Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) is currently reshaping the environment of its exhibits in lieu of public opinion in which hosting a gallery predominantly focused on eighty genocide displays is not good business; according to communications director Angela Cassie, “People said this gallery felt like a little shop of horrors,” Assistant Communications Manager Maureen Fitzhenry agrees, “Planners don`t want visitors to get so depressed they would be compelled to leave.” Generally speaking, a museum of this setting has a responsibility to make its viewers uncomfortable, forcing a wider view of atrocities perpetrated by man in the name of religion, race, and creed.

Arguments such as “…the museum cannot be depressing,” made by (CMHR) president and CEO Stuart Murray, adding the comment made by a scholar’s concerns, “I hope to hell this is not a museum of human wrongs,” misses the mark. If it be not a museum of human wrongs than what is it designed to convey?

 Director, National Museums Liverpool, David Fleming stressed that, “Museums are-or should be-mirrors- of society…essentially they and we are constructs of the societies in which we live, and those of us who are fortunate enough to live in democracies should respect this.” In this respect Fleming is correct; museums cannot operate as it once did. The meanings, the purpose of museums are an extension of the human experience; and as such it must be made transparent. The function and societal purposes of museums such as (CMHR) in Winnipeg have to contend with its delivery methods.  Which stance will the (CMHR) adopt?

Ideologically, “Museums seek to transform visitors by opening up new lines of thought, by revealing often hidden truths, by demonstrating human immorality and suggesting, implicitly or explicitly, that there has to be an alternative.” 1 When we ponder the nature of museums we often remind ourselves of the educational element, “Human rights museums proclaim themselves to be about human rights whereas human right museology is about a form of practice: one that proclaims the social vocation of the museum and incorporates practices other than those traditional to the museum: i.e. teaching about citizenship practices and methods of activism.  However, when it presents exhibitions and programs on human rights, the museum provides its own interpretation of the historical events and current standards of the rights in question.” 2

The (CMHR) has not been able to avoid the differentiating opinions of such a proposition articulated by Carter and Orange. As a whole, it should be made relevant in regards to human rights issues relating to Canada. The genocidal issues of the 20th Century aside, the focal reality of the North American Indian within British North America is and should be the essence of the museum.

“For example, if the CMHR were to advocate for the right of indigenous peoples to the highest attainable standard of health by developing a program and exhibit showing the present poor health conditions of indigenous peoples, it might affect the public’s view of what is acceptable practice in Canada and abroad. It would not be unreasonable to expect that a dialogue between civil society and governments would ensue. The museum’s advocacy might cause a ripple effect that could lead to a change in citizen and then state behaviour.”3

Attributing greater genocidal importance in view of another is ethically immoral. However the distinction in a contextual setting is crucial; and should be recognized.  Granted such a stance might create disconnect with the federal/provincial governments which financially sustain such projects; and incur public mistrust as cost overrun are added to the public purse and be made the responsibility of taxpayers.  As the (CMHR) nears completion, the intransience of all affected parties to form a cohesive united front as to the purpose, mandate and focal approach of the museum’s structure will reflect negatively on the host city. An issue of special distinction according to Carter an Orange, “The issue of museum governance is particularly important when dealing with human rights…it must address the complexity of their mandate and their funding…”4 

A Winnipeg resident such as “LRT” articulates opinions in which merit answers; and for the betterment of the museum as a whole needs to be resolved,

 “What I am concerned about (aside from the cost overruns and the inability to finish the project), is the possible and probable slanted take The (CMHR) has on Human Rights. For instance, the Friends of the Museums have run numerous studies in regards as to what Canadians actually want in the museum, in terms of Human Rights abuses, and awareness of Human rights. Every survey that has been conducted has never placed the Holocaust as the #1 exhibit that Canadians want to see. Yet, the CMHR has ignored the wishes of Canadians, and it looks like the Holocaust will be the premiere exhibit of display, despite the #1 choice of the plight of the Aboriginal people. There are several other examples of groups being excluded or marginalized, but I will leave it at that. I support Human Rights and would love to see honor the wishes of Canadians but I have the feeling this will only occur with a complete overhaul of the CMHR staff, and to disband "Friends of the museum.”

Fleming agrees, “There is the sense that when any one activity dominates in the museum, it can become problematic. When we recognize that memorial and reflective spaces enable different forms of learning from didactic or informational ones, the need for incorporating a multiplicity of presentation styles becomes evident.”5

According to most Winnipeggers blogging and responding online; the overwhelming view of the (CMHR) is far from positive and has anti-Semitic undertones. A Winnipeg citizen under the handle “Satan Devil” said “Must be one of the Zionists who is profiting from this monstrosity. No sane person supports this waste of space and money. The Forks was supposed to be a green space; where it has now become a concrete jungle with the two middle fingers in the air for all of us taxpaying zombies. The bridge and this monstrosity will be there in the skyline giving the taxpayers the double bird for years to come, while the Asper’s and their friends are laughing all the way to the bank. How can you be getting paid if the place is not even open?”

Winnipeg Sun opinion columnist Tom Brodbeck illustrates well the cost overruns and the endemic perceptions in which the taxpayer’s purview is paramount, unquestionable and beyond reproach, “The beleaguered (CMHR) fraught with delays, massive cost-overruns, funding shortfalls and high-ranking resignations-won’t open until 2014 at the earliest. But that hasn’t stopped museum brass from bulking up its taxpayer-funded workforce, which now stands at sixty-eight employees with an annual payroll of $5 million. That’s up a net eight staff from December 2011. Those positions and sixty-one others now make up the museum’s ballooning workforce, which has grown from fifty since March 31, 2011 and they’re all paid for by taxpayers. The museum is a federal crown corporation and it’s now taking on the bureaucratic girth that we see in most government agencies. The goal is not only to build a museum; it is also to build a bureaucratic empire… there is very little accountability to taxpayers. Most of these “deals” are finalized behind closed doors without any public input.”

Either purposely or not Mr. Brodbeck does not believe in examining the value of such an endeavour; for one simple reason… according to Brodbeck and his audience there is no value in building such an establishment.

The (CMHR) is a reality, it skeletal frame built. As to the contents, structure and vision of the museum it all remains to be unveiled. It will be up to future generations and Canadians as a whole; who will determine its validity within the global perceptivity of such endeavours.  It may become the beacon of hope, understanding and acceptance every human being should be made to comprehend the value of such a structure. Time will tell…

 1,2.3. 4 National Museums: New studies from around the world (Routledge, 2011)

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