Toronto Metropolitan University

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Blurring the Boundaries of International Human Rights Law: The Human Rights Work of Museums

journal contribution
posted on 2023-03-07, 20:42 authored by Jennifer OrangeJennifer Orange

International human rights law is regularly criticized for (1) its structure within a system of state sovereignty, (2) its top down, universalist perspective of the international system, and (3) its lack of success in improving the lived experiences of victims of inequality and abuse. Museums, however, provide different, and even expansive ways of imagining the limitations of international human rights law. For example, museums may rely on government funding, but unlike legal institutions, most museums act at arm's length from government and fall in a middle space between the government, local residents, and visiting tourists. While museum work may be grounded in local experience, museums often represent the "foreign" within their walls and purposefully interact with museums and communities abroad, whereas law tends to separate the domestic from the international. Their work is not only geographically diverse, but also temporally so. Museums are able to show current developments in art and science while making connections throughout human history to the distant past. They are not limited by the rigors of law and the syntax of language. Despite how museums differ from legal institutions, they work within the same legal frameworks that limit other human rights actors. While this Article concludes that museum practice allows us to imagine new ways to engage in human rights at the boundaries of law, in each case I find that museums are also limited by the same histories and structures that limit the international human rights legal project.




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