The Dialectic of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

A Review of “Caring for Difficult Knowledge: Prospects for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” – a Special Issue of The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies (Guest editors: Angela Failler, Peter Ives and Heather Milne).

[On November 4th, 2015 the University of Winnipeg’s Cultural Studies Research Group launched a special issue of the journal The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies to which many of the group had contributed. One of the editors, and Lead Researcher of the Group, Dr. Angela Failler, invited me to “review” the issue and speak at the event. This is a more formal version of the speech I delivered].



When it opened in September, 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights had already long been the subject of considerable controversy, both across the country and in Winnipeg, Manitoba where it is located as the only national museum to be built outside of Canada’s capital, Ottawa. From the beginning, there were public debates played out in the media over not only the museum’s design and its cost, but that its genesis was associated with the conservative ideology of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government was widely criticized for its retrograde stance on human rights (Caplan). Then there was the matter of content: Indigenous Canadians as well as those from immigrant communities that had suffered atrocities in the past – notably in Ukraine – worried that their experiences were not going to be adequately represented in the Museum’s exhibit plans (Basen).

In this atmosphere of controversy and conflicting expectations, the University of Winnipeg’s Cultural Studies Research Group (CSRG) in September 2013 issued a call for papers about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) for the journal The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, with the goal of “thinking through” the museum constructively, asking, how do we publicly address difficult knowledge in a pedagogical fashion? The result was a special issue of the journal entitled, “Caring for Difficult Knowledge: Prospects for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” (Vol. 37, nos. 2-3).

At the request of one of the co-editors of the issue, Dr. Angela Failler of the University of Winnipeg, I was tasked with reviewing the special issue for its official launch event at the University on November 4th, 2015, by offering some potentially useful insights from the perspective of critical library studies – a discipline distinct from but similar in many respects to critical museum studies, in terms of its concerns regarding representation, colonialism and hegemony (e.g., Murawska-Muthesius and Piotrowski). For the purposes of this review I will offer a brief summary of the critiques of each of the authors and how they relate to the others, and then situate them in terms of some relevant theories from Library and Information Studies – in particular the writings of radical librarian Sanford Berman, historian Lora (Dee) Garrison and critical librarianship scholar Stephen Bales – with a view to identifying the broad theoretical perspective the contributors bring to our understanding of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Is the Topic of “Human Rights” Difficult or Lovely Knowledge?

In her Preface, Erica Lehrer of Concordia University sets out the issue’s task of identifying and locating the tensions between difficult knowledge and lovely knowledge: According to Pitt and Britzman, the difficult part of difficult knowledge concerning historical violence, injustices and atrocity lies not in the content of such knowledge itself, but the effects it has on us, and what we choose to do with it. It contrasts starkly with “lovely knowledge” which soothes and reassures us by reaffirming what we already know – or more accurately, believe – to be true (Pitt and Britzman, 2003).

These themes are picked up in the Introduction by editors Angela Failler, Peter Ives and Heather Milne (all from the University of Winnipeg), but carried further to frame the broader critiques to come: that interrogating the objectives, practices and physicality of the museum “offers a chance to explore a diverse set of issues that extend beyond the museum itself [including] how human rights discourses relate to genocide, colonialism, neoliberalism, issues of social justice, representations and public space” (102). Difficult knowledge, they write, “disrupts our fantasies of coherence and mastery, along with familiar ways of knowing the world, ourselves, and “others’ around us – including the commonly held…dominant cultural narrative that human rights injustices are being valiantly fought against (particularly by ‘us’ in the West)” (103).

What follows the introduction are seven peer-reviewed articles followed by four shorter reflective essays and an afterword which are all charged with this central question: to what extent does (or can) the CMHR – as a Crown Corporation (until very recently) under the authority of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal government – actually engage with difficult knowledge and encourage debate about it, or can it only impose comfortable, reassuring narratives about the “past-ness” of atrocities, ones that explicitly do not implicate the museum-going public?

In “Human Rights and/or Market Logic: Neoliberalism, Difficult Knowledge and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” Heather Milne reviews and analyzes online reader comments in response to a series of highly critical articles about the CMHR published in the right-leaning populist Winnipeg Sun, many of which angrily denounced the museum as a waste of taxpayers’ dollars, as well as the very premise of the museum. She argues that the Museum must share some responsibility for this reaction, having itself participated in the neoliberal branding and commodifying of human rights discourse while positioning itself and its narratives as a part of what its exhibit designer Ralph Applebaum calls the “reality-based entertainment industry complex.”

The Museum’s narratives are constructed not merely in the exhibits, as Nadine Blumer argues in her essay “Expanding Museum Spaces: Networks for Difficult Knowledge at and Beyond the Canadian Museum for Human Rights,” but in its use of technology as well as its online and social media presence. Blumer, a Fellow with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., sees the CMHR existing as a node in a global network of other “idea” museums, yet questions the extent to which it is capable of creating a discursive space in which human rights controversies can actually be debated, as it has aggressively positioned itself as apolitical. This has not stopped civil society groups from using the Museum as a backdrop or rallying point for their own protests – in her words, “affixing meaning the CMHR, irrespective of the museum’s seemingly apolitical stance or activities (141).”

Such activism stood in particularly stark contrast to the Museum’s silence when the bodies of Tina Fontaine and Faron Hall were both discovered in the Red River on August 17th, 2014, not far from the Museum grounds. For McMaster University’s Amber Dean, in her piece “The CMHR and the Ongoing Crisis of Murdered or Missing Indigenous Women: Do Museums Have a responsibility to Care?” the Museum’s apolitical refusal to address this issue, compounded by its cheery social media posts while thousands marched past its grounds in a vigil for Fontaine and Hall, implicated the Museum in the mainstream society’s normalization of and indifference to violence against Indigenous peoples, especially women. If the CMHR is to be a Museum for human rights, not just of them, she writes, it does have a responsibility to care about this issue, which is an especially lethal and ongoing manifestation of colonial violence.

The Museum’s grandiose approach to another historical case of racialized sexual violence which it has addressed is critiqued by Hee-Jung Serenity Joo from the University of Manitoba, in “Comfort Women in Human Rights Discourse: Fetishized Testimonies, Small Museums and the Politics of Thin Description,” and contrasted to the humble but activist efforts of South Korea’s War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul which eschews both the monumentality and comforting narratives of the CMHR, as well as to the distant “thin description” of political cartoonist Park Gun-Oong’s spare, almost abstract – yet still devastating – black-and-white panels based on anonymous survivor testimony.

Karen Sharma – a graduate student with the U of W’s Cultural Studies Research Group – considers how the design and spatial order of the museum contributes to “Governing Difficult Knowledge” for the Museum and its publics, but concretizes some problematic positionings, such as placing Indigenous experiences in the building’s roots, and thus in the past. It also, she says, makes untenable assumptions about the typical imaginary visitor as being unimplicated in and existing outside of any of the stories it tells, as not Indigenous or settler or immigrant, an uninformed tabula rasa moving from ignorance to knowledge, but without agency.

Like Sharma, the CSRG’s Larissa Wodtke also reflects on the museum’s design and form of address in “A Lovely Building for Difficult Knowledge: The Architecture of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” For Wodtke, the monumentality and scale of the structure – and the fact that a number of visually similar buildings are part of a global movement towards “brandscaping” through iconic architecture – belies its contents, or at the very least renders them almost irrelevant to the experience. At the same time, however, the very ambiguity of its architecture, its failure to successfully contain narratives within sanctioned parameters, may indeed lead to productive critiques and hope.

It is to the museum’s aspiration to a universal and unqualified “hope” that Angela Failler critiques in her article, “Hope Without Consolation: Prospects for Critical Learning at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights,” preferring to see hope not as a shared dream for tomorrow but instead as an indication of the condition of our shared present. Failler starts by subjecting the museum’s central assumption to interrogation: what is the connection between hope and learning, and vice-versa, particularly if the narrative of hope is difficult or inappropriate to impose on a history of horror and atrocity? This quest for balance is rendered even more problematic when, as she point out (as does Sharma), that the museum’s leaders seem to assume an imaginary and homogenous public unimplicated in the events on display, particularly when these are safely sealed off in an “absolute past” beyond redress, against which viewers can only feel passive, distant regret, foreclosing a more difficult engagement with radical, unsettling realizations. Instead, she argues, the “difficult knowledge” of genocide and violent, traumatic histories needs to seen as what the late Canadian scholar of education and cultural memory Roger I. Simon called a “terrible gift:” to encourage visitors to feel themselves implicated, to feel depression and horror, and for hope to emerge from unsettling of our understandings, rather than soothing them. In this Failler echoes the work of environmental activist and scholar Joanna Macy, who argues that disseminating information about traumatic conditions is not sufficient to motivate change, and that by facing despair – in the case of her work, over the destruction of the natural world – we can experience an unblocking of our pain, a catharsis, which allows us to move beyond simple “hope” to be “empowered with” others to take action (Macy 1995).

Four short essays follow in the Discussion Section: “Insider/Outsider Ambiguities and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” by Julie Pelletier at the University of Winnipeg, in which she recounts both her work as a peer reviewer on the Museum’s exhibit design critiquing its use of a linear timeline, as well as her own experiences working alongside migrant workers whose tenuous legal status and lack of English language skills made them vulnerable to abuses, recognizing that our own power to tell our stories and experiences is the tool all of us can use as Museum stakeholders to encourage them to get the story of human rights right. In “Do the Rights Thing” by the U of W’s Kathryn Ready and Serena Keshavjee, the authors describe the Master’s program in Cultural Studies at the University of Winnipeg, and its practicum in Curatorial Studies’ focus on the Museum, the future prospects for placing students there, and how the presence of the Museum will continue to influence the program’s curriculum. Rita Kaur Dhamoon’s (University of Victoria) and Olena Hankivsky’s (Simon Fraser University) commentary, “Intersectionality and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” argues that a critical intersectionality approach – which sees State-based and imperial violence as gendered and often driven by capitalism – enables us to see the interconnection between historical and contemporary human rights atrocities as systems of domination, not discrete events or group experiences.

Finally, in “Closing and Openings: Afterword on “Prospects for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” the U of W’s Dean of Graduate Studies Mavis Reimer situates the contributions of the issue first of all by noting their composition in the year prior to the Museum’s opening, noting their dependence on official pronouncements, media accounts and other contemporary discourse; as well as the strategies used by the authors to critically analyze the Museum when its presence and controversies about it have loomed so large over our city for so long.


Many of the observations in the journal resonate closely with some of the critical literature in library science, much of which focuses on questioning the “civilizing” and assimilationist mission of the public library (Garrison) as well as the Eurocentric erasures built into the so-called “neutral” classification and subject description schemes of the Library of Congress. These tools not only similarly situate “Indians of North America” as existing solely in the past, but also assume the library’s “majority user” to be a white, male, Christian able-bodied heterosexual – as radical librarian Sanford Berman wrote in his 1971 classic Prejudices and Antipathies), one “imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of western civilization” (Berman, 15).

In particular, a recent book by Texas A & M University librarian Stephen Bales offers a very constructive lens for reading the journal, as it connects many of the major themes within a single powerful theoretical rubric.

The editors state in the introduction that the contributors to the special issue do not see the museum as a “fixed static site but as a site of dynamic and shifting encounters that will continue to evolve” (104), so we are to understand it as moving through time. We are further asked by Nadine Blumer to view the CMHR relationally, as a node within a network of institutions, as existing physically, digitally and rhetorically; by Larissa Wodtke in terms of the tensions between its materiality and its ideologies; by Heather Milne in terms of its situatedness as a neoliberal project, and by Hee-Jung Serenity Joo as providing ideological scaffolding for the state – what Louis Althusser called an ideological state apparatus – creating, as Karen Sharma points out, tensions between the forces of knowledge and resistance and interpretive agency. We learn from the contributors that an institution such as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is not just cultural, but political, aesthetic, psychological, social, economic and ideological – and therefore needs to be understood monistically, comprising a unified whole greater than the sum of its parts, rather than dualistically, reducible and as apart from ourselves. Most importantly, the contributors reveal the CMHR’s leaders to suffer from notions of objective idealism – the belief that a “Big-T Truth” such as “human rights” consists of an objective reality separate from ourselves, about which all can agree and all can recognize and discuss.

Stephen Bales utilizes a lens encompassing all these themes, one which, interestingly, is not actually referred to anywhere in the issue: dialectics. In his 2014 book The Dialectic of Academic Libraries Bales writes that academic libraries – and by extension and for our purposes, museums – are not (and should not be seen as) static, solely physical and independent repositories of books or artifacts, but must instead be understood relationally, as dynamic institutions embedded within and functioning as a significant part of a neoliberal, late-capitalist society.

As the study of continuously transforming interrelationships, dialectics emphasizes the transactions between material entities – including the physicalities of libraries and museums – over time, while recognizing that these entities and their inseparable ideological premises are bound by and within their contexts and historical circumstances. These transactional processes are, therefore, always incomplete, always in the process of becoming and, taken together, understood as constituting a unified monistic whole.

By contrast, the conventional view of academic libraries and museums is correspondingly non-dialectical, rational, bureaucratic, and viewed dualistically – that is, reducible and distinct from other institutions and forces. They are also, he argues, problematically devoted to the uncritical acceptance of a number of “Big-T Truth” ideals such as democracy, equity, diversity, intellectual freedom and human rights – abstractions with which the materiality of these institutions at present may not necessarily be either synonymous or sympathetic.

Absent a dialectical understanding, Bales argues, we are ill-equipped to contextualize our institutions, collections and services – and, indeed, our own ideological assumptions as librarians or curators. The political economy of information and knowledge organization, the intersectionalities of race, class and gender within an increasingly interdependent society, and how these forces play out in geographical space over time – all these factors and more are difficult to discern and act upon non-dialectically, rendering library and museum professionals less capable of recognizing their own consent for and participation in an unjust neoliberal status quo.

A dialectical view on “human rights” would also reveal it to be not so much a thing which we can simply grant to or take away from others, as it does a number of often competing discourses, all of which are historically situated and contextually dependent, and premised on a variety of ideological foundations, some of which can disguise or actually facilitate human rights abuses against those whom dominant power systems deem – as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman put it in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent – to be “unworthy victims.”

As presently conceived, therefore, the CMHR may be seen dialectically as an ideological state apparatus, one that seeks to foster acceptance of and consent for our society’s political and economic superstructure, reproducing dominant capitalist values as it reconciles visitors with their place in a neoliberal society. In its seemingly non-dialectical orientation, the museum prioritizes events rather than processes such as racialization, “othering” and fascisms; while forces and structural causes including inequality, capitalism, and neoliberalism are left unspoken. We learn of the human rights experiences of different groups – including women, gays and lesbians, and persons with disabilities – but not of the intersectionalities of gendered state violence and systems of power and domination.

This contrasts rather dramatically with the recently-opened National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, which quite explicitly implicates all Canadians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – in a lifelong effort to learn the truth about their country’s history and work towards reconciliation.

In this light, then, the contributors to this special issue of the Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies have produced a brilliantly dialectical analysis of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, one which will hopefully be read and re-read by the Museum’s curators and administrators – and publics – to inform the iterative evolution of the Museum, to better enable its visitors to engage with the “terrible gift” that is difficult knowledge, to recognize systems of domination, and to feel empowered with one another to act on that knowledge.


Additional Works Cited

Bales, Stephen. 2015. The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: A Critical Approach. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.

Basen, I. (2011). “Memory Becomes a Minefield at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” Globe and Mail, August 20th 2011.

Berman, Sandford. 1971, 1993. Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Capland, G. (2014). “Human Rights Museum is Indifferent to Some Human Rights.” Globe and Mail, October 3rd 2014.

Garrison, Dee. 1979. Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920. New York: Free Press.

Herman, Edward S., and Chomsky, Noam. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Macy, J. (1995). “Working Through Environmental Despair.” Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, edited by R. Theodore, M. Gomes, and A. Kanner. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 240-259.

Murawska-Muthesius, Katarzyna, and Piotr Piotrowski, eds. From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2015.

Pitt, A. and Britzman, D. (2003). “Speculations on Qualities of Difficult Knowledge in Teaching and Learning: An Experiment in Psychoanalytic Research.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16 (6): 755-776. doi:10.1080/09518390310001632135


One thought on “The Dialectic of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

  1. Pingback: Review of “Caring for Difficult Knowledge” | Thinking through the Museum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s