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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

Building Canopies for Multiculturalism: (Re)Turning to the Visitor

Written by Joni Boyd Acuff, Ohio State University, and Laura Evans, University of North Texas book-cover

As dear friends and colleagues, we met in the middle for the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (Rowman & Litlefield, 2014). We — Joni, an expert in critical multiculturalism, and Laura, whose specialty is art museum education — had known each other for years and talked about just about everything, but never truly understood what the other researched in more than a cursory manner. The idea to collaborate came from this uncomfortable space of not really knowing what the other person did with their work. We decided to find out instead of to continue in our ignorance of what was really important to the other person. And, hence, this book was born. We realized as the Venn diagram of our research interests intersected, that there was a big gap in the literature on multiculturalism in art museum education. “Why?” we wondered. And, secondly, “What can we do about it?”

The book, Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, is the result of this curiosity and our inquiries, as well as the diligent, creative, and groundbreaking work of our contributors (some of whom will also be posting here on ArtMuseumTeaching.com in the next few weeks). In this post, we will attempt to explain why we think multicultural practices in art museum education are important, and give a context for the book. We welcome your thoughts, comments, and questions, and hope that we can provide a welcoming space for stories and sharing.

Why is a Book on Multiculturalism in Art Museum Education Important?

First of all, what is critical multiculturalism, in brief?

Critical multicultural education works to investigate the maintenance of authentic cultural history, the subjugation of non-dominant cultural knowledge and the continuous movement, fluidity and evolution of culture (May, 1999). Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today aims to consider ways in which museums can work more effectively to become “social systems that enable the spaces of equitable educative possibility” (Dixon-Roman, 2012, p.3). We conceptualize equitable education as inclusive, comprehensive and “ubiquitous to the social process of thinking, feeling, being, and doing everyday human experiences” (Dixon-Roman, 2012, p.3), as per the tenants of critical multiculturalism. Unfortunately, as historic and existing debate suggests, museums struggle to meet the educational needs of its diverse patrons. If a museum is a suggested way of seeing the world (Macdonald & Fyfe, 1996); it is fair to assert that it must support various cultural frames of reference, as well as numerous versions and translations of the world. A practical and theoretical resource on multicultural museum education is important for two main reasons:

  1. the increasingly diversified population of the United States, and
  2. the heightened attention (due to economic, political, cultural, and ethical stimulus in the museum profession) and added importance placed on museum educators as representatives of their institutions, their field, and their communities.

These two realities provide the basis for this book and for the readers, who we hope will benefit from a deeper understanding of critical multiculturalism and its applications to museum education.

The U.S. is diversifying at a rapid rate and it is important that museum educators acknowledge, accept, and learn how to utilize the educational benefits of having such diverse populations to consider. According to the 2010 U.S. census:

  • 20% of the population over the age of five speaks a language other than English at home.
  • 19% of Americans have disabilities.
  • About 1.2 million Americans live with a same-sex partner and 11% of all unmarried partners are same-sex couples (Alternatives to Marriage Project, n.d.).
  • 72% of citizens are white, non- Hispanic; 16% Hispanic or Latino; 13% black or African American; .9% American Indian or Alaska Native; 5% Asian; 1% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; 5.5% another race; and 2.4% two or more races.
  • The projected racial composition of the United States in the year 2050 is 50.1% white, non-Hispanic, 24.4% Hispanic, 14.6% black, 8% Asian, and 5.3% all other races.

These statistics show that America is a vastly diverse nation and will continue to become even more so. Therefore, issues surrounding multiculturalism and equity will remain relevant and important as social and political issues. The above statistics are a stark reminder that art museums should be institutions of inclusivity, rather than exclusivity, and they show us why it is important for museum educators to understand the complexities and practicalities of critical multiculturalism. As stated by Winter (1992):

“At issue is the social and educational responsibility of public institutions in the face of cultural diversity, as opposed to the moral assumption of the museum as repository, both of ‘Art’ and of cultural values.”

Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today seeks to situate the educational role of the museum as one of multicultural expansion rather than abbreviation.

Context for Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today

Some people believe that “isms” (ex: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc.) are no longer relevant to the discourse around museums. In reality, the goal for museums and museum educators to engage in critical multicultural education work is relevant more now than ever. While some scholars and educators argue that issues of race, class, gender and sexuality are problems of the past, current data reveals that oppression based on these social indicators persist and have actually magnified well into the twenty first century (Weber, 2010).

CelebrARTE at Denver Art Museum. http://denverartmuseum.org/calendar/celebrarte-chocolate
CelebrARTE at Denver Art Museum. http://denverartmuseum.org/calendar/celebrarte-chocolate

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, since the year 2000, the international economic crisis has intensified inequities of race, ethnicity, gender, and class; specifically, accessibility to higher education decreased dramatically, as tuition and fees more than doubled, disproportionately affecting groups with low socioeconomic status most (Weber, 2010). In addition, sexual politics relating to same sex marriage and same sex adoption laws continue to be heavily contested in most states. Social inequalities are still heavily implicating the present and future of members of non-dominant groups (Weber, 2010). Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to call for critical pedagogies and praxis that “confront the racial, class, gender, and homophobic biases woven into the fabric of society” (Stuhr, Ballengee-Morris, and Daniel, 2008, p. 83).

Why are we attempting this call to action?

Because, if repetition is the precursor to establishing a habit, then we feel that it is necessary and important to continue checking in on issues of diversity in our museums so that, someday, things might change to a greater degree than the infinitesimal shift that has occurred so far in our museums. Eileen Hooper-Greenhill (2006) wrote a decade ago about the shift in museums, the “turn” towards the visitor. We would parenthetically like to add emphasis to Hooper-Greenhill’s call to action, to suggest that we need to (re)turn to the visitor. This shift in language alludes to the realization that, in turning to the visitor, we, as museum educators, need to revisit what turning to the visitor means in a rapidly diversifying society where museums are frequently being turned away from by public(s) that we do not serve. The authors who contributed to this book are a group of groundbreaking, talented, empathetic, creative, change agents. They are museum educators, researchers, writers, and human beings who care about the audiences they serve in deep and meaningful ways.

Through case-study examples, the authors of Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today address issues such as cultural misrepresentation in the museum, inequality as it relates to resources, and the exclusion of certain voices in the museum. They offer practical, contemporary educative practices that foster democratic, equitable museum practices. We believe that museums have the potential to be agents of social change and, in this way, our book is hopeful and inspiring, as it identifies and commends the effective practices that some museum educators and staff have enacted in an effort to be inclusive. We hope to show, through the chosen chapters, how the merger of museums and diversity initiatives can create positive change and can help guide, address, and suggest ways that museums can be more inclusive, supportive, and equitable spaces for all visitors.

Online Book Club Hangout (VIDEO)

On August 20th, ArtMuseumTeaching.com brought together a group of authors and editors of the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today for a live discussion via Google+ Hangout.  Those joining the Hangout included Joni Boyd Acuff, Marianna Adams, Briley Rasmussen, Alicia Viera, and Veronica Betancourt.  Please find the video archive of this conversation below, and enjoy!

Don’t Have Your Copy of the Book Yet?  No problem.  As part of this collaboration with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers through this series of posts about Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, we are able to offer ArtMuseumTeaching.com readers a special discount.  To receive a 25% discount, go to www.rowman.com to order this book and enter the discount code: 4S14ACUEVA

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Joni Acuff2013JONI BOYD ACUFF: Assistant Professor of Art Education in the Department of Arts Administration, Education & Policy at Ohio State University. Before joining OSU, Acuff was an Assistant Professor of Art Education at the University of North Texas. She holds an MA in Community Based Art Education from the University of Texas at Austin and her PhD in Art Education from Ohio State University. Acuff has published about her research in varying scholarly, peer-reviewed journals such as Art Education, Studies in Art Education, and Visual Culture & Gender. Her research agenda and scholarship attends to critical multicultural art education, critical race theory in art education, community-based art education and culturally responsive teaching and curriculum development. Joni’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent Ohio State University’s positions, strategies, or opinions. LauraEvans

LAURA EVANS: Assistant Professor of Art History and Art Education and the Director of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas.  Evans received her PhD in Art Education, with a Museum Studies specialization, at The Ohio State University, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History at Denison University. Previous to her PhD, Evans was a year-long fellow at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in the Department of Education.  She has also interned or worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Lodell Gallery in New Zealand, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art, the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, the Denison Museum of Denison University, and the University Art Centre at the University of Toronto. Laura’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the University of North Texas’s positions, strategies, or opinions.



“It’s Not Always about You: Facilitating Critical Self-Reflection in Others,” by Keonna Hendrick

“Eggs, Oreos, and Solidarity: MCRP in Our Daily Lives,” by Melissa Crum

“Reflecting on a Hybridized Museum Practice,” by Marianna Pegno and Traci Quinn