The Garden of Contemplation: Governing Affect in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Image of the Garden of Contemplation at the CMHR
The Garden of Contemplation’s still pools of water, surrounded by Mongolian rock.
(Photo credit: Jade DeFehr)

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.

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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).

The Garden provides a pathway from Gallery 5 to the elevators. (Photo credit: Jade DeFehr)

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. 

Offices and a large quotation from the UN Declaration of Human Rights loom above the Garden. (Photo credit: Jade DeFehr)

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.[1]

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?[2]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.


[1] Anthony Shelton and other critical museology theorists consider how constructed narratives such as theories of objectivity legitimate the museum as an authoritative institution.    

[2]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).


Works Cited

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.

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Dr. Failler Publishes Article on CMHR’s Canada 150 Exhibitions

In response to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’s Canada 150 exhibitions, TTTM team leader Angela Failler has written an article in Citizenship Studies.

Here is the abstract:

This paper features an analysis of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) and its showcase for ‘Canada 150’, the sesquicentennial anniversary of Canadian Confederation. Particular attention is paid to how the Museum frames national memory, and its responsiveness (or lack thereof) to critiques and re-framings of Canada 150 by Indigenous artists, activists, historians and community leaders. Since opening to the public in 2014, the CMHR has had a mixed reception, including criticism for inadequately addressing Canada’s colonial past and present, privileging narratives of state benevolence and downplaying ‘missteps’ when it comes to Canada’s own human rights and Indigenous rights record. Recognizing that national museums have long served the colonial project of state formation and official memory, this paper nonetheless tries to notice potential openings for decolonizing or unsettling Canada 150 at the CMHR. Shoal Lake 40 First Nation’s Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations is taken up as a counter example.

50 free copies are available here (while copies last).

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Museum Queeries Project Organizes Inaugural Workshop

Ryan Rice delivers a keynote lecture at the Museum Queeries workshop

Ryan Rice delivers a keynote lecture at the Museum Queeries workshop (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

June 2-4, 2017 –– The Museum Queeries project launched this summer with a workshop on “Museum Queeries and Curatorial Dreaming,” hosted at UWinnipeg and coinciding with Winnipeg’s Pride Week. Organized by Dr. Heather Milne and Dr. Angela Failler, it was facilitated by Dr. Shelley Ruth Butler (McGill) and provided an opportunity for members of our Museum Queeries research network to connect in person for the first time as we hail from across Canada, the United States, and Australia. The overall goal of the proposed workshop was to connect members of our newly formed Museum Queeries research network, and translate specific objectives into tangible strategies for engaging museums on 2S+LGBTTQ issues.The following key questions framed this work:

*How are museums implicated in the ongoing struggle for 2S+LGBTTQ rights?
*How have 2S+LGBTTQ issues been integrated within the curatorial and programming mandates of museums?
*What kinds of alliances might be formed at the nexus of queer and indigenous/decolonial activism in relation to museums?
*What kinds of productive exchanges might occur at the intersection of queer and antiracist activism in the context of museums?
*How might we, as academics, activists, curators, artists, community stakeholders, and students, work collaboratively with museums to (re)conceive of them as queer spaces?

The workshop included a field trip to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) for one of its “Pride Tours,” a site visit to the Winnipeg Pride festival grounds located next to the CMHR, as well as a curatorial dreaming exercise led by Dr. Butler to attempt to reimagine queer content in the context of the CMHR. The intent was thus not simply to critique museums, but rather to engage and potentially collaborate with them by proposing ways in which they might more effectively address 2S+LGBTTQ issues.

The workshop was funding by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Research Manitoba, and the University of Winnipeg.

For more information on the Museum Queeries project, visit museumqueeries.org.

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Review: The Idea of a Human Rights Museum

busby coverMarjorie Schwarzer has recently published a positive review of Karen Busby, Adam Muller, and Andrew Woolford’s The Idea of a Human Rights Museum, which includes a chapter co-written by Thinking through the Museum‘s Project Director Angela Failler with the late Roger I. Simon. The review, published in Museum Management and Curatorship, can be accessed here.

In lieu of an abstract, here is an excerpt from the review:

A museum might facilitate dialogue, but can it be an appropriate place to inspire action on behalf of human rights? This book’s answer is inconclusive. Christopher Powell delineates what he sees as the hard truth: the fight for human rights is a continual struggle. He posits that CMHR’s narrative is ‘top down’, reflecting ‘the interests of the sovereign and … social elites’ who founded and funded it (p. 138). ‘Top down’ implies that abuses against humanity are aber- rant occurrences that can be transcended through enlightened institutions. Powell advocates a ‘bottom up’ approach that emphasizes a commitment to constant questioning and subversion of the larger system. Perhaps, Powell notes on page 141, an ongoing external critique of CMHR, such as the one presented in this valuable book, can allow the museum to become ‘a vehicle for the propagation of human rights, despite itself’.

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Dr. Erica Lehrer awarded Insight Grant

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews (photo credit: W. Kryński)

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews (photo credit: W. Kryński)

Canadian Museum for Human Rights (photo credit: CMHR - MCDP flickr)

Canadian Museum for Human Rights (photo credit: CMHR – MCDP flickr)

Dr. Erica Lehrer has been awarded a SSHRC Insight Grant valued at $133,268 for a 4-year comparative project focusing on Poland and Canada entitled “Difficult Heritage in National Museums.” As Lehrer describes the project:

Major museums worldwide are increasingly billed as sites of human rights and democratic spaces of introspection and critical thinking. But given museums’ origins as organs of the state, questions simultaneously arise regarding how museums can best do the difficult work of opening public discussions around painful, contested histories that may implicate the very nations they represent. The proposed project probes the ability of two major new national museums in Canada and Poland, countries that have both recently begun grappling with their difficult histories in public, to meet their own stated mandates for social justice. It does so by seeking creative ways to operationalize postcolonial discourses of “critical museology” filtering into establishment museums by new cohorts of activist curators.

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Dr. Failler speaks on “Eat Your Arts & Vegetables” (CKUW 95.9 FM Winnipeg)

Image of Dr. Failler at CKUW

Dr. Angela Failler at CKUW (photo credit: Eat Your Arts & Vegetables)

On December 3, 2015, research team member Dr. Angela Failler spoke with radio hosts Aleem Khan and Derek Brueckner on Eat Your Arts & Vegetables. This show, which broadcasts from the University of Winnipeg’s campus radio station, CKUW 95.9 FM, presents guests of diverse backgrounds and perspectives ranging from local self taught artists to internationally renowned interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary artists. The show’s mandate offers artists, curators, art academics, cultural workers and organizations a resource to promote their work and ideas in conjunction with current local art events.

Dr. Failler spoke about her research work over the past few years on the Canadian Museum for Human rights and working through “difficult knowledge” in relation to the Thinking through the Museum project.

Listen now to part one (interview begins at 2:30):

Continuing listening here (interview ends at 3:20):

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#thinkingthrough the Witness Blanket

The Witness Blanket

The Witness Blanket, detail. (image credit: Angela Failler)

Members of our research team visited the CMHR to view “The Witness Blanket” exhibit and hear the artist talk on January 20, 2016. Carey Newman (Ha-yalth-kingeme), a master wood carver of British, Kwagiulth, and Salish ancestry from Vancouver Island, is touring his work across Canada over the next 7 years. The piece includes objects collected from Indian Residential Schools, survivors, and family members in Canada from coast-to-coast-to-coast. For more on the exhibit visit http://witnessblanket.ca/

Listening to the artist speak to the layers of story and memory in his piece brought The Witness Blanket to life. His description of the emotional labour that went into working with and through the objects was as powerful and moving as the piece itself. Learning from difficult knowledge requires more than collecting information about the past. Lauren Bosc

The Witness Blanket IOS Mobile App is one of the most effective digital extensions of an exhibit I have encountered. It brings home the depth of the collection, making its objects accessible beyond the museum itself. It also raises the question of how difficult knowledge might be mediated through exhibition design. Angela Failler

To me, the braids of hair near the center of the blanket represent the notion of losing connection to culture. This detail illustrates the robbed childhood of a (First) Nation and a legacy of abuse many Canadians have yet to come to terms with. Anna Huard

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Review of “Caring for Difficult Knowledge”

Special Issue Cover

Special Issue Cover

Last year, research team member Angela Failler co-edited a special double issue of The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies titled “Caring for Difficult Knowledge: Prospects for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” The issue, which featured a Foreword written by team member Erica Lehrer, was officially launched in November 2015.

Since the launch, Michael Dudley has written a generative review of the issue on his blog, The Decolonized Librarian. See “The Dialectic of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.”

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“Thinking through the Canadian Museum for Human Rights”

CMHR "Garden of Contemplation"

The CMHR’s “Garden of Contemplation.” “The First Nations sacred relationship to water is honored, as a place of healing and solace amidst reflections of earth and sky” (www.predock.com/CMHR/CMHR.html). Photograph: Erica Lehrer.

Dr. Erica Lehrer has published an unflinching and generative review of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in volume 67, issue 4 of American Quarterly, titled” Thinking through the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.”

To access the full article, click here. Here is a brief excerpt of the content.

“‘This ice you’re standing on, this is what you’ll be drinking down in Winnipeg next spring. For you, this is life. For people here, it can be death.’ I am shivering along with a dozen Winnipeg-based academics and students listening to Cuyler Cotton, a policy analyst and media relations specialist, in the community of Shoal Lake No. 40 on a mid-January day, looking out across the frozen lake that separates the local band of Ojibway First Nations, inhabitants of Shoal Lake, from access to the nearest highway. One hundred years ago the Canadian government sold this portion of First Nation terrain to the city of Winnipeg to build an aqueduct to supply the urban residents with clean water. As collateral damage, the Shoal Lake No. 40 peninsula was sliced into an island. This intrusion into the landscape left the local people to drink boiled or bottled water and traverse the lake by boat or winter road—treacherous in late fall and early spring with the insufficiently frozen surface—and living amid their own trash and sewage, which leaches into their water supply. Continue reading

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Winnipeg Exhibit Site Visits

In recognition of the recent release of the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Cultural Studies Research Group (CSRG), led by Dr. Angela Failler, is visiting a number of Winnipeg exhibitions related to truth and reconciliation. On November 27, 2015, the CSRG visited the “We Were So Far Away: The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools” exhibit presented by the Manitoba Inuit Association and the United Way. This visit was followed by a brief tour of the “Forgotten: The Métis Residential School Experience” exhibit presented by Aboriginal Student Support & Community Relations (Red River College) on December 4.

In the new year, the CSRG plans to visit the Mikinak-Keya Spirit Tour at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (led by research assistant Sylvia Dreaver [Dueck]), the “We Are on Treaty Land” exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), the TRC Exhibit and the Witness Blanket exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, as well as tour the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.

As a part of these site visits, our group also uses Museum Ethnography Prompt Sheets to provide an open-ended structure to our visits.

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