The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) has welcomed thousands of students during the pandemic from schools across Canada through live virtual field trips and online educational programs.
Participants in the Museum’s online Annual Public Meeting today heard that over 18,000 people have visited its Learn at Home page and other teaching resources since the COVID closures began last March. Since school began in September, more than 2,300 students from Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Manitoba and the United States have taken guided virtual field trips and real-time lessons. An additional 500 students participated last spring.
President and CEO Isha Khan said the Museum’s work to promote human rights has not stopped despite being closed for a total of six months so far in the current 2020-21 fiscal year.
“When our doors closed, a window of opportunity opened online – because these important conversations must continue,” Khan said at today’s annual public meeting. “For the past nine months, we have created new ways to engage people in human rights awareness and education in a virtual space where everyone is welcome.”
Virtual field trips – where a guide walks each class through the galleries in real time using a stabilized iPhone – started again last week after being halted since the end of October, when public health orders closed the Museum for a second time. Thirty-seven classes with over 600 students are already on the waiting list.
“As a teacher, it’s really evident that kids want connections right now,” said Natalie Steeves, who organized virtual experiences with the CMHR for 108 students from four different Calgary schools. “This was a fabulous field trip because human rights are important to them, even at their age, and it was a safe environment for them to open up and feel more connected to each other. The kids are still talking about the field trip now.”
In addition to education programs, a diverse array of online offerings for the public has included lectures and panel discussions, film screenings, recorded virtual tours, human rights stories, opportunities for people to share videos of their own pandemic stories, an augmented reality feature, and a microsite exploring the 13 “Spirit Panels” that adorn the Museum’s circular theatre in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery. (Explore from home.)
Total online visitation has increased more than 10 per cent since COVID closures began: to 1.2 million page views on English pages and by over 30 per cent on the French side to 91,000 page views (compared to the same period in the previous year). Of those visitors, 50 per cent were drawn to the CMHR’s human rights stories. As a reflection of major public issues during those months, the most popular stories were about the experiences of Black people – including those about slavery in Canada, Africville in Nova Scotia, Viola Desmond and Nelson Mandela.
A few highlights of 2019-20
(Year ending March 31, 2020 – See annual report)
- The Witness Blanket – A historic agreement was reached with Kwakwaka’wakw master carver Carey Newman for a monumental artwork made of hundreds of objects collected from the sites of Indian residential schools and survivors across Canada. The agreement, based on both Indigenous concepts and Western legal principles, was ratified in 2019 in writing at the Museum and by oral ceremony at the K’ómoks First Nation Bighouse on Vancouver Island. A work of national importance, the Witness Blanketis now undergoing conservation at the CMHR. It will be exhibited in 2021.
- Time to Act: Rohingya Voices – This exhibition, which opened in June 2019, examines the plight of the Rohingya people of Myanmar who have been subjected to genocide and forced migration. A voice-activated, interactive feature enables Rohingya Canadians to answer visitors’ questions via recorded video clips.
- Ododo Wa: Stories of Girls in War – This exhibit, which opened in October 2019, explores the trauma of captivity, conjugal slavery and forced labour from the perspective of two Ugandan women captured as girls by the Lord’s Resistance Army. It includes a bullet-riddled skirt, hand-made drawings of life in the rebel camps, and animated films with clips from CMHR oral history interviews. A travelling version of this exhibit was also opened in Uganda.
- Friday Night Rights – Starting in November 2019, the Museum’s visiting hours were extended until 9 p.m. on Fridays, with lively performances, music and interactive programs linked to human rights – creating an accessible and engaging atmosphere for visitors to kick off the weekend. Friday Night Rights set records for evening attendance, introducing the Museum to new audiences.
- Uighur Muslims in China and the dangers of AI surveillance - In September 2019, the Museum welcomed investigative journalist Megha Rajagopalan to speak about her work to expose state surveillance and human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in China and other risks posed by artificial intelligence and information technology.
- Be an Upstander – A new online educational resource for students in Grades 5 to 8 was launched in September 2019. After exploring stories of famous upstanders for human rights like Malala Yousafzai and Viola Desmond, students learn that they too possess the traits of an upstander and are challenged to take action. The online activity, which uses drag-and-drop interactives, is linked to on-site or virtual education programs.
- Augmented reality and the Charter – An innovative way to learn about Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms through the immersive world of augmented reality was unveiled in August 2019. The Museum also welcomed back Canada’s most important historic human rights document – the Proclamation of the Constitution Act 1982, a rarely loaned document from Library and Archives Canada, signed (and smudged) in the rain by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
- The nine Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada came to the Museum in September 2019 for a historic panel discussion about the justice system and human rights. The event was part of a special sitting of the Supreme Court in Manitoba, the first time it ever convened outside Ottawa. In November 2019, Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was the keynote speaker at a fundraising gala to celebrate the Museum’s fifth anniversary.
- Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda – the Museum’s content about this atrocity was expanded with the launch of a new film for the Museum’s Level 4 theatre, produced in partnership with the organization PAGE-Rwanda. The film premiered in Montreal in December 2019 with members of the Rwandan Canadian community.
Looking ahead at 2021
- The CMHR will open a major exhibition about the power of art to prevent and respond to mass human rights violations. Artivismfeatures artwork from around the world that has encouraged awareness and action – including art about the experiences of Indigenous people in Canada. This travelling exhibition comes to the CMHR from the New York-based Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities. An opening date will be announced when the impact of pandemic measures can be further assessed.
- The Museum will also exhibit Witness Blanket: Preserving a Legacy, which introduces visitors to the conservation process that is underway for this artwork of national importance. The Witness Blanket is a 12-metre-long, cedar-framed installation embedded with over 800 objects gathered from the survivors and sites of every Indian residential school across Canada. The conservation project can be viewed alongside the Artivism exhibition when it opens in the Level 1 Gallery at a date to be determined.
- A digital experience of the Witness Blanket will also be launched this year on the Museum’s website. The CMHR is working with artist Carey Newman, Media One and Animikiii Indigenous Technology to bring the stories of this powerful artwork alive through imagery, text and video.
- The Museum will continue its journey to create an equitable workplace that disrupts systemic racism and other forms of discrimination. Management and staff are working together to implement a framework plan towards a safe, healthy and respectful work environment.