Brown bag, 19th January 2011

Rethinking citizenship and belonging: human rights, learning and museums

This was an unusual Brown Bag seminar, in that it didn’t take museum practice as its starting point, but offered the chance to consider the resonance that contemporary developments in human rights might have for museums. A large and responsive audience showed that this approach is one that researchers in museum studies and allied fields welcome. If Brown bags usually invite us to think from the particular to the general – to think about how a particular example of innovative practice might apply more widely - this seminar challenged us to think about how a very big question might shape museum thinking and work in practice.

Professor Audrey Osler, formerly of the School of Education in Leicester, and now Visiting Professor of Human Rights and Citizenship Education at the University of Leeds took as her theme Rethinking citizenship and belonging: human rights, learning and museums. She began by stressing that she did not speak as an expert on museums, but that certain museums had been important to her throughout her life and that she was interested in exploring the role that museums might have to play in human rights education. Human rights education, she reminded us, is essential because we can only claim our rights when we know what they are.

She suggested that human rights could offer a useful basis for a dialogue when addressing contentious issues – which could be very pertinent for museums. Did museums need to rethink their narratives around democracy, migration and global politics, as well as notion of history of progress in by examining them through the lens of human rights? Perhaps, she suggested.

Professor Osler stressed that the discussion of human rights was now a ‘cosmopolitan project’, developing differently in different parts of the world. However, she argued strongly against relativist interpretations of human rights, which assert that human rights are not absolute but need to take account of different cultural contexts. Such relativist interpretations, she suggested, always work against women and sexual minorities. It is not a defence of oppressive behaviour to argue ‘but it’s my culture’: culture is not fixed, and can change.

Discussion of human rights can sometimes seem rather ‘out there’, Professor Osler suggested. But on the contrary – we should see human rights as entwined in the decisions and interpersonal relationships that shape our daily lives: ‘Unless those rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere’, she suggested, quoting Eleanor Roosevelt.

A human rights approach, however, does not always offer self-evident answers. Professor Osler’s main case study was the apparent conflict between the rights of some people in faith communities and LGBT communities in the United States, with particular reference to same-sex marriage. She explored this scenario in some detail, looking at the way that apparently competing rights can be balanced. She emphasised that the right to freedom of expression was not absolute: I do not have the right to express a conviction, however sincerely held, in a way that undermines your right to life or liberty. Human rights, Professor Osler suggested, are a ‘package’: you cannot privilege one right over another, and pursue one right in a way that threatens the rights of others.

So what does this all mean for museums? Professor Osler suggested there is an urgent need to explore a number of issues through the lens of human rights, and that museums might have a role to play. For example, she asked, has Islamophobia become an acceptable form of racism in contemporary society? We cannot leave it to the media to explain terror, war, violence and peace: what is museums' role here? One thing museums might be able to do, she suggested is to tell alternative narratives, and encourage people to think about key historical events from more than one perspective. She concluded by reminding us that teaching for human rights requires moral courage, leaving us to wonder perhaps whether enough museums have that courage.

In discussion, several contributors expressed the view that too many museums cling to the idea that they are neutral spaces, and are unclear about what their values are. Responding Professor Osler argued that it is very British – and very misguided – to think that an implicit set of values is good enough. Museums, along with other public institutions, need to be more explicit about what they value.

All in all, this was a seminar that offered no practical suggestions for museums and very few answers to the questions it posed, but that was thought-provoking and discomfiting in the best possible way.


J said…
Thanks Helen, and welcome to The Attic!
Stephanie said…
Great summary! Prof. Osler certainly gave us some very complex and interesting issues to think over.
Jenny said…
Thanks Helen - great summary, and I wish I'd been there. Thanks for keeping the BB summaries safe for me!

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