The Idea of a Human Rights Museum. Karen Busby, Adam Muller, and Andrew Woolford, eds. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press

…here is a brief excerpt of the content,

Reviewed by

Jason Chalmers

The Idea of a Human Rights Museum is the first book-length collection that explores the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which opened in 2014. It situates the museum transnationally within the context of other ideas and human rights museums. Chapters explore museum content, debates within and surrounding the museum, and the potentials and problematics of human rights museums in general. The collection generally frames the museum as an important cultural institution in Canada, although several contributors are critical of the way it represents human rights and reproduces settler colonial narratives.

The editors structure the book in much the same way that a visitor might approach an artefact or artwork within a museum: first approaching from a distance to get a sense of general themes, inspecting particular details as one gets closer, and finally reflecting on content and situating it within larger contexts as one moves onward. The first set of chapters explores the purposes and functions that define the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. These include the museum’s role in creating space for public dialogue about difficult human rights issues as well as the dual (and potentially conflicting) functions of commemoration and education. The second section focuses on the way museum space is organized by considering architecture and conceptualization of the permanent exhibits. The third section considers curation within the museum by addressing some of the potential challenges and possibilities of representing what throughout the text is referred to as “difficult knowledge.” The final group of readings explores other museums from around the world to situate the Canadian Museum for Human Rights within the twenty-first-century global phenomenon of human rights museums. While these museums tend to be characterized by a commitment to the prevention of human rights violations, each is also shaped by the particular socio-political context in which it developed. [End Page 465]

A strength of the collection is that it historicizes the museum while maintaining a future-oriented approach. Christopher Powell argues that human rights did not descend upon humanity fully formed but, rather, were forged in the struggles of people in distinct socio-historical contexts.

Historical processes likewise shape the museum. Contributors view the museum as the unique manifestation of domestic pressures and global trends. It emerged from the interaction between Canada’s distinct political culture, the dynamics of settler colonialism, and the transnational push toward education and the commemoration of atrocities. However, while contributors frame the museum as a product of history, they simultaneously focus on future possibilities.

The purpose of “informed citizenship” is to cultivate a public that desires positive social change and has the tools necessary to conceptualize and realize this transformation.

Thus, contributors explore how knowledge of the past can contribute to a better future. For example, David Petrasek challenges the assumption that remembering past atrocities necessarily prevents future ones. In contrast, Amanda Grzyb explores different ways that museums use comparative genocide to promote a “call to action.”
Yet the book’s emphasis on history also undermines its ability to engage with “difficult knowledge” and decolonizing practices. Difficult knowledge entails presenting information in a way that challenges dominant narratives and can therefore be a useful tool to decolonize museums. An effective way to achieve this in settler colonial contexts is to explore place and land. Indeed, contributors suggest that land plays an important role at the museum. Jodi Giesbrecht and Clint Curle, among others, observe that the museum is positioned on four “tree roots” that embed it in the land. Several contributors, including the editors in their introduction, briefly acknowledge that the museum is “purposefully located” at The Forks and point to its role as a historical meeting place for Aboriginal peoples and a significant site of colonial encounters. However, despite the acknowledged importance of the museum’s location, there is little discussion of land. There is little mention of Treaty 1, no discussion of Shoal Lake no. 40, and no exploration of land from an Indigenous perspective. While Ruth Phillips addresses decolonizing practices within…



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