8 Lessons About Teaching from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights

Editor’s Note: Given the meaningful ongoing dialogue about the role(s) of museums in society and our communities, I am thrilled to repost this piece by Jamie Harrison in which she reflects on her visit to the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg —  the first museum solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration, and future of human rights.  From inviting multiple perspectives to embracing complexity, Harrison thinks deeply about core aspects of teaching and student learning through her experience of the exhibits and design of the Museum of Human Rights.  I am most excited to share her perspective as a classroom teacher since so many museum educators (paid staff and volunteers alike) are working toward similar goals, allowing for museums to be a place for learners to be challenged; where we can struggle to make meaning, recognize others’ perspectives, participate, and create personal relevance.  I encourage readers to click on links to the many teaching strategies that Harrison provides, and explore the resources of Facing History and Ourselves.

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Written by Jamie Harrison, high school teacher, Brandon, Manitoba

Reposted from Facing Canada, a blog of the Facing History and Ourselves community dedicated to the idea that education is the key to combating bigotry and nurturing democracy.

Museums are invaluable to education. The carefully selected exhibits, information, and artifacts provide tangible and visual evidence for exploration, reflection, and dialogue that support lessons in the classroom. Museums allow students to build upon prior knowledge – to see things differently.

In late October 2014, I had the opportunity to attend an educator’s preview of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba. At the time of my tour, many of the galleries were still under construction, but what I was able to see led me to think deeply, and at times differently, about how I teach in my own classroom.

Here are 8 lessons I took away from my visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights:

 1. Take Students on a Journey

As you move through each of the museum’s eight levels, it becomes progressively brighter (a symbolic – and physical – movement from darkness to light).  It is thoughtfully and memorably planned to lead visitors in, to build knowledge, and to lead us toward hope. In the classroom, I take students on Facing History’s Scope and Sequence journey, exploring the role of the individual in society, the concept of “we” and “they,” the supporting history of human rights in Canada and throughout the world, the memory of those who were left voiceless, and the choice (and call) to participate in our own communities.

2.   Invite Multiple Perspectives

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is highly interactive, with videos, games, and activities meant to encourage participation from all visitors. The space provides multiple perspectives that contribute to our understanding of human rights. Many of the events and issues explored in the museum stem from people, governments, and societies only seeing, or contemplating, a single perspective. As educators, we need to foster safe and respectful classroom environments, ensuring that students have the freedom to both contemplate and express multiple perspectives on a variety of issues. Doing so promotes personal growth and it allows students to see things beyond themselves – teaching strategies like contracting and fishbowl can help students to hear each other.

An interactive message of welcome greets all visitors to the museum. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Harrison)
An interactive message of welcome greets all visitors to the museum. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Harrison)

3.  Give Students Opportunities to Struggle with Making Meaning

On the second level, visitors are greeted by a visual and interactive timeline of important moments in human rights history. There is a video screen that runs the entire length of the wall, posing the question: What are human rights?  Likewise, much of the art on display on this level – and throughout the museum – is open to interpretation, allowing each viewer to linger over their personal interpretations and meditate on the messages they draw from the pieces that they see. In our classrooms, we can use the working definitions teaching strategy to engage students in their own explorations of key issues. Analyzing visual images gives students a framework to interpret artwork.Giving students the opportunity to make their own meaning in the classroom promotes the intellectual involvement of students and recognizes that words and images can bear multiple, and often deeper, meanings as it is our beliefs, values, history, and understandings that give words and images value.

Photographs featured in the museum. (Photo courtesy of The Canadian Museum for Human Rights website)
Photographs featured in the museum. (Photo courtesy of The Canadian Museum for Human Rights website)

4.  Make Room for Other Ways of Knowing and Learning

The second level of the museum also looks at the Indigenous perspective and Canada’s journey toward recognizing the human rights of all individuals and groups. The Indigenous artwork here reflects groups from each of Canada’s provinces and territories. The space allows room for performance, storytelling, and discussion, and is annexed by a space for ceremony and smudging meant to recognize, and encourage, the values and traditions of our First Nations peoples. If the medium is the message, how are we using different mediums in our classrooms to teach students about the past and about the world in which they live?

A look into human rights and the Indigenous perspective. (Photo courtesy of  Jamie Harrison)
A look into human rights and the Indigenous perspective. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Harrison)

5.  Students Need to Deal with Complexity Because Life is Complex

The third level of the museum examines the history of protecting human rights in Canada, including a look at the Canadian Bill of Rights. The exhibits on this level demonstrate that not all issues of human rights are easy to decipher – the processes involving human rights can often be lengthy and difficult. As we work to equip students for the complexities of our world, we can bring complex case studiesand resources into the classroom, and we can ask questions that perhaps have no “right” answers.

6.  Encourage Personal Connections

At the time of my visit, there was a temporary exhibit entitled “Peace” on the sixth level. Developed by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the exhibit focuses on Canada’s role in peacekeeping and how that role has been challenged and has evolved throughout history. Two reflection walls encourage participation from visitors. Each provides a guiding question and asks visitors to make personal connections to the content. It provides an outlet for students to examine the impact that peacekeeping has on their identities and on the identity of Canada as a whole.

A reflection wall encourages participation and discussion on Canada’s role in peacekeeping. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Harrison)
A reflection wall encourages participation and discussion on Canada’s role in peacekeeping. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Harrison)

7.  Choose to Participate

Level seven focuses on inspiring change – on choosing to participate. This level houses an exhibit looking at change and a communication wall where visitors are encouraged to reflect upon what they imagine the future to look like and how they can help to inspire positive change in that future.

Looking ahead…(Photo courtesy of Jamie Harrison)
Looking ahead…(Photo courtesy of Jamie Harrison)

8.  Help Students See Beyond the Classroom Walls

The final gallery in the museum leads to the tower of hope – the peak of the museum – meant to symbolize a merging with the sky. The tower’s viewing platform provides a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Winnipeg: the now and the future. Here you are surrounded by warmth and light – a true journey from the darkness. We need to help our students take and apply their learning beyond the walls of the classroom. They need to carry their knowledge, beliefs, and values with them so that they can apply them throughout their lives.

An elevator leads to the tower of hope. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Harrison)
An elevator leads to the tower of hope. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Harrison)

How do you use field trips and museum visits in your courses? What impact do such visits have on your students?

About Author

JAMIE HARRISON is a high school English and Social Studies teacher in Brandon, Manitoba. Having been fortunate enough to have had a teacher who believed strongly in interacting with history – in facing history as a way of learning about ourselves – she strives to carry that same enthusiasm forward in her own teaching. She does this through interdisciplinary learning, hands-on exploration, and educational travel. Jamie is married with two children.

Featured Header Image: Canadian Museum for Human Rights on Friday, May 24th 2013. Photo by Richard Ray, Flickr.com. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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