Human Rights and the Individual Museum Visitor
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This paper argues for a new museum ethics, one that foregrounds the human rights and narrative power of the individual visitor. Museums neglect the voices of individual visitors. Although in recent years attention has been paid to the role of the visitor in museums, it has been in terms of a limited idea of interaction which is usually predetermined by the curator. Speaking, having a voice, however, is fundamental to the expression of one’s human rights. Museums are institutions which tell stories, but where are the stories of individual visitors? Museums have been very effective in promoting human rights topics in museums, but have done so by focussing on community aspects of human rights violations and have ignored the potential of individual responses. They have often highlighted the violation of human rights as experienced by communities, rather than individuals, and have often limited individual stories to illustration of the wider history of communities. One of the effects of doing this has been the emotional and moral reduction of histories to what Levy and Sznaider call “universalized” narratives, that is, narratives which have lost their particularized qualities. Similarly, Schaffer and Smith observe the entrenchment of the “ur-narrative” and its consequent denial of specific, real individual experiences. This paper draws on theories of narrative and human rights to argue for a greater narrative role of the individual visitor. It argues that fostering politicized, ethical reading and responses in museums is a human rights duty of museums which would enable far greater participation of individual visitors. It argues also that the individual visitor has a big role to play in tempering the universalized, frozen quality of many repetitious museum narratives.
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