What is Human Rights Education?

Amnesty International’s definition of Human Rights Education: 

‘Human rights education is a deliberate, participatory practice aimed at empowering individuals, groups and communities through fostering knowledge, skills and attitudes consistent with internationally recognized human rights principles.

As a medium to long-term process, human rights education seeks to develop and integrate people’s cognitive, effective and attitudinal dimensions, including critical thinking, in relation to human rights. Its goal is to build a culture of respect for and action in the defense and promotion of human rights for all.’

Amnesty International

The United Nations General Assembly stated:

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms…
—Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
—Article 26.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


The District Six Public Sculpture Project

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(All photographs are taken from the Public Sculpture catalog)

The District Six Museum is located in Cape Town, South Africa.  The museum is located in District Six, as a “result of exploration into the inner and outer working lives within the area.  The museum seeks to uncover the many places where the institution has been involved in ways which link it back to its founding momentum, but takes it beyond its original boundaries” (Bonita Bennett, City Site Museum: Reviewing memory practices at the District Six Museum).

An active relationship to the site has been at the core of the Museum’s existence.  Over the years, the relationship has been configured in different ways, but its embodiment both tangibly and metaphorically in the Museum space has remained constant.

In 1997, members of the community and museum came together in order to form what would later be called the “District Six Public Sculpture Project.”  Renate Meyer stated in the introduction of the exhibition’s catalogue that they “had decided that the exhibition would serve as a forum for different voices.  We did not therefore curate the exhibition in the traditional way, but saw ourselves as rather providing information, support and co-ordination to the participating artists” (Meyer, p.1).  Works were created to inform rather than dominate the landscape and visitors.  The artists had free reign on the sculpture but materials were important to reduce the possibility of vandalism or thief.  On opening day, Tony Morphet states that the “line between accident and intention had begun to waver a bit” as visitors questioned if something was a sculpture or had it been there before, just overlooked (Morphet, p.8).  As individuals continue down the paths to many different sculptures, they soon may start to piece together that the cardboard boxes could be the homes of returned district “sixers”.

This alternative form of sculpture not only stands for the physical markers of significant historical sites but also commemorating the people who once lived there.  The District Six Public Sculpture Project has opened up the questions of traditional sculpture exhibitions by asking both the staff and visitor to revaluate how, why and in what form public sculptures can operate within.  The sculptures not only make awareness of the emptiness of space, the void of what use to be, but also brings awareness of the people that still remain.  While the residents of District Six have long since been removed and resettled in other areas of Cape Town, the memories of their homes remain.

In an article written by Emma Bedford and Tracy Murinik, they state that:

“the need to remember every detail of what has been lost haunts those who have lost it: the instinct of the amputee to exercise the absent limb. The urgent desire to re-establish the security of what is known and familiar; of that what reminds you of yourself, and says to others that you exist.  The desolation that comes with losing your markers. The silence that comes being removed from your signals. The horror that consumes yourself now apparently invisible. Your existence doubted.  You’re being negated, nullified, vulnerable to dispersal by the wind, your roots un-rooted.  Your desires flouted; your needs unheard.  Your voice left thin and in articulable.  Your mind searching for proofs of what you are, and markers of what you were, and props for sustenance and survive” (Bedford, p. 12).

These are just a few of the feelings that can be felt by individuals that have been forced out of their homes and surroundings through the use of physical, mental, economic or a number of other forms of violence.  No matter what the form, the scars remain.  A poem written by Bedford and Murinik for the catalogue shows how the survivors of such tragedy need more than physicality:

“The need to remember to state your claim.

The need to remember to state your history.

The need to remember to state your family.

To stake your land. To plot your childhood.

To stake your humanity.

To hold on to your mind.

To resist the deadening losses.

To insist that it can never happen again.”  (Bedford, p.13)

Artist Clive van den Berg’s use of fire within his sculpture promoted “reflections on how we remember, of the scars that exist, and on how we envision ourselves into the future.  Invoking insight as to how we encounter memory, his images flickered into varying degrees of clarity and consciousness“(Bedford, p. 19).

For many returning residents, the sculpture project allowed for a moment for them to remember what use to be on the land.  For many, the “commemorative voices, voices of survivors, voices of family members, voices of veterans, voices of people who have been involved in these extreme situations and speak out of the voice of experience: I was there; I know what happened” can be called out to the artists and those who come to see the exhibition (Cobb, p. 15).

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I would like to personally thank the District Six Museum, staff, volunteers, and other participants in welcoming me into the museum in addition to helping me find my way into the history of the past and action of the present.

I would also like to thank the University of Illinois-Chicago Provost Award committee for receiving the grant that allowed me to work with the District Six Museum.

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Cobb, Daniel M. and Helen Sheumaker. Memory Matters. State University of New York Press. 2011

Bedford, Emma and Tracy Murinik.  “Re-membering that Place: Public Projects in District Six”.

The District Six Public Sculpture Project. District Six Museum. 1998.

Bennet, Bonita, Chrischene Julius and Carin Soudien. City – Site – Museum: Reviewing

Memory Practices and t he District Six Museum. District Six Museum. 2008.

Meyer, Renate. “Introduction”. The District Six Public Sculpture Project. District Six Museum.

The Audience and the Exhibition

For those in the field of designing exhibitions within the human rights memorial museums, it never is an easy job.  Presenting violence does not prevent violence after all.  When creating new alternative exhibitions that address such violations, it is important to become multi-disciplined in the process.  Using common themes by drawing on academic literature and public discussion of critical museology, heritage management, collective memory, public scholarship, and transitional justice can help structure the exhibition, including when attempting to explain the reason the conflict occurred in the first place.

The word “curate” in its root meaning of “caring for” allowing us to expand the discussion outward from museums and exhibitions to encompass heritage sties, memorials, and other alternative art exhibitions.  When looking at human rights violation exhibitions, “to ‘care for’ the past is to make something of it, to place and order it in a meaningful way in the present rather than to abandon it” (Lehrer, p.4).  But when creating a new exhibition, no longer does it represent the violation but now the exhibition’s goal is to make things happen.  Audiences must be transformed into participants.  Comment books no longer exist but instead, become part of the exhibition as objects.  Every experience that is brought in with the visitor becomes a part of the exhibition and the way the story is told.

How the story is told is something that the curatorial staff needs to address from the very beginning.  They must ask themselves whether the exhibit is intended to make the victims/veterans feel better about the surviving or to make the visitor understand the consequences of the violation.  After one of the paths is decided, then the curator can determine how to make the information available to that intended audience without visitor isolation occurring.  While an exhibition with the intent on celebrating the survivors can easily tell the story without bringing into the difficult aspects of the violation that had occurred, an exhibition based off of understanding consequences makes such an exhibition more difficult.  Explaining the dark side of humans and attempting to explain how someone/a group of people could destroy others lives is something most individuals do not want to hear.  Visitors regress, isolate themselves or could even punish themselves when informed of the horrific events of today’s world.

When installing such an exhibition, Bridget Conley-Zilkic and Nancy Gillette of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum state their three “inherent tensions in the task of exhibiting content about genocide: between presenting a didactic lesson about the concept of genocide and telling the stories of what happened in specific places; between the presentation of the history of any single case of genocide and the unique experiences of individuals; and between the reality of extreme violence against people in distant places and the attempt to inspire response to an often overwhelming problem from afar” (Conley-Zilkic, p.36).  In order to create an exhibition in which the audience does not have such negative effects, Conley-Zilkic and Gillette state that there is the intense need to confirm exactly how everything is to be addressed within the exhibition and to continue throughout the exhibit with that same tactic.  If the curator wants to the visitor to feel like the violation is close to them, in their backyard for example, then that feeling needs to remain throughout the exhibition, not just in one part.

In addition to overcoming the obstacle of the audience/participant becoming isolated within their own thoughts and choices of pain, is trying to figure out where lies the middle ground.  When does an experience become too violent for the audience?  Like the path that the exhibition is headed down, the curatorial staff must decide if they should ease on the horrific information or expect the audience to toughen up.  If the answer is the former, how can the curatorial staff keep the audience even more isolated from the sensations that they are trying to convey?  How do you confront without provoking, to invite and listen while also educating and enlightening? How d you illuminate horrors experienced by everyday people in real life?

One of the ways is by creating a dialogue with the visitor about their own experience through the use of material culture.  Exhibition designers must provide a safe environment in which the visitors have control over how and when they respond to the information in addition to how they relate their own experiences to the provided information.  Depending on who the visitor is depends on how they relate to the information provided.  Like stated before, is the visitor a survivor?  A friend or family of a survivor?  Or is the visitor someone else completely?  The decision on how the information is provided can not only alter the state in which the visitor acknowledges the information but also, how they bring the knowledge outside the institution.


Conley-Zilkic, Bridget and Nancy Gillette.  “Challenging Visitors to Move from Memory to Action

at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum”.  Museums, Memorials, and Sites of Conscience.  Exhibitionist. 2011.

Patterson, Monica Eileen .“Teaching Tolerance through Objects of Hatred: The Jim Crow

Museum of Racist Memorabilia as “Counter-Museum””.  Curating Difficult Knowledge:Violent Pasts in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

Lehrer, Erica and Cynthia E. Milton.  “Introduction”.  Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

Memory of History

“First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade-unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”(Martin Niemoller)

Throughout the world, there has become a constant theme to “forgive and forget.”  To forgive is something that is not only humanly but can also be the hardest part to accomplish when accepting the trauma that had occurred.  Forgiveness is arguably not about accepting the horror that has happened but instead, to become cleansed of the grief and anger.  But, forgetting is something much different.  Forgetting is choosing to expel the thoughts, memories and emotions from one’s mind and body, accepting that the terror is of the past, somewhere dark never to be seen again.  Unfortunately though, as time has shown, this is not always the correct path. Within the blog, a demand to the public will occur, not to stand up and fight for human rights with pickets and fists, but instead, to never forget the tragic events that have occurred in man’s lifetime.  Only when the public remembers such horrors can future violations be stopped before spiraling out of control.  In Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel’s, famous poem, he states that he did not speak out when the others were taken by the Nazi’s.  But when they finally came for him, there was no one to speak up.  By choosing to block out the pain of watching others be taken to their death, he eliminated the hope that someone might try and stop the Nazi’s from taking him to his own death.  People who choose to violate human rights can only do so, if no one chooses to stand up and say ‘no, I remember what happened last time, and it will never, never happen again’.

Predicated in the early twentieth-century writing of Maurice Halbwachs and later relooked at by Michel Foucault, “contemporary scholarship has posed memory as an activity of collectivity rather than (or in addition to) individuated, cognitive work.  The assumption of a shared understanding of the past is captured in the multiple modifiers attached to ‘memory’ in recent years” (Dickinson, p. 3).  Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson and Brian L. Ott summarized in the introduction of Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials that contemporary memory scholars have taken a number of positions on remembering being taken place in groups.  They include:

“(1) memory is activated by present concerns, issues, or anxieties;

(2) memory narrates shared identities, constructing sense of communal belonging;

(3) memory is animated by affect;

(4) memory is partial, partisan, and thus often contested;

(5) memory relies on material and/or symbolic supports;

(6) memory has a history” (Dickinson, p. 5)

Memory is not about the concerns and issues of the present but instead, a way of understanding, justifying, excusing or even subverting conditions of the present based off of the past.  Some groups may even start to popularize some events or individuals over others due to their ability of choice.  Public memory embraces that which the group thinks is important and worthy of preservation.  David Lowenthal suggests that “the prime function of memory…is not to preserve the past but to adapt it so as to enrich and manipulate the past… Memories are not readymade reflections of the past, but eclectic, selective reconstructions based on subsequent actions and perceptions and on ever-changing codes by which we delineate, symbolize, and classify the world around us” (Dickinson, p. 6).

Looking back at the sixth position of group memory, it is important to be able to recognize the differences between memory and history as two separate entities in addition to their connection to one another.  The differences and relationships between history and memory in Pierre Nora’s account has surely been the most cited by other scholars:

“Memory and history, far from being synonymous, are thus in many respects opposed.  Memory is life, always embodied in living societies and as such in permanent evolution, subject to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of the distortions to which it is subject, vulnerable in various ways to appropriation and manipulation, capable of lying dormant for long periods only to be suddenly reawakened.  History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer.  Memory is always a phenomenon of the present, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past.  Memory, being a phenomenon of emotion and magic, accommodates only those facts that suit it. It thrives on vague, telescoping reminiscences, on hazy general impressions or specific symbolic details… History, being an intellectual, non-religious activity, calls for analysis and critical discourse.  Memory situates remembrance in a sacred context.  History ferrets it out; it turns whatever it touches into prose… At the heart of history is a criticism destructive of spontaneous memory.” (Dickinson, p. 25)

While the distinction Nora draws on is not universally accepted, it does serve to mark out different tendencies that are frequently attributed to memory and history.  While some public memory scholars continue to look at the sharp distinction of representing the past like Nora, most public memory scholars are more likely to “embrace Marita Sturken’s far less stark delineation; she suggests that history and memory are ‘entangled,’ rather than comprising completely distinct activities”, memory has history (Dickinson, p. 26).

In the end, rather one believes that memory and history are joined at the hip or separated as individual entities, the result is still remains.  When looking at the violent past to help ensure a more peaceful future, both the memory of those who survived and the history written in books, serve as vital stories to help create the intelligence needed to forgive those who didn’t know, but never forget the pain of what happened.


Dickinson, Greg, Carole Blair, and Brian L Ott.  Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials. University of Alabama Press. 2010.

Lehrer, Erica and Cynthia E. Milton.  “Introduction”.  Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.