The best history and civilization museums curate and display artifacts that reflect the culture in which they were created. If the exhibits draw you in and capture your imagination for a few hours, they have fulfilled their mission. Museums dedicated to human rights, on the other hand, go further, painstakingly developing themed exhibits to encourage critical thinking through depictions of how deeply injustice, corruption and cruelty impacted a society.
The most effective human rights museums do more than recount a sobering aspect of a place’s history. Visitors are participants rather than passive viewers, and the exhibits and interactive activities prompt them to consider how to make the world a better place with what they learn from the past.
Internationally prominent museums such as Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance, Yad Vashem in Israel and National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta evoke emotions that linger long after a visit and adapt to new generations of visitors with regular additions and renovations.
Some larger museums collaborate with smaller museums, universities and human rights groups to keep educational missions dynamic and relevant. Museo Internacional para la Democracia in Rosario, Argentina, and Museum of New Zealand | Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, New Zealand, partner with various academic and human rights groups to develop social initiatives.
Here are a few more museums worth adding to your itinerary, sure to bring greater depth of understanding of a destination’s people and history, warts and all.
The entrance to the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, itself is a conversation starter. Upon entering, one can easily see the balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968. The building layout keeps King’s legacy alive and relevant as it takes visitors through the civil rights movement in the United States from the 17th century forward through multimedia and interactive exhibits, short movies, archival photos and the personal effects of those who dared to take on a system based on inequality. Two nearby buildings connected to King’s death pick up the story and carry it into the present day. Many of the installations put one in the shoes of those seeking justice and add a first-person perspective to everything a visitor may have learned previously. In 2016 the museum became a Smithsonian Affiliate Museum and is recognized in the National Register of Historic Places.
With Oslo, Norway, proudly standing as the birthplace of the Nobel Peace Prize, it makes perfect sense it is also home to the Nobel Peace Center. Opened in 2005, the building not only features displays about the prize laureates and their accomplishments but also delivers full-sensory immersion incorporating interactive displays, exhibits and special theater and concert events. Although the museum offers a disclaimer the exhibits are “not specifically about human rights,” the stories told about the laureates and their motivations and goals provide compelling insights that expand what we know about the courage required to make their worlds safer and more just.
Kura Hulanda Museum in Willemstad, Curaçao, pulls together a powerful assemblage of artifacts that collectively tells the story of the slave trade in the Americas and spells out the consequences of slavery in the Caribbean, Africa and America. The mission of the museum, according to its curators, is to help the public come to terms with historic realities where one race or country has treated another abominably and deal with these actions in an honest way. Some installations are dramatic and terrifying, especially those depicting torture and the impact of groups like the Ku Klux Klan. However, they are balanced out with displays shedding light on how groups and individuals were able to seek justice during and after the abolition of slavery, such as a room comparing the efforts of Black Panthers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King., Jr.
In Japan the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum continues to be one of the most powerful anti-war museums in the world, with its honest and sometimes graphic displays documenting the effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in World War II. While the personal effects of victims and articles of war are heart-wrenching, the accompanying texts provide some of the most effective visuals. The Museum of Peace and Human Rights, 200 miles northeast in Osaka, is a companion museum whose exhibits also spell out a mission to educate visitors about the horrors of war and human rights issues involving Japan’s ethnic minority and LGBTQIA+ communities.
Two small museums in western Japan near Nagoya, Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum and Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, tell a lesser-known but equally important story of Japanese citizens who acted with compassion when the fate of displaced Jews escaping from Nazi-occupied Europe fell into their hands. The story of Sugihara’s diplomatic career and decision to place human life above it (issuing 2,139 “visas for life,” defying his superiors) is recounted at Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall. Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum shows the Jewish exodus from the perspectives of those who escaped from Europe with a “visa for life” and the townspeople who offered food, shelter and other assistance. Another display documents the story behind Polish orphans transported to Tsuruga 20 years earlier.
As a human rights learning experience, Cape Town’s Robben Island Museum transcends its fame as the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of a life sentence for his work to stop South Africa’s apartheid government in its tracks. While visitors get to see the inside of his cell, they also hear the story of the anti-apartheid fight on a broader scale as told by guides — some former prisoners who interacted with Mandela directly. In fact, a latrine where Mandela and the others exchanged ideas on how to proceed in the nation’s civil rights struggle was referred to as the “university.” In addition to Robben Island and Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill, Kwa Muhle Museum in Durban provides other fascinating perspectives of apartheid with visuals and artifacts depicting struggles of the minority communities in eastern South Africa.
The location of Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Buenos Aires, a former detention center operated during the era of Argentina’s dictatorship (1976–1983), lies nearby Plaza de Mayo, where the mothers of “disappeared” individuals suspected of protesting the dictatorship continue to demonstrate four decades later. What’s inside the building makes a statement about the cruelty and violence of various military regimes throughout Latin America. In addition to exhibits documenting the regimes, the museum offers activities and workshops designed to encourage democracy, justice and human rights.
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