Canadian Museums as Sites for Historical Understanding: A Special Issue of Peace and Conflict guest edited by Carleton’s David Dean

Canadian Museums as Sites for Historical Understanding: A Special Issue of Peace and Conflict guest edited by Carleton’s David Dean

Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology

Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet, a massive glass tower disappears into a soaring cloud.

Upon closer inspection, what appears to be a cloud is actually the uniquely shaped roof belonging to the 328-foot Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Nicknamed the ‘tower of hope,’ this iconic structure has been designed to symbolize the goals and achievements of human rights in Canada. Due to open in 2014, the new museum has recently featured in a special issue of Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology. This special issue has been guest edited by History Professor, David Dean.

Dean uses this edition of the journal to examine the role museums play as sites for historical understanding, peace, and social justice. This is no small task, but fortunately for Dean, he was able to find some sophisticated help.

The issue features nine contributions from students of Dean’s MA seminar on museums, national identity and public memory, which explores how human rights stories can be told to inform the public, encourage them to protect established rights, and to actively pursue social justice.

Though he welcomed the assistance of his students with open arms, Dean had other motivations for requesting their contributions. By including his students in this project, he was able to offer them the unique and often elusive opportunity to be published in a scholarly journal.

“To see your name in a peer-reviewed journal for the first time is a very special thing,” explains Dean. “It gives them a taste of life after assessment, and how their work can speak to the broader community beyond the classroom.”

“Student work is of great value, and too often it gets left in a drawer somewhere once it’s been marked. Having this work published reaffirms the great worth of course work, and of course won’t hurt when the students seek employment in the field.”

In structuring his seminars, Dean carefully considers the influence the course can have on his student’s futures, whether that be in academia or otherwise. Towards that goal, Dean has his Public History students work on their projects in direct conjunction with national museums.

“It allows them a chance to work with public history professionals outside of universities.  It gives them loads of experience I can’t give them as a university professor. This ‘real world’ involvement brings theory and practice together, and I think that’s very important,” says Dean.

Another unique experience offered through Dean’s Public history MA, was the chance to learn about public history through the academic lens of a non-historian.

Dean helped Carleton Psychology Professor, Fran Cherry host Susan Opotow from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York through the FASS distinguished visitor programme. Opotow is an internationally renowned academic, social and organizational psychologist. Dean credits the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, John Osborne for initiating the programme, which allows Carleton students and faculty to engage with scholars from other universities.

Dean and Opotow in New York City

Dean and Opotow in New York City

Opotow does research on trauma representations in museums, and how museums can function as sites of healing and reconciliation. This fitted well with the work students were doing in the seminar, which included research on the British Home Children, the Duplessis orphans, forced sterilization, and Anti-Semitism. Opotow workshopped ideas in Dean’s seminar and later, as the principal editor of the Peace and Conflict journal, Opotow decided to ask Dean to guest-edit an issue of the journal based on the important classroom research on Canada that she had learned about in the seminar .

The release of the Canadian focused issue of the journal is timely. Not only because it coincides with the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which will be a journey of great interest to psychologists and humanitarians everywhere, but also because museums in Canada are in a state of profound flux.

Canada’s national museums are currently undergoing a period of expeditious change and considerable controversy. For example, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in the nation’s capital region is, contentiously being reimagined as the ‘Canadian History Museum,’ while the Canadian War Museum’s has made a decision to offer visitors an exhibit not about war and military history, but about peace.

All involved in the special issue hope that it will inspire readers to think deeply about the important concerns facing these three museums.

Fostering an understanding that history museums in presenting the past to the public have an important role to play in contemporary society, and contribute to the process of developing social awareness, critical engagement and change for the betterment of all, has always Dean’s mandate in teaching his popular graduate seminar. The entire process of guest editing Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology has been one of those landmark accomplishments in his career.

“It’s a celebration of my work as a prof, teacher and as a mentor. I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. It’s nice to give something of permanence back to them… working with Susan and my students reminded me of the joy in collaboration. It’s also nice knowing that you are creating a discourse about the important issues facing Canada for an international audience.”

In addition to the nine student contributors, the special issue looks at issues like the complexities of exhibiting peace in a war museum (in a paper authored by John Jay College professor Jill Strauss), the new history museum’s reluctance to address the difficult shared history of the residential school system (by Carleton University professor Miranda Brady); and the challenge of constructing a human rights timeline in the human rights museum (by McMaster University professor Bonny Ibhawoh). Published at the end of last year, the special issue will be launched at the Department of History’s 5th Public History Partnership Network event on 30 January.

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