Tag Archives: human rights

The Idea of an Idea Museum: Immaterial Collections at the CMHR

By Claire Wright*

I have to admit that before I moved to Winnipeg this fall, I had never heard of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), Canada’s newest national museum. My past research into museums has been focused around early Canadian archaeology, its ties to the Royal Ontario Museum’s collections, and the roles museums have historically played in colonization and the building of empire. As a Research Assistant with the Museum Queeries project, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the notion of the CMHR as an “idea” museum; a shiny new institution with no skeletons in its closet in the most literal sense. In a 2013 interview, then-CEO of the CMHR Stuart Murray explained: “We’re not an artefact museum—we’re more of a digital technology, idea museum.” Where does this place the CMHR within the history of museology? Might new strategies of collection and display queer the museum, or do they merely provide a new image for familiar practices?

What struck me most when visiting the museum was its apparent alignment with the curatorial ideologies of “new museology,” a critique-based approach to museums as public institutions–an alignment which ultimately fails. Although attempting to avoid a top-down enforcement of knowledge and over-reliance on matter-as-truth in the spirit of new museology, the CMHR actually treats its collection of stories, images, and affects much as an “old” museum might its artefacts. Implicitly positioned in contrast to a collection-based historical museum, it seems to be pushing against conceptions of the museum as an elitist and irrelevant institution designed to educate and discipline the public. However, the CMHR does not escape the pitfalls of “old” museology: its collected narratives are subsumed under a framework of national identity, and become objects of cultural capital. This is exemplified in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery, where experiences, affect, and the landscape itself appear as elements of the idea museum’s collection.

View of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
(photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

According to Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, the past few decades have seen museology shift towards participation, plurality, and engagement with contemporary social concerns.[1] Leaving behind the authoritative and supposedly neutral voice of traditional institutions, “new” museums might include subjugated voices, strive for curatorial transparency, and pursue active dialogue with their publics. The CMHR attempts conversation through the tone of its exhibits, blog posts, and collaborative displays. Its overarching message of equality extends to many of its didactic panels, which are full of open questions, calls to reflect and develop one’s own opinion, and insights from multiple contributors. The museum positions itself as an institution that holds and curates information, but that does not dictate truth or produce knowledge of or over others. The “About” page on its website, for instance, declares the museum will “welcome [its] visitors as partners on a journey,” and “offers both the inspiration and tools to make a difference in the lives of others.” Rather than curating a collection of objects or artworks, this idea museum houses vast galleries of touch-screens, multi-media kiosks, and countless text and image displays. The museum’s website describes the building as a “striking new landmark,” the product of cutting-edge building techniques and “awe-inspiring” materials.The CMHR is not bogged down by its murky museological past–rather than legitimizing itself through calls to its own history, it consistently declares itsrelevancy through an aura of newness and contemporaneity.

Tucked into the back corner of the museum’s second-floor hall, after a large introductory display about the history of human rights, visitors encounter the Indigenous Perspectives gallery. New museological ideologies are at work in this gallery’s use of aesthetic displays, which are designed to create non-authoritative sentimental attachments with the viewer. In one of the gallery’s digital kiosks, there is mention of the archaeological dig that took place at the museum’s site prior to its construction. We are shown some digital images of the fruits of the endeavour: mostly arrowheads and pottery shards. This small display got me thinking about the CMHR in relation to more traditional, collection-based museums. If these relics are not what the CMHR holds on to, might the museum be collecting something else? Rather than gatheringmaterial evidence of cultural experience, history, or exchange, it purports to focus on collecting personal and community stories, showcasing individual and collective experiences and projects. Instead of relying on the display of material culture to produce knowledge about an Indigenous “Other,” the Indigenous Perspectives gallery uses stories and artistic production to tell an implicitly non-Indigenous audience about Indigenous cultures. The museum relies on art and technology to connect with the viewer, rather than presenting material evidence as the only source of truth, or relying on the aura of historical or scientific authenticity tied to object-based displays. Through videos, quotes, poetry, stories, and art, the museum allows multiple voices to express themselves. However, I wonder if the inclusion and acceptance of multiple knowledges actually guarantees meaningful dialogue, since their expressions are all folded into Canadian identity and a universal humanity. In other words, citizens are encouraged to contribute and produce their own knowledge, but it is subsumed within a story dictated by the institution. 

The view from inside the Indigenous Perspectives gallery’s “basket theatre” to the windows overlooking The Forks. (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

This gallery and its ties to archaeology also purport to establish how the museum relates to the land it’s on, as it introduces a long history of Indigenous presence in the region. A window looks out over The Forks, accompanied by a panel about the area’s history. A bronze cast of a centuries-old footprint—uncovered during the archaeological dig—lends affective weight to the panel, encouraging us to connect with the former inhabitants of the museum site. Material culture, then, is used not to produce scientific knowledge, but to connect the museum and its visitors to The Forks, to Winnipeg, and to Indigenous history. The landscape itself, framed by the window and historicized by the panel, becomes part of the collection, materially grounding the gallery. The viewer is encouraged to participate in the historicity of the land, and relate sentimentally to Indigenous philosophies and experiences.

In a 2011 CBC article about the CMHR dig, archaeologists who worked on the project claim museum officials ignored recommendations for continuing the excavation. While the museum may have neglected to fully excavate the area in order to get construction under way, it does not hesitate to use this material proof of human presence to establish itself as somehow a part of the land’s history. The evidence of Indigenous life beneath its foundation “legitimizes” its claims to the site, as indigeneity becomes a sentimental residue of Canadian, (and more broadly, human) history. Early North American archaeologists did not trust Indigenous communities with their material or immaterial heritage, and laid claim to both culture and territory through collecting. The CMHR literally and figuratively mined the land it sits on for indigeneity, quietly sidestepping any questions of its right to that very land through the ethics of sharing, collaboration, sentimental identification and recognition that pervade its gallery spaces.

Part of the panoramic view from the Tower of Hope. The elevator shaft mentioned below is on the left, blocking the city’s North End.
(photo credit: Angela Failler)

The landscape continues to be a prominent feature, and the museum consistently places itself in relation to its geographic position. The CMHR’s architecture not only directs the visitor along a teleological path towards human rights and equality, but intersperses the global with the local and the national with the regional.The viewer is cocooned in expansive but dark galleries, and crisscrossed layers of glowing alabaster. Periodically, however, we catch glimpses of the outside world, stepping into patches of brilliant sunshine streaming through the museum’s glass walls. The museum features several such stops along the journey upwards, allowing visitors to look out upon the city in moments of rest or reflection. The peak of the museum, and the grand conclusion of its pathway, is the Tower of Hope–a monument to peace and victory over adversity. Visitors are offered a bird’s eye view of the city below, tiny and tranquil under the benevolent, optimistic gaze of the tower. The viewer is thus never fully swept away into the narrative worlds of the museum’s galleries- the institution’s space is interspersed with reminders of our position, before finally opening up to this panorama.This use of the local as a situating force provides the opportunity for reflection and seems to disrupt the grand narratives of “old” museology. These reminders of the viewers’ positionality, alongside the artwork and stories included in the CMHR, might spark the production of counter-narratives and critique. The museum’s singular narrative of triumph and hope, however, extends to its framing of the land. It’s worth noting, for instance, that the only part of the city not visible from the Tower of Hope is Winnipeg’s North End—home to much of the city’s Indigenous population, and blocked from view by an elevator shaft.[2]

At times the CMHR focuses on its location, its material specificity and situatedness; at times it gestures to global unity, and international experiences. Overall, it maintains a generalized conception of rights and equality; and a concern with affective, immaterial knowledge. Its exhibits are composed of stories, images, and interactive panels- collections of objectified experience, occasionally punctuated with views of the landscape. “Old” museums have been faulted for presenting artefacts and relics with little to no context, as objects of scientific and historic knowledge about cultures Other to the West. “New” museums, however, are not safe from the pitfalls of traditional museology. At the CMHR, stories are presented without sufficient context or depth, as objects of a sentimental knowledge about humanity in general. It becomes a celebration not of material conquest or ownership, but of the nation’s affective, experiential wealth—where cultural capital is created from distinct experiences, stories of triumph, and the recognition of diverse histories. Similarly, the landscape is framed affectively, and presented as something we all share, with a history we can all experience. This hopeful tone masks a colonial ideology, granting legitimacy to this sparkling monument to Canada’s image as a global human rights leader—a monument that literally sits atop a buried history of Indigenous presence.

[1] Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print. p. 140.

[2] Dean, Amber, and Angela Failler. “‘An Amazing Gift’? Memory Entrepreneurship, Settler Colonialism and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” Memory Studies, Apr. 2019, p. 9.

*Claire Wright holds a BFA in printmaking from OCAD U, and has recently completed an MA in Cultural Studies at the University of Winnipeg. She is interested in the role of aesthetics and material culture in affective communication and meaning-making; and with relationships between art, activism, and education.

Disrupting Representation: Sex Work Visibility at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

By Dallas Cant*

The perimeter of Canadian Journeys, a gallery at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, is lined with story booths that name “steps and missteps on the road to greater rights for everyone in Canada” (wall text). In the centre of the gallery are touchscreen digital memory banks (basically, computers) where visitors can scroll through stories based on topic and time period. These banks provide a wealth of information beyond the story booths, but their subtle stature and placement against other, more sensory-stimulating installations draw visitors away from them, leaving them largely untouched. Right to Safety, the only representation and story of sex work in the Museum, is nestled into one of these digital memory banks, effectively hidden from view.

Figure 1: Photo of the Canadian Journeys Gallery. 14 July 2019, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg.
Photo credit: Dallas Cant

In the broader public imaginary, sex work tends to be constructed within simplistic dichotomies of violence/pleasure and victimization/agency, obscuring the complex forms of labour and experience it involves. Extremes of violence and victimization have been mobilized to argue that sex work itself is something inherently violent and harmful. In this way, violence enacted upon sex workers becomes an expected and justified experience. To counter this harmful understanding, activists like COYOTE have talked about sex work as a liberatory and progressive labour, one that may push against sexual politics bound to marriage and monogamy. As sex work scholar Elizabeth Bernstein has suggested, however, this kind of celebratory politics has come primarily from sex workers with white and class privilege (77). What these extremities lack then is attention to how structural inequalities inform experiences within the sex trade. Through this lack, intersections of white supremacy, colonialism, and transphobia are seen as irrelevant to understanding sex work. This neglects the lived experiences of sex workers, particularly those who are racialized, Indigenous, and genderqueer. While neither entirely violent nor entirely celebratory sentiments prove useful in capturing the realities of sex work, they comprise how sex work is publicly imagined and in turn, regulated.

In using the exhibited story Right to Safety as a starting point, I consider how the Museum’s representation of sex work contributes to the sex work imaginary. While this particular “exhibit” is small and not very visible, especially when compared to the scale of the Museum’s permanent installations, I see value in holding national representations of sex work accountable as they inform how non-sex working publics and allies are able to talk about and support sex workers.

Figure 2: Photo of Nikki Thomas, Terri-Jean Bedford, and Valerie Scott in the CMHR’s Digital Memory Bank. 15 May 2019, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg.
Photo credit: Dallas Cant

Right to Safety outlines a court case initiated by Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott in 2007. This case argued that Canada’s existing laws regulating the sex trade violated the right to security of the person, protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms [1]. The digitized story also references the introduction of The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (Bill C-36), which was implemented seven years following the success of Bedford vs. Attorney General of Canada[2]. For context, Bill C-36 criminalizes the act of purchasing sex and negotiating the selling of sex in public. The bill also restricts the ways that sex workers are able to advertise their services online. While selling sex is legal under Bill C-36, it criminalizes crucial components of how sex workers generate income, which makes it very difficult to work legally as a sex worker in Canada (Winnipeg Working Group). Three photos accompany the textual portion of Right to Safety, one featuring Bedford holding up her leather riding crop in prideful celebration alongside Scott and lawyer Nikki Thomas.

The criticality of Right to Safety took me by surprise, naming that prior to 2007, “sex workers in Canada have worked without human rights protection” and that Bill C-36 has “further criminalized prostitution,” forcing workers “to operate alone in isolated areas” (Right to Safety). Considering the Museum’s national status, I had expected that they would side with the state’s understanding of Bill C-36 – that the bill better protects workers from the exploitation of sex work (Department of Justice Canada). Instead, the Museum positions Bill C-36 as worsening conditions for sex workers, something the state has not yet admitted to. By naming that Canadian law contributes to harmful working environments for sex workers, the Museum disrupts the common understanding that sex workers experience harm because of their profession alone. While this is a move toward a critical assessment of sex work in Canada, the conversation stops there. 

Right to Safety leaves racism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy in relation to sex work entirely unaddressed. This is a significant silence, which allows the Museum to speak about sex work as if removed from the legacies that the Canadian state is built upon. As queer sex worker and theorist Zahra Stardust argues, refusing to name systemic inequalities constructs an illusion that sex workers are unaffected by privileges and marginalization (68). Right to Safety’s narrative exists within this illusion, upholding an imaginary that suggests institutionalized racism has nothing to do with sex work in Canada. To the Museum, naming the structural, social, and legal inequalities within the sex trade is seemingly too much, too disruptive, and as education scholars Alice Pitt and Deborah Britzman might pose, too “difficult.” Pitt and Britzman write about “difficult knowledge” as content that asks viewers to interrogate their own understanding of, and relationship to, the world (756). By refusing to tackle representation that asks viewers to engage in questions about race, privilege, marginalization, and sex work in Canada, the Museum opts to maintain a simplistic and imagined illusion of sex work.

Figure 3: Image of the digital collection of images in the Canadian Journeys gallery. 15 May 2019, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg.
Photo credit: Dallas Cant

This refusal continues, showing itself in a much more visible way than the hidden location of Right to SafetyAbove the story booths in the Canadian Journeys gallery is a large digital collection of images. These images feature the faces of those represented throughout the gallery, including Bedford (second from the left, top row, in the image above). While Bedford is seen with her whip in full view in the digital banks (see Fig. #2), the same photo has been carefully cropped here for the border, rendering the whip invisible[3]. As queer theorist and museum scholar Jennifer Tyburczy writes about other instances where a whip has appeared in museum contexts, the whip in public view evokes an excited curiosity and, perhaps, an unsettling association with enslavement, discipline, and BDSM[4] communities. While white slave owners have used the whip to carry out non-consensual torture on Black subjects, the whip has too been adapted as a device to engage with consensual erotics of pain, pleasure, domination, and submission. The whip then, is not simply an object, but a symbol of two inseparable histories: the transatlantic slave trade and kink/BDSM cultures. Tyburczy argues that because of these interimplications, the whip can be used as a “tool for examining sexual values,” namely the “fears, anxieties, and affections regarding race and sex” (193). In this way, the cropping of the whip can be read as an intentional choice, one that refuses to acknowledge the importance of discussing whips and their ongoing relationships to white supremacy and kinky sex. These discussions are, however, imperative to unpacking the complexities of race, sex (work), and systemic oppression in Canada. So it seems to me that the whip and all it evokes could act precisely as a tool for the Museum to further its conversation on sex work, which, as it is, stops short of unsettling assumptions about race and systemic oppressions. If the whip remained alongside Bedford, would difficult conversations about race and sex work be supported in the Museum? In other words, could the Museum bring the whip into clearer focus (rather than cropping it out of the frame) as a method to turn towards difficult knowledge about sex work in Canada? 

As a continuance of this “turning toward,” in my research with Museum Queeries, I have sought out histories of sex work in Canada that move beyond the silences of Right to Safety. I engage with these histories by beginning to understand them as bound to the land that the Museum, and I myself, occupy. Therefore, I have looked to sources that account for histories of sex work in Winnipeg, such as, the Manitoba Gay and Lesbian Archives and Amy Catherine Wilkinson’s “Sex work and the Social-Spatial Order of Boomtown.” Rather than shy away from examining how systemic inequalities and race emerge within these histories, I have turned directly to them. This has allowed me to carry out my research in a way that is attuned to difficult histories of sex work in Winnipeg. These histories matter, and they deserve space and critical attention. As Indigenous scholar Sarah Hunt writes, “remembering and naming histories of violence and inequality in the sex trade” must not simply be viewed “as injustices of the past, but rather structures of the present” (98). In other words, histories of sex work that account for intersections of systemic oppressions help to understand the contemporary socio-legal contexts that sex workers navigate today. This work complicates the simplicities of the sex work imaginary to ask critical questions about race, privilege, and marginalization within or around sex work in Canada. 

[1]Protected under section s.7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

[2]You can access the full decision of Bedford vs. Attorney General of Canada here.Pivot Legal offers a summarized version of the proceedings, available here.

[3]Due to how close Bedford is holding her whip in the digital memory bank photo, including this image without the whip would require close editing. The other images on the digital photo border appear to have wide framing, often exposing the background behind the person featured. Bedford’s picture does not include any background. Because a wider frame would expose the whip, I speculate that the close cropping of Bedford’s image was intentional. 

[4]BDSM defines a community who engages in consensual acts of bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism. 

Works cited:

Bedford v. Canada (Attorney General). Supreme Court of Canada. 2014.

Bernstein, Elizabeth. Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex. University of Chicago Press, 2007. 

Bennett, Darcie. “Supreme Court Rules in Support of Sex Workers.” Pivot Legal, 20 Dec. 2013.

Canada. Department of Justice. Prostitution Criminal Law Reform: Bill C-36, the Protection and Communities and Exploited Persons Act, 2014.

Canadian Bar Association. Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. National Criminal Justice Section and Municipal Law Section of the Canadian Bar Association, October 2014.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, s. 7.

Hunt, Sarah. “Decolonizing Sex Work: Developing an Intersectional Indigenous Approach.” Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada, edited by Emily van der Meulen et al., University of British Columbia Press, 2013, pp. 82- 100.

Pitt, Allison and Deborah Britzman. “Speculations on Qualities of Difficult Knowledge in Teaching and Learning: An Experiment in Psychoanalytic Research.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 16, no. 6, 2003, pp. 755-776.

Text, Right to Safety, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg. Accessed 12 May 2019

Tyburczy, Jennifer. Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Wall text, Canadian Journeys, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg. Accessed 12 May 2019. 

Wilkinson, Amy Catherine. Sex Work and the Social-Spatial Order of Boomtown: Winnipeg, 1873-1912. Master’s Thesis, 2015. 

Winnipeg Working Group. “What to Expect from C-36.” Sex Work Winnipeg, 2014.

*Dallas Cant is currently working towards completing a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg. They are interested in exploring queer embodiments, curatorial methodologies, and queer cultural production in relation to sex work. Dallas recognizes the creative form as medium of resistance and incorporates digital photography, poetry, and hand stitching into their research-creation methodology. Currently, they are developing an undergraduate course in sexuality and online communities alongside Dr. Fiona J. Green (University of Winnipeg). Dallas also works as a research assistant with the Greenhouse Artlab to explore and think queerly in relation to bee eco-cultures. In the future, Dallas intends to pursue an M.A. in sexuality studies.

Museum Queeries RAs Present at FIHRM 2018

Photo of students at conference.
L to R: Thiané Diop, Nicole Ritchie, Jana Elazar, Dallas Gillingham, and Jase Falk.

An interdisciplinary team of UWinnipeg students presented at the 2018 Federation of International Human Rights Museums Conference, which was held at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights last week from September 25-28, 2018.

Thiané Diop (MA, Cultural Studies), Dallas Cant (Women’s and Gender Studies), Jase Falk (English), and Jana Elazar (Women’s and Gender Studies) spoke on the Museum Queeries panel facilitated by UWinnipeg Research Associate Nicole Ritchie (PhD candidate, York University).

Each student presented work evolving from their projects as research assistants supervised by UWinnipeg faculty members Dr. Angela Failler (Women’s and Gender Studies) and Dr. Heather Milne (English).

Photo of students presenting at the FIHRM 2018 Conference (L to R: Dallas Gillingham, Jana Elazar, Jase Falk, Thiané Diop), photo credit: Lauren Bosc

Their conference papers included “Commemoration of Queer Victims of the Holocaust and Israeli Homonationalism” (Elazar), “Sex Work, Displacement, and Development” (Cant), “Archiving Trans History” (Falk), and “Queer Black Bodies and the Museum” (Diop). “Queerying” here is meant not only to address representations of gender and sexuality in the museums, but also to challenge the operation of white privilege, racism, and settler colonialism as they operate alongside homophobia and transphobia.

“This conference was a great professional development opportunity for the students,” notes Milne. “Not only did they gain valuable presentation skills, they also gained positive feedback from museum professionals and museum researchers from around the world.”

“This panel is a stellar example of the sophisticated research and scholarship currently in development by UWinnipeg students,” notes Failler. “The audience members were totally engaged and impressed, expressing their appreciation for how refreshing and sharp our students’ perspectives were.”

For more information about the Museum Queeries project, please visit out “About” page.