights research centre post-inaugural. Currently, our oral history program is exploring human rights through a series of interviews with people who have gained recognition on the basis of their contribution to the advancement of human rights.  These in-depth discussions with remarkable people will explore their lives, ideas and beliefs - always through a human rights lens.


CMHR’s exhibits and programming are being developed on the basis of sound scholarship. The question of the role that scholars/scholarship will play in a post-inaugural research centre is still in development.


The stories of many activists and activist movements will be told in the CMHR’s exhibits and programming.  Our consultations have also included many activists who have been working directly on various human rights issues. The role that activists will play in a post-inaugural research centre is still in development.



Dr. Catherine Chatterley is Founding Director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA) and Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Manitoba.



Dr. Clint Curle is Head of Stakeholder Relations at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR).




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