By Jade DeFehr*
I have visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) a number of times throughout my university studies, whether for class, research concerning museum studies, or with visiting family. Nearly all of my visits to the CMHR have included a brief walk through the Stuart Clark Garden of Contemplation. Lush green plants border shallow pools of water, which glisten over volcanic Mongolian rock. The space is exposed to the building’s expansive glass exterior, with light streaming in on sunny days. The garden is a calm, open space in the center of the museum. Away from the exhibits and main museum pathway, the noise is slightly softer, with the din of children and visitors in the background. While the Garden of Contemplation is designed to allow for rest and reflection, as well as hosting occasional events, it is also a transitory space, functioning as a pathway between the central elevators and Gallery 5, “Protecting Rights in Canada.” In my own research, I have found that scholarly critical analyses often overlook the Garden and its significance, likely due to its lack of didactic content. However, as “the heart of the museum” (“CMHR”), the Garden shapes our affective responses to the rest of the museum’s content by containing and directing our emotion in specific ways.Read more…
Spaces designed for visitors’ personal reflection have become increasingly popular elements of museums exploring heavy content matter. Christopher Marshall suggests that museums have begun incorporating experiential and artistic features into their layouts to balance the didactic content throughout the rest of the museum, inspired by the design of art galleries. He calls these open-ended aestheticized displays “slow space[s],” which provide visitors a moment to pause and decompress as they travel between dense information-based exhibits (174).
For example, in Ottawa, the Canadian War Museum features the headstone of the Unknown Soldier in Memorial Hall (“Memorial Hall”). The room is stark and empty, with a shaft of light stretching across a narrow pool of calm water, illuminating the headstone on the concrete wall. In the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Contemplative Court centers around a cylinder of water pouring into a small pool, with quotations about freedom and justice transcribed on the walls (Keyes). The 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York also uses water as an impetus for deep thought. The Memorial showcases two massive, cascading waterfalls set into the ground in roughly the same square footprints of the Twin Towers. The website notes that the Memorial “conveys a spirit of hope and renewal, and creates a contemplative space separate from the usual sights and sounds of a bustling metropolis” (“Design Overview”). These introspective exhibits typically share the common characteristics of minimalist design with natural materials, places to sit, and limited didactic information.
Marshall argues that these slow spaces simultaneously operate as “free spaces” encouraging open-ended responses to the museum content. However, rather than fostering an unlimited range of affective responses, I am curious how these spaces may encourage specific and controlled forms of emotion—namely, calmness, hopefulness and, at times, sorrow, all channeled through the pretense of self-reflection In the Garden of Contemplation, we can especially observe the CMHR’s optimistic focus. As Nicole Ritchie and Erica Lehrer both note, the Garden marks the progression from dark to light as visitors gradually approach the Israel Asper Tower of Hope at the top of the museum. The Garden aims to foster personal enlightenment through the visitor’s growing awareness of human rights (Ritchie 73). The museum’s positive messaging therefore strives to shape, and even control, affective responses within the Garden and other exhibits.
Visceral and bodily expressions of anguish, outrage, grief and contempt take place more commonly outside the museum, often in the form of protests, museum boycotts, or other dissenting acts. Sobbing, chanting, or shouting, whether individual or collective, might not be considered appropriate in the Garden. Importantly, cubicles and offices overlook the space, reminding visitors that the museum is an institution and workplace, conjuring expectations of subdued emotional expression. It is also worth noting that the Garden is named after Manitoban oilman and philanthropist, Stuart Clark (“Stuart Clark”). Fittingly, tossed coins dot the bottom of the Garden’s still pools, as if to remind visitors that even neutral spaces are tethered to deeply contested financial sponsorship. Yet the Garden aspires towards quiet meditation rather than outrage at the questionable ethics surrounding the exhibit’s very source of funding.
As Nicole Ritchie notes, the museum’s emotive expectations are particularly evident in the CMHR’s mobile app, which features an interactive Mood Map for each exhibit, including the Garden. The app asks visitors to record on a graph or slider how the Garden makes them feel on a scale out of ten, from “Moved” to “Inspired” and from “Thoughtful” to “Surprised.” By directing visitors’ affective responses throughout each exhibit, the museum renders such responses unthreatening and non-resistant. The Garden’s controlled range of feeling expresses a form of “muted affect,” which Hariman and Lucaites describe as the “containment of emotionality” (6).
Filtering visitors’ felt responses to museum contentfurther risks “underestimat[ing] the knowledge and experiences” of its audiences (Failler 246). In this sense, the Garden can take on a parent-like role in comforting and guiding the visitor through the museum.
However, even the Garden’s water carries with it responses of rage and betrayal, despite its intended use for calmness, healing and reflection. The water originates from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, which was relocated for the construction of Winnipeg’s aqueduct and has been under a boil water advisory for 18 years (Perry). Erwin Redsky, Chief of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, and Cathy Merrick, Chief of Pimicikimak Okimawin, write in an open letter to the museum architect, “when we look into those pools we will see a century of sorrow […] Those crystal clear pools hold our tears.” These embodied responses to the museum’s cruel ironies illustrate the insidious mockery of visitors rating their experiences in the Garden as 3/10 “moved” or 7/10 “inspired.” There is not room in the Garden for the endless range of human responses to the museum’s stories of genocide, kidnappings, labour camps, incarceration, imposed colonial law, and the destruction of communities.
I will also add that these spaces often implicitly assert that visitors have not only the capacity, but the responsibility,to respond emotionally to the museum’s content—regardless of visitors’ personal relationships with the narratives in the museum. While museum visits may be educational, for many visitors they are ultimately a leisure activity. After learning about horrendous atrocities, visitors can browse the gift shop or order a glass of wine at the CMHR’s ERA Bistro to reflect with friends, or as the website states, “to duck out of the flow of life to relax.” For many visitors, the CMHR cultivates the leisureof feeling deeply.
I do feel that contemplative spaces—or any breaks in didactic content—crucially mark the gravity of a museum’s content matter. Slow spaces also foster a certain degree of reflexivity while honouring our affective experiences as critical forms of knowledge.
Tanana Athabascan scholar Dian Million calls such embodied responses “felt knowledge” (62), which colonial patriarchal academia suppresses in favour of Western notions of detached rationality.
Yet as visitors, we might do well to scrutinize the illusion of open-access emotion within institutionalized spaces. The notion that reflective spaces allow for a broad and even unlimited range of affective responses to museum content conceals the ways in which museums seek to contain emotion. The governance of emotion works to quell or redirect affective responses that challenge the museum’s discourse; emotional dissent not only compromises other visitors’ comfort, but undermines the museum’s perceived authority.
Michel Foucault asserts that “space is fundamental in any exercise of power” (qtd. in Soja 120). The CMHR’s Garden of Contemplation is no exception. Understanding how museum spaces designed for reflection continue to employ specific messaging with expected emotive results allows us as museum-goers to more fully grasp the museum’s vision and its conflicted commitments. In the same spirit of reflection, we can then ask ourselves an even greater range of questions. How might the museum’s projection of emotional responses correspond with assumptions about visitor demographics? Do we choose to comply with the intentions of the space’s design? Is it possible for contemplative spaces to truly mark a ‘break’ or sense of relief from museum content—especially as an institution located on stolen Indigenous land wherein the museum’s occupancy takes no break?Consideration of the limits of contemplative spaces allows visitors to push their reflections beyond the museum’s framework, even questioning the supposedly universal need for reflection itself.
Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott discusses Canada’s paternalistic approach to Indigenous sovereignty, including ignoring treaties or a lack thereof in areas such as BC, or creating modern day treaties that continue to “disempower the nations they are negotiating with.” Furthermore, an archeology report from the CMHR’s construction site suggests the museum has not properly handled the heritage and history of the “eight ancient First Nations” whose territories the museum now occupies (CBC News).
Canadian Museum for Human Rights (“CMHR”). CMHR. Mobile app. Tristan Interactive Inc. Vers. 1.9. Apple App Store.
CBC News. “Archeology Report Criticizes Human Rights Museum.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Dec. 2011.
“Design Overview.” 9/11 Memorial & Museum, National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
Elliott, Alicia. “A Memo to Canada: Indigenous People Are Not Your Incompetent Children.” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, 5 Jan. 2018.
Failler, Angela. “Canada 150: Exhibiting National Memory at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” Citizenship Studies, vol. 22, no. 4, 2018, pp. 358–380.
Hariman, Robert, and John Louis Lucaites. “Dissent and Emotional Management in a Liberal-Democratic Society: The Kent State Iconic Photograph.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3, 2001, pp. 5–31.
Soja, Edward. “History: Geography: Modernity.” The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During. 2nd ed., Routledge, 1999, pp. 113–125.
Keyes, Allison. “In This Quiet Space for Contemplation, a Fountain Rains Down Calming Waters.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 21 Sept. 2017.
Lehrer, Erica. “Thinking through the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” American Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1195–1216.
Marshall, Christopher R. “When Worlds Collide: The Contemporary Museum as Art Gallery.” Reshaping Museum Space: Architecture, Design, Exhibitions, edited by Suzanne MacLeod, Routledge, 2005, pp. 170–184.
“Memorial Hall.” Canadian War Museum, Canadian War Museum, www.warmuseum.ca/event/memorial-hall/.
Million, Dian. “Felt Theory.” Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 2009, pp. 53–76.
Perry, Adele. Aqueduct. ARP Books, 2016.
Redsky, Erwin, and Cathy Merrick. “For Our First Nations, New Museum a Monument to Hypocrisy.” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, 25 Sept. 2014.
Ritchie, Nicole Anne. “Queering Museums: Questions of Space, Affect, and the (Non)Normative.” University of Toronto, 2015.
Shelton, Anthony. “Critical Museology: A Manifesto.” Museum Worlds, vol. 1, no. 1, 2013, pp. 7–23.
“Stuart Clark, LL.D., June 1, 2011.” University of Manitoba — University Governance.
*Jade DeFehr has recently completed her Bachelor of Arts in Women’s and Gender Studies (Hons.) and English at the University of Winnipeg. She has focused much of her research on the interlocking effects of gender, belonging/citizenship, and Canadian colonial memory. Impelled by her work as a costumed interpreter at a national historic site for four summers, DeFehr has recently delved into the scholarship of Museum Studies, investigating the stakes and conversations presented in local and national museums. In the years ahead, she hopes to continue academic and organizing praxis that adopts theorizing as a form of world-making.