Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Political and the Partisan

The story about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights' decision to pull Professor Strong-Boag's blog post about International Women's Day has continued to evolve since my post on the weekend.  The Winnipeg Free Press has published additional correspondance between the Museum and Strong-Boag.  On their side, the museum indicated that they did not want blog posts that are "used as, or be perceived as, a platform for political positions or partisan statements".  Strong-Boag replies that she considers this approach to be both "naive and pedagogically unsound for a museum supposedly dedicated to (the promotion of) Human Rights".  It's worth reading both statements in their entirety. 

In the public response to the CMHR's statement, the museum has been called out by a wide array of historians for what they perceive as its desire to try to produce a museum which is not political at all.  As Franca Iacovetta and many others point out, "human rights are, by definition, political."  I fully agree, and at least on the face of that letter, it seems that I might have given the museum too much credit if I thought they might have accepted a balanced political post that was not overtly partisan.  A museum of human rights cannot hope to be taken seriously if it pretends that the issues it discusses are not political.  There must be political content in their exhibits if they are to be able to educate their audiences.  On that issue, I'm fully onside with the critics of the museum - assuming that they are correct in taking the CMHR's statement that they do not want the blogs to be "a platform for political positions or partisan statements" as a complete disavowal of all things political.

And now for my qualifier.  "Political" can mean a number of different things.  It can mean discussing issues that are politicized, and it can mean presenting a variety of political stances on a given issue.  It can mean taking one specific political stance or viewpoint.  Or it could mean taking one political stance or viewpoint and explicitly tying that to why a person should support or oppose a given political party.  "Political" is not the exact same thing as "partisan", although there is overlap.  One can take a political stand on an issue - favouring government-funded childcare, for example - without explicitly endorsing or attacking a particular political party.  So while I fully endorse my colleagues in calling for a Canadian Human Rights Museum which engages with political and politicized issues, I do ask the genuine question of whether they also think or expect that the Museum should also be partisan in its communications.  Do they expect the Museum to engage in direct criticism of the current governing Conservative Party of Canada, calling the party out by name?  Would they expect the same if the governing party were Liberal or NDP?  Would they have considered it acceptable if the Canadian War Museum had explicitly criticized the Trudeau or Chrétien Liberal governments for cutbacks to the military?  Would it be acceptable for Quebec's Musée de la civilisation to take an explicitly separatist approach to Quebec's history and overtly celebrate the accomplishments of the PQ and criticize the PLQ for being federalist?  How will they feel if the Canadian Museum of History, in its new incarnation, explicitly celebrates past Conservative governments for their contributions to Canada's development, and is critical of Liberal governments for supposed missteps or failures?  The parallels are not exact, but hopefully they illustrate my point.

My worry is that the debate over the issue of partisanship has got a bit lost in our haste to insist on the need for political content at this museum, and I think it would be useful to have a sense of where the line can or should be drawn.  Because if we call for a free-for-all on explicitly partisan material, then it becomes that much easier for a museum to be manipulated to serve the government of the day and to use them as a mouthpiece to trumpet the policies of the current administration.  In other words, how far do we expect museums to go, when we ask them to be "political"?

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