Canadian Museum for Human Rights

13 12 2009

Canadian Museum of Human Rights, Artist's Conception

The Globe has an excellent story about the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.The story mentions that Stuart Murray, the current head of the museum, is the former head of the Manitoba PC Party. In 2001, Murray voted against extending adoption rights to gays and lesbians. The decision of the Harper government to appoint Murray to head the museum caused an outcry from gay organizations when it was announced in September 2009.

The website of the museum carries the following statement by Mr. Murray dated 27 September 2009. I have italicized the most interesting parts.

“I believe in the dignity and rights of all people. Human rights are not a static concept; they require ongoing effort to define and secure them for all people. I have always been open to opportunities to have conversations to foster my own understanding of human rights –the challenges, the triumphs, the common links between seemingly diverse situations and people.  I welcome the opportunity to meet with representatives from the LGBT community to a meeting at their earliest convenience to introduce myself to them, and to hear directly about their concerns.  I commit that sexual orientation will be an important theme to be explored within the Museum and will work to further develop the rich partnerships with human rights organizations and LGBT representative organizations, already begun by the Museum team, to ensure that the community is involved, engaged, and heard.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will welcome people of all ages, genders, abilities, cultures, orientation, and beliefs. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will engage and empower Canadians and international visitors from all walks of life to combat prejudice, intolerance, and discrimination.   It will deal with today’s issues, today’s conversations, and today’s challenges.  It will connect with the past in order to influence the future.  The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is about our rights and our responsibilities.”

I have two thoughts.

First, should a human rights museum seek the participation of people of “all beliefs”? Is this statement literally true? I would ask Mr. Murray to think carefully about what he has said. I think that it would better to say that his museum should encourage the participation of a wide spectrum of belief systems but not all belief systems.

Second, while it is clear that conceptions of human rights have indeed changed over time, pointing this out does not tell us the extent to which we should judge the actions of previous generations and different societies according to our own values. Stressing that human rights are not “a static concept” could place one on the slippery slope to moral relativism. To use an extreme example, many whites in the Confederate States of America thought that the abolition of slavery would be an assault on their fundamental rights, including the right to own property they have acquired lawfully. To what extent should a museum curator respect their viewpoint, which was doubtless held with great sincerity?

As Peter Novick points out in his book, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession, page. 291 many American historians moved decisively away from moral relativism after the Holocaust. Many intellectuals in this period came to the view that Western liberal democracies should indeed impose their values, their conceptions of human rights on other non-liberal cultures, be it the US South or the Soviet Union or apartheid South Africa. An important corollary of this view was that historians should be more judgemental of human rights abuses perpetrated in the past rather than simply describing what happened in neutral language.

The curators of the museum will have to think about these thorny issues as they move forward in generating content for this museum.

The home page of the museum is here.