Special Issue: Museums as Sites for Historical Understanding, Peace, and Social Justice: Views from Canada

The November 2013 offering of Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology is a special issue dedicated to “Museums as Sites for Historical Understanding, Peace, and Social Justice: Views from Canada.” Guest edited by Carleton University public historian David Dean, the issue is particularly timely given the soon to be opening Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR), the first national museum in Canada to be located outside of the nation’s capitol (see above). Articles in this issue explore the use of digital games in museum settings, the controversies surrounding the selection of exhibits for the CMHR, the history of eugenics in Canada, the history of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, and much more. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Introduction to special issue on museums, and editor’s thanks and farewell,” by Susan Opotow. The abstract reads,

This introduction to the special issue of Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, the last for the editor, has two parts. In the first, the editor introduces an exciting special issue on Canadian museums that speaks to peace and conflict in valuable, interdisciplinary ways. In the second, the editor thanks the many people who have made the journal such a vital forum for understanding peace and conflict.

“Museums as sites for historical understanding, peace, and social justice: Views from Canada,” by David Dean. The abstract reads,

This article examines a range of issues surrounding the proposition that museums are excellent sites in which historical understanding can be deepened, thus raising the possibility of peaceful resolution to conflict and the achievement of social justice. The article begins by arguing that Canada is a case study worthy of detailed exploration. A settler state with a significant aboriginal presence, Canada is unique in its official commitment to multicultural and bilingual identities, and its traditional identity as a country extolling human rights, social justice, environmental responsibility, and peacekeeping. These markers of nationhood have become increasingly problematic in light of the Conservative government’s insistence upon unifying narratives of nationhood privileging military glories, ties to the British monarchy, and constitutional achievements. This reinvention of the nation has been visible in many places, but especially in commemorative practices, sites of memory, and museums. Recent and ongoing changes to the museum landscape have ignited much discussion about the nature and role of national museums. The author offers a summary of recent scholarly work by public historians on museums in contemporary society and considers museums that explicitly assert an agenda of social responsibility, before introducing the reader to three major national museums in Canada: the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Canadian Museum of Civilization (soon to be the Canadian History Museum), and the Canadian War Museum. Finally, the article introduces readers to the articles that follow in this special issue.

“Commemorating human rights: Exploring origins, episodes, and historicity in constructing a human rights timeline,” by Bonny Ibhawoh. The abstract reads,

Historicizing and commemorating human rights struggles have become key aspects of contemporary human rights scholarship. Human rights violations represent the most extreme manifestation of political and social violence, and this often produces traumatic collective experiences that societies increasingly find necessary to commemorate and memorialize. Questions of origin and meaning are recurring themes in debates over historicizing and commemorating human rights struggles. Whereas many scholars locate the foundational history of modern human right in natural law and Western liberalism, others argue for a more eclectic understanding of the concept, focusing on divergent notions of rights across globe. This article reviews some of the dominant arguments in debates about the origins and meanings of human rights and explores their implications for constructing a historical human rights timeline for museum projects. It argues that a public history of human rights must engage multiple and contested narratives of human rights struggles and experiences. Such engagement is necessary even if the inherent analytical and interpretative tensions are not fully resolved.

“Telling stories, raising awareness, creating opportunities for change: Exhibition proposals for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights,” by David Dean. The abstract reads,

This article introduces 9 module proposals that were designed for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg, Canada. These proposals grew out of my graduate seminar, Museums, National Identity and Public Memory (winter semester, 2011) and were the result of collaborative work involving myself as professor, the students, and members of the Research and Curation Department at the CMHR. Although none of the proposals may be realized in the museum, which is due to open in 2014, they raise some significant issues concerning how stories of individual and collective rights speak to human rights issues, how best to represent these often complex topics to the general public, and how to engage the public in a meaningful dialogue on human rights. In all, then, they point to the very real challenges of curating and interpreting complicated and contested content in a national museum. The introduction provides readers with an overview of the topics discussed in the proposals selected for this section of the special issue.

“Murdoch v. Murdoch: The possibilities and challenges of gaming in the museum,” by Angela Beking. The abstract reads,

The purpose of the museum is changing. Once “cabinets of curiosities” with didactic displays of thousands of objects, museums now seek to encourage debate, critical thought, and action. With significant advances in digital technologies, curators have new tools at their disposal in their attempts to engage visitors in these dialogical processes. Recent research has suggested that gaming may help to promote audience engagement and self-directed learning. I examine how museums can use digital gaming technologies to help visitors explore and engage with contested and ambivalent pasts. Through my work preparing the Murdoch v. Murdoch module for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, I discovered some of the benefits and limitations inherent in the use of such media. Many questions remain about how digital games might be used in museum settings.

“‘Dangerous stories: Encountering narratives of the other in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’: Correction to Ron and Maoz (2013),” by Yiftach Ron and Ifat Maoz. The abstract reads,

Reports an error in “Dangerous stories: Encountering narratives of the other in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict” by Yiftach Ron and Ifat Maoz (Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 2013[Aug], Vol 19[3], 281-294). The article should have included a statement that Julia Chaitin served as action editor for this article. (The following abstract of the original article appeared in record 2013-28861-006.) This study explores the effects of continuous long-term exposure to the contesting narrative of the outgroup in the context of the protracted conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Specifically, it examines the extent to which Jewish Israeli facilitators of dialogue with members of the Palestinian outgroup experience their repeated exposure to Palestinians and to Palestinian narratives as impacting their views, feelings, and actions, as well as their attitudes toward the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Thematic content analysis of 20 in-depth interviews with Jewish facilitators of reconciliation-aimed dialogue groups reveals that the repeated exposure of Jewish Israelis to the Palestinian narrative is associated with increased awareness of and moral concern for the suffering and distress of Palestinians. The findings contribute to our understanding of how intergroup dialogues that expose participants to the narratives of the outgroup can help them cope with and even mitigate the destructive role that ethnocentric ingroup narratives may play in conditions of conflict.

“Leilani Muir: Eugenics on trial in Canada,” by Erica Fagen. The abstract reads,

This article discusses a proposed module on Leilani Muir at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg, Canada. The article explores the story of Leilani Muir, a woman from Alberta who was forcibly sterilized against her will under the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, and later took the Alberta government to court for committing this crime against her. Muir won her case, and was the first person in Alberta to win a case regarding forced sterilization. After the section on her life story, the article will analyze how her account would be presented to the public in the CMHR through three photographs. The photographs would be interactive and engage the museum visitor into learning more about what happened to Muir. This module will then relate to other modules in the CMHR dealing with human rights abuses in Canada. Finally, this article will discuss why her story is important to discuss in a national museum.

“Eugenics and human rights in Canada: The Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928,” by Candice M. McCavitt. The abstract reads,

This case study looks at how the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act (1928) is a site of contested and difficult Canadian history. In particular, it focuses on how the Act can be used as a narrative of individual versus collective rights, the evolution of social thought in Canada, the legitimized stigmatization and physical violation of thousands of individuals, and the development and protection of human rights. This case study discusses the emergence of the eugenics movements in Canada, the proposal and passing of the Act into law, the nature of the Act itself, the damage it caused to thousands of individuals, and its eventual repeal. The sources drawn upon include both primary and secondary works. The story of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act (1928) is not just about how mistakes were made in the past, but the broader issues of collective and individual rights, and how they must balance in our society.

“Robert Dziekanski: Exploring injustice through narratives of activism,” by Valerie Luchak. The abstract reads,

This article proposes a narrative framework through which to represent the story of Robert Dziekanski in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). Robert Dziekanski was a Polish immigrant to Canada who, in 2007, suffered a tasering death at the hands of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Captured on video and widely disseminated via social media, the event catalyzed a period of fervent public skepticism over the practice of human rights in this country. It is suggested here that Dziekanski’s death and its aftermath offer opportunities and challenges for representation in the CMHR. On the one hand, his death has implications related to linguistic marginalization, immigration, and the abuse of force, which may provoke important consideration over the status of human rights in Canada today. On the other hand, his humiliating experience of subjugation is already available online for infinite replay; representing it risks revictimizing Mr. Dziekanski and his family. To circumvent this challenge, this article proposes a module that narratively links Robert Dziekanski’s death to its social and political aftermath. It suggests, in particular, the exhibition of activist and commemorative material taken from social media responding to his death. Telling the story through an assemblage of media that discusses, commemorates, and protests Mr. Dziekanski’s death would provide the present-day visitor with a point of access into his tragedy. Moreover, such an approach has the potential to foster a respectful contemplation of the injustice he suffered as visitors explore their own subjectivity in its legacy.

“The Duplessis Orphans at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Healing through representation,” by Victoria Campbell. The abstract reads,

As a graduate student at Carleton University, I had the opportunity to develop a module proposal on the Duplessis Orphans for inclusion in the Canada Zone at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). The decisions for my proposal were informed by the CMHR’s mandate, the context of the Canada Zone, my module topic, and the ideas that I developed through an engagement with class discussions and readings. Ultimately, I proposed that through a process of consultation with the Duplessis Orphans, the CMHR should foreground their voices and provide several opportunities for visitor reflection and dialogue. The Duplessis Orphans have expressed their need for a public apology from those responsible for the human rights abuses that they suffered as children. Just as a public apology can provide an opportunity to heal from a traumatic past, I argue that the representation of the Duplessis Orphans’ story in the CMHR can also serve as a mechanism for healing by acting as a powerful public acknowledgment of the struggle they have endured.

“The British home children,” by Lara Lavelle. The abstract reads,

This article proposes a design for a museum exhibit about the British Home Children in Canada. The British Home Children were the more than one hundred thousand British children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were orphaned, abandoned, or from poor families and were sent by the British government to Canada and other colonies to be educated and to work. Many of them suffered acutely from the effects of the underfunded institutions responsible for their care, through the loss of ties to their kin and home, loneliness, abuse, poor education, and hard labor. This article presents their story and then suggests some curatorial strategies for representing that story in a human rights museum through the use of photographs, oral histories, and interactive elements to engage visitors with the experiences of select individual home children. After a description of the suggested exhibit module, the article will conclude with some ways in which this case is related to other well-known human rights cases, as well as an argument about why the British Home Children are an essential inclusion in a Canadian museum that discusses human rights.

“The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada,” by Emily MacDonald. The abstract reads,

The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (RCSW), called in 1967, was an effort by the Canadian federal government to address a broad range of issues related to the lives of women in Canada. When the report was completed in 1970, many of its recommendations and findings were hotly debated, and many recommendations remain unimplemented to this day. This article argues that the narrative of the RCSW is necessary to include in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). The first section of this article briefly introduces the human rights issues of the RCSW, encompassing the controversy over the Commission, its report and recommendations, the participation and reaction of Canadian women, and the change it provoked, or failed to provoke. The second section of this article provides a suggested set-up for a module of the RCSW in the CMHR, focusing on the narratives that should be presented to visitors, the images and multimedia that effectively represent the RCSW and possible interactive experiences for visitors. This article concludes by reinforcing the importance of the RCSW in the CMHR as a stepping-stone to consider other human rights issues within the museum.

“Representing anti-Semitism in a Canadian national museum: The riot at Christie Pits,” by Christine S. Whitehouse. The abstract reads,

Given ongoing debates over the relevance of Holocaust exhibitions in Canadian museums, developing a module for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on the history of anti-Semitism in Canada would help throw the transnational significance of the Holocaust into sharp relief. The riot that took place at Christie Pits Park in Toronto in 1933, the same year the National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nazis) came to power in Germany, serves as a bold example. Following a quarter-final baseball game between 2 rival teams, Harbord, consisting predominantly of Jews, and St. Peter’s, consisting predominantly of White Protestants, members of the anti-Semitic Pit Gang displayed a large banner with a swastika, the symbol adopted some years earlier by the Nazis. Seeing the anti-Semitic symbol, a number of Jews and their supporters charged the gang members in order to destroy the banner, leading to a violent clash that lasted 6 hours. This article proposes developing a module that would challenge the deeply ingrained national narrative of multiculturalism by drawing on the riot as a specific example of tolerance as a failed national project. The object would be to have museum visitors consider how multiculturalism in Canada did not develop along a linear path, and see the ways in which its existence continues to be a struggle today. More specifically, the module would contribute to discussions about the legacy of the Holocaust outside of its immediate European context.

“The SS St. Louis and the importance of reconciliation,” by Robin Long Mullins. The abstract reads,

This paper explores the history of the SS St. Louis and its impact upon the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 2009). The St. Louis is an example not only of injustices perpetrated against victims of the Holocaust, but also of the complicated nature of reconciliation. The refusal of so many countries, including Canada, to grant asylum to the passengers onboard this ship has largely gone without apology or acknowledgment. Over the past decade, efforts have been made by various groups—both self-interested and otherwise—to make amends for the past. This module proposal argues not only for the importance of the history of this ship, but also of this movement and the need for these stories to have a position within the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

“Rewards and challenges of exhibiting peace at the Canadian War Museum,” by Jill Strauss. The abstract reads,

This article describes and reflects on the significance of the 2013 temporary exhibition Peace – The Exhibition at the Canadian War Museum. Given the dearth of peace exhibitions and museums internationally, an exhibition on the theme of peace is noteworthy. This exhibition is both remarkable and controversial because it is housed at a museum of military history. The exhibition structure uses art and objects to consider multiple perspectives of peace through the lens of historical and present-day events in Canadian history within 3 themes: negotiate, intervene, and organize. This article describes the exhibition and discusses its evolution from prior exhibitions and its place within the Canadian War Museum.

“The flexible heterotopia: Indian residential schools and the Canadian Museum of Civilization,” by Miranda J. Brady. The abstract reads,

This article examines the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s First Peoples Hall and its treatment of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools legacy. Using Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, it describes the capacity of the national Aboriginal exhibition to both mirror and distort reality as a means of denaturalizing everyday practices and mainstream treatments of history. It argues that although physical museum exhibits have long worked to lock Aboriginal peoples into static contexts through infrequent updating, political shifts can offer opportunities to amend Aboriginal histories according to contemporary paradigms, but they follow the exigencies of broader agendas. The article points to recent shifts at the Canadian Museum of Civilization to rebrand the museum and orient it toward Canadian history. It suggests that the museum omits contentious Aboriginal histories through abstract and cursory treatment as the Heritage Ministry funds and guides more popular accounts in line with nation-building efforts. It asks why the national museum has not made greater efforts to include more resources relating to Indian Residential Schools, including millions of documents housed in Library and Archives Canada and testimonials compiled as a result of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The article describes alternative models for addressing the residential schools legacy in sites of public memory, including contemporary Aboriginal artwork and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s forthcoming National Research Centre.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.