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Atrocities gallery 'too much'

Museum to revamp content; ex-workers disparage move

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is being criticized for its plan to focus on fewer atrocities and include more Canadian content when it opens in 2014.

Against the wishes of former employees, Winnipeg's first national museum has done away with a plan to feature more than 80 genocides in an atrocities gallery in favour of focusing on five officially recognized by the federal government. The museum has expanded its Canadian content to ensure visitors are more aware of domestic human-rights success stories and failures.

Museum officials describe the changes to the content as the result of several years of engagement with the public and human rights experts.

Disappointed former employees, however, accuse the museum of kowtowing to a board directive to ensure "positive Canadian stories" are given prominence in the $351-million institution, which will receive $22 million in annual federal operating funding.

The original plans for the museum's atrocities exhibit garnered negative feedback during the public-engagement process that deemed 80 serious incidents "too much" for a single gallery, communications director Angela Cassie said.

"People said this gallery felt like a little shop of horrors," Cassie said Thursday. Planners don't want visitors to get so depressed they would be compelled to leave, added assistant communications manager Maureen Fitzhenry.

CMHR president and CEO Stuart Murray said curators could not properly represent more than 80 mass atrocities. "How could we possibly do them all justice?" he asked.

The museum's inauguration will focus on Ukraine's Holodomor, the Holocaust in Europe, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre. The Canadian government has recognized all five 20th-century events as genocides, Murray said.

Notably absent from this list is the largest Asian genocide of the 20th century -- the slayings and starvation of at least two million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. Murray said the CMHR may feature the Cambodian genocide at some point in the future, noting the museum's touchscreen displays allow for regular content updates.

"Because of the technology we employ, we're not beholden to fixed dioramas," he said, vowing to do a better job of explaining the museum's multi-layered approach to content.

Another content change will be more Canadian stories throughout the museum's galleries. While the museum was always supposed to have Canadian content, its layout -- a series of galleries that spiral from the ground to the top -- wound up placing the nation's stories at the end of the "journey," Cassie said.

"We realized you were walking through three-quarters of the museum before you get Canadian content," she said. "We can't expect everyone will go through the entire museum... we needed to answer the question: Is this a Canadian museum for human rights?"

Departed museum staff, speaking on condition of anonymity, claim the institution's board issued a directive to feature more positive Canadian stories. Some complained of museum-board fears of upsetting the federal government or potential trade partners.

Murray denied the allegation, insisting the museum strives to maintain a balance between human rights success stories and failures. "If there are gritty stories to tell, they will be in the museum," he said, insisting there is no way to glamourize human rights.

At the same time, the museum cannot be simply depressing, said Murray, noting one scholar told him, "I hope to hell this is not a museum of human wrongs."

Cassie and Fitzhenry said disgruntled former museum staff may have different ideas about presentation due to their academic backgrounds. Actual museum-goers have different expectations from scholars, they said.

That concept is problematic, two University of Toronto professors suggested in a 2011 paper that makes direct reference to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

If the museum presents human rights success stories about First Nations, for example, "its visitors might not consider taking action to address current rights violations," museum studies Prof. Jennifer Carter and human rights law Prof. Jennifer Orange wrote in a paper presented to a British conference. Orange and Carter questioned whether a state-funded museum can freely criticize government actions and policies.

Canadian human rights failures such as the forced placement of First Nations students in residential schools, the internment of Japanese-Canadians and the ban on South Asian immigration will be featured prominently in the museum, Cassie said.

Murray said he is under no pressure from the federal government regarding the museum's content. The Harper government recently changed the mandate of Gatineau's Museum of Civilization to focus more on Canadian history.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2012 A3

History

Updated on Friday, November 30, 2012 at 2:58 PM CST: Corrects factbox.

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