Museum tries to instil hope
Canadian Museum for Human Rights researcher and curator Dr. Jeremy Maron discussed some of the issues the museum faced in deciding what to exhibit. (photo by Rebeca Kuropatwa)
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg is one of the newest museums on the block. Dr. Jeremy Maron, a CMHR researcher and curator, discussed some of the issues the museum faced in deciding what to exhibit. The March 4 brown-bag lunch meeting at the University of Manitoba was open to students and the general community.
Maron’s main work at the museum is on the fourth floor, an area dedicated to the Holocaust. Displays on three perimeter walls take a case study approach, emphasizing themes closely related to the Holocaust as well as universal human rights.
“The first theme we look at is the abuse of state power,” he said. “This wall explores how Nazis used and deployed instruments of state power, such as the police, judiciary, laws and regulations, and even education to undermine human rights … and acquiring total dictatorial control of German society, promoting their racist and antisemitic ideology, targeting Jews and other specific groups for social exclusion and persecution, ultimately culminating in genocide.”
Maron said the modern nation state, in its ideal sense, is supposed to be the guarantor of human rights. But, in reality, the centralized power of the modern state very often sets the stage for it to be the worst violator of human rights.
“The case of Nazi Germany is a good example of the centralized power and the capacity for it to be mobilized toward the violation of human rights, rather than protection,” he said. “There are many other stories in the museum in which state power is also being utilized in such a manner.
“The second thematic wall in this gallery … moves on to look at persecution and targeting of specific groups in Nazi Germany. This wall explores the increasing intensity of systematic oppression under the Nazis.”
According to Maron, the Allies did not fight the Second World War specifically because they were trying to save the Jews in Europe. However, their winning of the war ended the Nazi massacre of Jews, which continued nearly up until the day of the Germans’ surrender.
“Another exhibit, from which we try to draw human rights connections, is a large digital study table in our Breaking the Silence gallery, also on level four,” said Maron. “This gallery looks at breaking the silence specifically as a human rights act.”
Human rights violations are always accompanied by silence, distortion, justification, minimization and denial, he said. Perpetrators want to hide their crimes; victims who survive may feel scared for themselves or their families, or feel ashamed; witnesses and bystanders often look the other way, so the cycle continues.
The goal of the CMHR is to encourage people to speak out about these violations, to drag the violations out into the light of day and pursue justice, recovery and reconciliation, he said.
“This particular exhibit, Breaking the Silence … looks at a wide scale of human rights violations, putting an emphasis on how people have responded to them in order to break silence,” said Maron. “We tried to place the emphasis of the human rights response in this particular case. It’s a question of focus that tries to adopt a forward-looking perspective, rather than one that is trying to wholly examine the past in and of itself.”
While some visitors feel that the message and exhibit is too watered down, Maron said this was necessary to a certain degree, as the museum’s main focus is to educate and not to horrify or shock.
“It’s not just a sense of sensitivity we think about, it’s also a question of a fact,” said Maron. “Sometimes, when confronted with material that is explicitly horrific, even for someone like myself who has worked on this material extensively, it almost can shock you into silence as it overwhelms you. I think back to when I was doing my master’s in 2005. I went on a Holocaust commemoration tour [and] we toured Auschwitz. After you go through the gas chambers and you see the walls and the showerheads, you get back on that bus and you are just beaten down. You are sitting there and the guides are trying to debrief and talk, but no one wants to talk because they are beaten down.”
While the CMHR does not back away from the truth or gloss over troubling aspects, they choose to visualize these histories differently, he said. One of the concepts the museum is designed to highlight is that everyone’s actions are the result of choices, and that the consequences of these choices are not inevitable.
“That’s not to say that there are not constraints on choices,” said Maron. “If you’re in the midst of a particular human rights catastrophe and you do something like hide a potential victim in your attic, it’s very possible that you might be targeted as well. So, there are constraints on choices in certain historical circumstances. But, it’s still important to consider that these are choices and actions, and what happens isn’t inevitable. Some objects in the museum speak to some of the less obviously consequential choices that individuals might have made that allowed the Holocaust to be perpetrated on that scale.”
While Maron understands that it’s impossible to know for sure what a single individual could have done, with his display, he hopes to create a deep and meaningful reflection for CMHR visitors and, especially, students.
How to convey a history of conflicts accurately without reigniting tensions is another challenge the museum has taken into consideration, by using careful word choices and avoiding blanket statements. But, maybe the most important aspect and aspiration for the CMHR is ensuring that visitors leave with a sense of hope.
“This hope is not a naive hope that everything is going to be OK, but that … hope is possible as long as we promote the human rights of everyone, and the idea that hope is possible if people are willing to make hard choices and take action,” said Maron. “So, again, we hope our visitors leave with the idea that change is possible if people are willing to do something, while silence and acquiescence is the ally of rights violations.
“Until atrocities are recognized and acknowledged, until people believe action is possible, cycles of violations will continue. Such cycles, we hope, our museum, in some small part, can help improve by inspiring a lot of hard work and devotion by our visitors, who may become dedicated human rights advocates and defenders.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.