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

By Jade DeFehr*

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

I have visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) a number of times throughout my university studies. Nearly all of these visits 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, it is also a transitory space as a pathway between the central elevators and Gallery 5, “Protecting Rights in Canada.” 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 and its content by containing and directing our emotion in specific ways.

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Spaces designed for visitors’ personal reflection are increasingly popular in museums that explore emotionally heavy content matter. Christopher Marshall suggests that, inspired by the design of art galleries, museum curators have begun incorporating experiential and artistic features into their layouts to balance the didactic content that otherwise appears throughout. He calls these open-ended aestheticized displays “slow space[s],” which allow visitors to pause and decompress as they travel between dense information-based exhibits (174).

Such spaces can be seen, for example, in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, which features the headstone of the Unknown Soldier in Memorial Hall (“Memorial Hall”). The main room of the Hall 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 exhibits 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” which generate open-ended responses to the museum content. However, rather than fostering an infinite range of affective responses, I am curious as to 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. Observe, for instance, the CMHR’s optimistic focus for the Garden of Contemplation. The Garden marks a progression from dark to light as visitors gradually approach the Israel Asper Tower of Hope at the top of the museum. Even more specifically, the architect envisioned this upward journey furthering personal enlightenment through the visitor’s growing awareness of human rights (“Architecture”). The museum’s framing of space here functions to shape or even control affective responses within the Garden and other exhibits.

Screenshot of the Mood Map from the CMHR's mobile app.
Mood Map in the CMHR Mobile App (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. During the CMHR’s opening day, for instance, groups gathered outside to call attention to the crises impacting Indigenous peoples amid the CMHR’s refusal to name Canada’s colonization process as “genocide.” In 2013, former Grand Chief Murray Clearsky from the Southern Chiefs Organization describes this refusal in an open letter as “sanitizing” Canada’s treatment of First Nations peoples. Another group criticized the museum’s minimization of the Palestinian struggle against Israel (CBC News, “Fanfare”). However, sobbing, chanting, or shouting are likely not considered appropriate in the Garden. 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 seemingly neutral spaces are tethered to deeply contested financial sponsorship. Yet the Garden promotes quiet meditation rather than outrage at the 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. The app features an interactive Mood Map for each exhibit, including the Garden. Visitors can record on a graph or slider how an exhibit 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). Angela Failler further suggests that the CMHR’s flattening of emotion through “the repeated use of tropes such as belonging, empathy, pride and hope” reinforces the museum’s sense of “cozy nationalism” (359).

In other words, the CMHR’s affective framing encourages a sense of comfort in the museum’s presentation of a settler-colonial Canadian narrative and identity.

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)

However, even the Garden’s water carries with it the potential for responses of rage and betrayal, despite its intended use by the museum for calmness, healing and reflection. As with the rest of Winnipeg’s water, the Garden’s water originates from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation (SL40). In 1919, SL40 was relocated onto a man-made island for the construction of an aqueduct to transport water to Winnipeg. The community has now been under a boil water advisory since 1997. SL40 residents have responded to the CMHR’s opening by establishing their own Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations. The “living museum” illuminates how their forced relocation has ruptured ties to their traditional lands, severely reduced yields for fishing and wild rice harvesting, disrupted local economic opportunities, and threatened community members’ health and safety due to a lack of both sanitation options and an all-season access road to the mainland (Huard). Erwin Redsky, Chief of SL40 First Nation, and Cathy Merrick, Chief of Pimicikimak Okimawin, write in an open letter to the CMHR architect, “when we look into those pools we will see a century of sorrow […] Those crystal clear pools hold our tears” (Merrick and Redsky). These responses demonstrate the irony of the CMHR’s pernicious complacency in exploiting SL40, even as it attempts to generate calm introspection through the community’s water. The museum further disregards these harms as visitors use the CMHR app to rate 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 contemplative spaces often implicitly assert that visitors have not only the capacity but the responsibilityto respond emotionally to the museum’s content—regardless of their personal relationships with the narratives in the museum. But 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—albeit in a contained and intermittent manner.

To be sure, contemplative spaces can mark the gravity of a museum’s content matter in important ways.  These spaces can also foster a certain degree of reflexivity while honouring our feelings 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, a construct which Anthony Shelton and other critical museology theorists explore.

French philosopher 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 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?1Consideration of the potentialities and limits of contemplative spaces allows visitors to push their reflections beyond those anticipated or intended by the museum’s framework, making room for feeling against the grain.

1 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 “Archeology”).

Works Cited

“Architecture.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

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.

CBC News. “Fanfare and Protests at Canadian Human Rights Museum Opening | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Sept. 2014.

Clearsky, Chief Murray. “Chief Clearsky: Canada Sanitizing First Nations Genocide.” Censored News, 1 Aug. 2013.

“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.

ERA Bistro. “We Are ERA.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

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. 

Huard, Anna. “A Wrench in the Medicine Wheel: The Price of Stolen Water for Indigenous Cultural Continuity.” Thinking through the Museum, 24 Mar. 2016.

Keyes, Allison. “In This Quiet Space for Contemplation, a Fountain Rains Down Calming Waters.”, Smithsonian Institution, 21 Sept. 2017.

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.

Million, Dian. “Felt Theory.” Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 2009, pp. 53–76. 

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.

Soja, Edward. “History: Geography: Modernity.” The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During. 2nd ed., Routledge, 1999, pp. 113–125.

“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.