Speech delivered by Mr. Patrick O’Reilly to the Canadian Museums Association on Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tags for Speech delivered by Mr. Patrick O’Reilly to the Canadian Museums Association on Thursday, March 26, 2009

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On behalf of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights I want to say how pleased we are to join you. For those of you who are not familiar with us, I want to give a quick bit of background. The CMHR is Canada's fifth national museum. Some of the other national Museum's have had new buildings and rejuvenations, but the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first new national museum to be established since 1967 when then Prime Minister Pearson gave the country the Canada Science & Technology Museum as a Centennial present.

We are also the first national museum to be established with financial contributions from other levels of government and with very significant contributions from the private sector. The federal government committed $100 million toward a new home for us and, of course most importantly, confirmed ongoing annual support of our operations in the neighbourhood of $20 million per year. The province of Manitoba contributed $40 million in capital and the City of Winnipeg $20 million. In addition, the Friends of the Museum have raised over $100 million and are continuing in their efforts.

But, perhaps most importantly for Canadian cultural policies, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first national museum to be established outside the National Capital Region. We are exceptionally pleased to call Winnipeg home. It is an important statement in a vast, geographically diverse country to say that our national and cultural institutions can and should be located in other large urban centres in Canada.

I know that all of these points – our funding, our location outside the capital, our creation as a national – come with great responsibility, and it is one we take seriously. We are committed to living up to exceptional expectations; we will strive to be a model of accountability. At the same time, we will fiercely guard the independence that is so important for all of us in the museum world, a most important principle given that we will explore the challenging and, at times contentious idea of "human rights."

Today I will, of course, focus my presentation on our plans for educational programming, links to the scholastic community and the use of new media and internet based technology to reach audiences far and wide in new and creative ways, as we move towards our opening in 2012. However, if you wish to simply learn more about the great social experiment we have launched in Winnipeg, or if you think after hearing more about us that you'd like to join the adventure, please come see us at our booth in the tradeshow.

OK, I promise my colleague CEO's that that is almost the last time I'll make a recruiting pitch publicly, but I had to say it!

The official mandate of the Museum I represent is, to quote the Museums Act of Canada, "to explore the subject of human rights, with special but not exclusive reference to Canada, in order to enhance the public's understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue."

Our goal isn't to find the truth, nor to present "the story"; rather it involves bringing many people together, challenging all to think differently, and to consider other points of view.

This will be an institution that engages and empowers Canadians and visitors from all walks of life to combat prejudice, intolerance, and discrimination. As we begin to approach these challenging issues, we still need to be a people‐friendly and welcoming place for all ages, genders, abilities, cultures, orientation, and beliefs. We also need to be FUN !

We are striving to become a full fledged "idea museum." That is, a museum based on an intangible conceptual framework – an idea. We don't have a collection as one would normally expect from a museum. We will house some artefacts, and we will from time to time seek to borrow others, but our stories will be told through narrative dialogue, through first person accounts, through memory and oral history. That means, among other things, that our collection will be predominantly digital. We can think of it as a 21st century collection and that comes with many pro's and con's. One of the benefits is that we can use many fora, beyond the museum building, to display our collection and tell our stories. We intend to be both a traditional museum in a gorgeous new building built in Winnipeg, and a virtual museum housed on the internet. We won't duplicate one with the other; but we will seek to develop two complementary experiences for the visitor.

Another reality of an Idea Museum is that we will not be presenting single interpretive panels for each issue but will, instead, present many perspectives. These perspectives will sometimes converge, sometimes conflict, but will most certainly always be deeply held. Our objective in the museum will be to foster a better understanding of human rights – the challenges, the triumphs, the common links between seemingly diverse situations, but always to advance that knowledge through a better understanding of others' points of view. It's a daunting task but one that we believe can be achieved through strong research and curatorial work, use of technology, and deep and rich partnerships with educational institutions and academia from grade school through to post‐doctoral programs.

We are launching partnerships with the University of Winnipeg's Global College which has a rich Human Rights education program and an Oral History Centre. We are working with Rotarians who are proposing to make our museum a destination for their international travel program – potentially bringing one young person from every Rotary Club in the world (that's 40,000 a year) to Winnipeg, We are working with the Manitoba Department of Education – and linking through them to other ministries of education – to develop programming in the museum which merges into curricula in schools across the country. We are well aware that making the museum useful to teachers and thus easily accessible to their students – means working with the teachers to develop our material in ways they can use it. We have a unique opportunity to get it right from the start and we intend to do that.

We see strong links through formal education, and this is where we will engage educators in curriculum development and where we'll tie in a student travel program that will engage students in preparatory studies at home, a trip to the museum and a contributory project in their community upon their return. This idea is one of the cornerstones of our foundation and we'll pursue it vigorously. But, the educational component of the CMHR will be more than formal schooling. I want us to explore how we can engage people of all ages and all abilities in "experiential learning." This is something Malcolm Gladwell refers to in his book Blink. He speaks about how people nowadays are less interested in the book and more interested in the experience of engaging with the author. That leaves us with some real possibilities as a museum and as a place for education. We are operating in an environment that values "community", "authenticity", and "connectivity". These all play to the traditional strengths of our museums and organizations.

In engaging people of all ages and abilities in their lifelong learning, our museums have to adapt the interaction to the participant. This is what teachers do everyday in classrooms all over the world, but it takes on new possibilities – and new challenges – when we are talking about a museum that is both physical and virtual. For a certain demographic – perhaps those of a certain age (perhaps some of us with the silver hair) and those with a certain level of education and experience, a more traditional physical museum exhibition is comfortable and a good way to learn. But, we also know for younger generations with the ability to "multi‐task", a static environment has trouble keeping their interest. They disconnect if they aren't engaged or involved.

The other concept I want to see us pursue is one spoken about by Jane McGonigal. Jane is an award winning designer of reality games and she spoke at the Newseum in Washington in December. Jane posited the idea that we should give people a mission, or a goal, when they come to a museum. She questioned why we can't give visitors feedback and allow them to feel good about themselves as they work toward that goal. She uses these examples in gaming – where participants (and I should emphasize they aren't, for the most part teenagers but rather adults) succeed in a goal, they achieve something in the game. In that moment of fist raised joy, that Jane calls Fiero! – learning is occurring along with VERY positive reinforcement. Perhaps it's as simple, for some demographics, as designing reality games to interact with our digital collection?

For others it may mean using social networking to bring strangers (or, as their known on Facebook, new friends!) together in dialogue and debate. We want to encourage that sort of virtual interaction, along with technology facilitated interaction in the museum, to bring about shared understanding and learning.

Technology can be dismissed as smoke and mirrors, as the flavour of the month, and it would be easy to assume that it will be mothballed as soon as the fads pass. We have to assume some risk in trying these new technologies but Museums can become valued resources for schools, in part through our leadership in implementing new technologies and using the web.

Just as we expect our visitors will learn from the points of view of others in our exhibitions and stories, they too will be able to learn from each other while exploring our exhibitions. We are going to challenge the traditional approach of standing quietly and looking at exhibits to actually designing exhibits that encourage us to interact with each other and to share our own points of view. We'll tie in this concept with our student programming as well.

Now, I am not talking about learning that means taking another's point of view. The emphasis is on learning about the other point of view, taking time to reflect from that point of view, understanding why they have that point of view and, at the end of the day, if everyone leaves with the same point of view they came in with, but a better understanding of others' points of view, won't we all be better off?

Thank you.