While the advent of “new museology” has seen a shift from imagining museum visitors as uninformed, passive consumers of didactic exhibits to agents involved in content and meaning making, a gap remains between participatory ideals and their practice in contemporary museums — especially when it comes to difficult knowledge. The overall goal of our project is to position ourselves within this gap, creating concrete networks and resources to collectively respond to the challenges inherent in confronting traumatic histories and legacies of violence.
We are working to build research capacity by fostering our new academic partnership, finding potential future partners, and testing and developing research activities and transferrable tools that partners, collaborators, and participants can use to generate ideas to engage with difficult knowledge in museums. These include:
- an online web-based portal for communications and knowledge mobilization
- prototype technologies and shareable tools, materials, and applications for public engagement with museums
- adaptable models for three-way academic-museum-community collaborations
- curriculum development strategies that can be mobilized in educational contexts including museums, galleries, community learning centres, schools, and universities
The opening of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg serves as a catalyst and pilot site for our project. Considering how “difficult knowledge” might be addressed within a human rights museum opens a critical conversation that both the museum and the public deserve if we are to expand our understanding of how museums and galleries can contribute to the vitality of civic life in Canada. “Difficult knowledge” describes crises in learning that result from encounters with representations of traumatic histories and ongoing legacies of violence and conflict. We are particularly interested in how the rise in consciousness of key episodes of difficult history in Canada — such as the colonial legacy of Indian Residential Schools — is shaping the expectations and practices of Canada’s national museums.
This project considers difficult knowledge in public spaces that represent history such as museums, memorial sites, and cultural heritage tours. We observe that opportunities to learn from difficult knowledge are limited when institutions like museums are under pressure to produce “positive visitor experiences” or narratives of national or community pride, reinforcing “lovely knowledge” with its blind spots and omissions. What curatorial and pedagogical practices might be fostered in these spaces to allow people to grapple with difficult knowledge in generative ways? What opportunities for learning open up when they do? What risks do we anticipate? Our project brings together scholars, curators, museum practitioners, and diverse publics to collaborate on best approaches to these questions. Our aim is to acknowledge multiple and disparate voices given that in diverse societies individuals and groups are situated differently and unevenly in relation to difficult knowledge.