FIHRM was established to raise awareness of human rights issues and actively encourage museums to engage in issues of democracy and inclusion. The 2022 FIHRM conference was held in Oslo, Norway in September this year. Hosted by Demokratinetverket, the three-day conference took place at specially selected venues of democratic and human rights significance in Oslo— the Eidsvoll 1814, the Nobel Peace Center and the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies.
The discussion of the conference first focused on how to critically approach the autonomy and flexibility of human rights museums in places where human rights and democratic values are suppressed and the identification of the kind of relationships between museums, the state and communities as well as uncovering the kind of pressure museums faced in terms of development. The discussion also talked about how human rights museums shape their roles and engage in contentious issues. Then the focus turned to mapping out the current status of human rights museums across the globe and finding solutions or strategies to inclusion in the process of addressing social, cultural and political inclusion/exclusion from different angles. Conference participants traveled from Europe, Asia and America, including Hung Shih-Fang, the chair of FIHRM-AP and the director of Taiwan National Human Rights Museum and Tenzin Topdhen, the director of Tibet Museum, also a member of FIHRM-AP. By sharing their practical experiences and methodologies, the participants aspired to address the issue of inclusion in not only the space of museums but also the society as a whole. A museum can function as a starting point for the promotion and building of an equitable society.
Museums face internal and external pressures and challenges when addressing human rights issues
In an ideal society, all people are created equal. However, the journey to Utopia is a bumpy ride. When opening the first session on the first day of the conference, Kathrin Pabst, the chair of IC Ethics and senior curator of Vest-Agder Museum, forthright pointed out the challenges that human rights museums may face. The five types of pressure often imposed on museums are disputes between colleagues, the attempt to erase the past, unexpected political interference, war and destruction and the effort to preserve the cultural legacy of a country. The sources of pressure can be divided into internal and external. The internal source of pressure comes from the people within the museum organization and the external source of pressure comes from local government and the state.
However, a crisis also brings opportunity. In the face of all kinds of challenges, the development of human rights museums can also be propelled by pressure. Jette Sandahl, the chair of trustees of European Museum Forum, offered guidance on how museums should respond to challenges. She pointed out that the very fact that museums are under heavy pressure and challenges is the very reason why museums should be more united than ever to get rid of the exceptionalism which has dominated the field for several centuries. No more entrenchment. Museums should step out of their comfort zone and look for like-minded partners. The journey of human rights excludes no one. Museum staff should have the courage to stand up to the passivity or collaborative attitude toward power and resolve challenges and conflicts with relentless conviction and collective strength.
And as to how this solidarity actually works in a museum setting, scholars from the National Museums of Liverpool and University of Leicester gave us actual cases in the field.
Museums and Interdisciplinary Collaboration for Waterfront Transformation
The presenters from the National Museums of Liverpool and University of Leicester talked about their joint Waterfront Transformation project. The project is a perfect example of leveraging collective strength which drives the development of local communities for an equitable society through collaboration and efforts from all sides.
The Waterfront Transformation project strove to maintain the connection between museums and contemporary society. Starting with Liverpool's iconic waterfront, the project links storytelling, heritage, community and hospitality to create a rich visitor experience and will be a catalyst for social and environmental improvements in the area. The project goes beyond collaboration between museums and brings onboard the local residents to create a waterfront city where old and new blend.
Picture 1. The Waterfront Transformation plans to connect museums and historic buildings along the way, including the International Slavery Museum (ISM), the Canning Dock, the Museum of Liverpool and various historic dockside buildings.
The above discussion led to a clear understanding that collaboration is an important strength of human rights museums to rise up to challenges. It is in the same light that FIHRM-AP was founded on a regional partnership strategy between museums and NPOs to work around the oppression of politics and system.
Hung Shih-Fang, the chair of FIHRM-AP and the director of the National Human Rights Museum, talked about the background and purpose of establishing FIHRM-AP during the conference. The logo of FIHRM-AP expresses the aspiration for "a world where everyone was born free and equal and values of human rights take root everywhere". Since its establishment in 2019, the organization has more than 80 members, and the official website is available in ten languages. Upholding the core values of the organization, FIHRM-AP's work revolves around human rights as it promotes the relationship between museums and civil society through close ties with partners. Taiwan and many other Asia-Pacific countries have experienced conflicts and long authoritarian rule. Taiwan for example, was under martial law for nearly four decades. Compared to other regions in the world, the democratization of Asia-Pacific countries is a protracted journey. FIHRM-AP takes the lead to pool the strength of all parties to propel the democratic development in the Asia-Pacific region.
Picture 2. In 2022, the National Human Rights Museum held Ayo! Ayo! Tomorrow Must Be Better, a special exhibition featuring the rights mi grant workers and advocating the idea of equality for all.
The authoritarian past of the Asia-Pacific region evidently has impeded the development of human rights. Many countries that have had oppressive regimes would make a lesson out of this dark past. However, human rights museums built in in the context of authoritarianism face many challenges. Many presenters shared with us the crisis faced by this type of museums and how they responded in their own practical experiences.
A museum should never give up its mission in the context of authoritarianism
For both the state and the public, authoritarianism is a dangerous ideology which makes people quiet. Therefore, museums built in this context have to work harder to earn the recognition of the society as a whole. DOI-CODI was the Brazilian intelligence and political repression agency during the military dictatorship. Dr. Deborah Neves pointed out that the purpose of the museum is pay tribute to the victims of murder and torture and at the same time preserving the evidence of the atrocity committed by the Brazilian government. For public members who have never lived through the dark period of history, the museum is there to show them how the Brazilian military dictatorship worked to repress people and the structure of the system.
The museum faced quite many challenges at the beginning as it spent a lot of time dealing with government agencies in order to collect documents and materials. Some documents even went missing. On the other hand, the museum also had to find victims of political persecution or their families and friends in order to restore the period of military dictatorship through records, documents and oral history. For the very first time, a legacy preservation institution worked with former political prisoners to acknowledge and protect buildings of state oppression. The space was turned into a place for memories and awareness to advocate the importance of democracy and freedom.
Kalle Kallio, the director of the Finnish Labour Museum, also shared the crisis faced by the museum after the Russo-Ukrainian war broke out and how the museum dealt with the crisis. In 2014, Tampere Lenin Museum merged with the Finnish Labour Museum. Despite the museum declared its values of human rights, sustainable society, peace and solidarity, and justice history as its mission, the Lenin Museum could never make everyone happy. In February, 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, people again felt animosity toward Leninism. Facing this unexpected crisis, the museum advocated for peace, condemned war and showed its support to Ukraine. On the other hand, it also suspended its collaboration with Russian museums and put a stop to comical marketing campaigns. By showing its strong opposition against totalitarianism with a serious attitude, the museum avoided triggering another wave of backlash.
Museums built in the context of authoritarianism could face challenges like government obstruction or destruction of evidence at the beginning. Even after establishment, social events which rub the public's nerves about totalitarianism may also draw strong opposition against the museum. It seems that these are the pressures inherent to a human rights museum. However, as these museums bear tragic history, they also showcase unforgettable lessons, sounding a warning to the world not to repeat the authoritarian path. Therefore, it is ever more important for a human rights museum to stick to its mission for a free and equal society.
Just like DOI-CODI's founding philosophy, museums built in the context of authoritarianism to a certain degree are established to commemorate victims as no one should be left out on this journey of human rights. As we can only mourn for those who lost their lives, at present we can still seize the opportunity, pay attention to the rights of other minority groups and show our support.
Room for minorities? Intersections between government and museums, and the power to define
The last day of the conference focused on the discussion of the issues of minorities, featuring Sámi people and the idea of decolonization. The Sámi are the indigenous people living in the northernmost Europe and the only local ethnic group recognized and protected by the International Convention on Indigenous Peoples. For a long time, they have been suffering from a certain level of discrimination and unfair treatment and even to this day, subject to legal disputes in national and international courts.
Jérémie McGowan, the former director of Sámi Dáiddamusea, pointed out that the public's ignorance about the Sámi is often accompanied by sympathy and the impression that they were exploited by colonial powers. It is also a popular perception that the mistreatment and injustice are problems of bygone days, contrary to the reality. Therefore, it is urgent for museums to work with Sámi communities to build more public understanding about indigenous peoples and expose their lives to diverse cultures.
Emma Eliane Oskal Valkeapää, a Sámi, presented Sámi Pathfinders program. A collaboration between the Sámi University College, local governments and regional development departments, the program aims to promote the culture of a minority group. Valkeapää also proposed that museums can raise people's awareness about minority groups by addressing indigenous peoples' diversity and development.
Picture 3. Sámi youths assume the role of Sámi pathfinders, sharing Sámi culture in high schools, primary schools, secondary schools and universities across Norway.
Although the presentations mainly focused on the Sámi, racial discrimination still plagued every corner of our world. Cultural differences are at the core of the estrangement. Lack of cultural understanding leads to emotions like disgust, fear, sympathy toward minorities groups. Minorities also find it hard to fit in due to the lack of understanding about the society and culture of other groups. Therefore, full understanding about each other's culture becomes an important part of achieving racial equality.
In addition to discrimination and difficulty in fitting into the society, the worst case scenario for members of minority groups is to be subjected to persecution. Laura Pérez Díaz and Tenzin Topdhen respectively talked about the establishment of the Memorial Museum of the Dominican Resistance and the Tibet Museum. Both museums featured a minority group that has been subject to persecution.
Take the Tibet Museum for example, the museum was founded by Tibetans in 1998 to raise people's awareness about Tibet. The museum showcases Tibetan culture, recent exile history, and the teachings and legacy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to demonstrate the historical, political and international importance of Tibet. The purpose of this type of museum is to record, preserve, study, display and educate about the history and culture of their people, while exposing the crises faced by minorities, such as human rights violations, environment development and cultural restrictions. They also hope that museums can inspire the spirit of resistance while promoting the value of life, the fundamental human rights of freedom, movement and expression.
The three-day conference highlighted that human rights museums are facing pressure from various parties, especially in recent years when extremism and authoritarianism show signs of rise. The roles played by human rights museums are more important than ever. In addition to the issue of freedom and democracy, the rights of minorities are of equal importance. Museums have to work hard to eliminate discrimination for an equal society. Despite difficulties in the development of human rights museums, as long as museums move forward in unity and determination, the seeds of universal value will eventually grow and thrive in every corner of the world over time.