Activating historic sites as centers for citizen engagement with human rights issues

Around the world, people instinctively turn to places of memory to come to terms with the past and chart a course for the future. Memory is a critical language and terrain of human rights. These places can be a powerful and critical tool for building a lasting culture of human rights. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience works to build the capacity of historic sites around the world to foster dialogue on pressing social issues and promote democratic and humanitarian values. It seeks to change the role of historic sites in civic life from places of passive learning to centers for active citizen engagement. Using the power of place to help communities have ongoing dialogues about the meaning of their past and the shape of their future.

Founded in 1999 by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, the Coalition began with nine additional historic sites around the world: the District Six Museum (South Africa); Gulag Museum (Russia); Liberation War Museum; (Bangladesh); Maison des Esclaves (Senegal); Memoria Abierta (Argentina); National Civil Rights Museum (USA); Terezín Memorial (Czech Republic); Women’s Rights National Historical Park (USA); and the Workhouse (United Kingdom). Believing that historic sites can be powerful catalysts for public awareness and action, the group pledged to work together to develop effective strategies for activating our places of memory as centers for dialogue on contemporary issues.

Transforming historic site museums from places of passive learning to places of active citizen engagement, the Coalition uses the history of what happened at its sites as the foundation for dialogue about how and where these issues are alive today and about what can be done to address them. The Coalition defines sites of conscience as initiatives that interpret history through sites, engage in programs that stimulate dialogue on pressing social issues, promote humanitarian and democratic values, and share opportunities for public involvement in issues raised at the site. It collaborates with leading human rights organizations to link history with current campaigns and inspire citizen participation in current struggles for truth and justice.

Three aspects of sites of conscience facilitate effective dialogue on divisive, contemporary human rights issues. First, by discussing current issues in the context of the past, the museums created a sense of distance that allowed certain conversations to happen that would have been too difficult otherwise. Second, by looking at the stories of individual, real people, the sites bring difficult, abstract issues down to a human level, a scale on which they can be productively discussed. Third, the coalition’s member museums bring people together in an emotional setting for dialogue that, in the words of one participant, “set everyone a little off balance,” shifting people out of their normal, rigid, stances and allowing them to look at these issues in a new light.

Sites of conscience can serve as powerful new tools in at least four processes in the defense of human rights: a) truth seeking and building a culture of “never again;” b) reparations; c) reconciliation; and d) civic engagement, or democracy building. The Coalition’s member museums have been significant factors in the recognition of human rights abuse in their countries, in bringing perpetrators to justice and to creating precedents for accountability to ensure abuses will not happen again. But, most importantly, they have begun to develop a culture of human rights and peace to bring together a broader citizenry that will actively oppose human rights abuse in the future.

In transplanting this tactic, it is important to use the specific history of your site and understand the ways the spaces make people feel, helping them to connect to the broader issues you are trying to raise. It is also important to engage conflicting perspectives in order to ensure that diverse groups will participate in the dialogue created by the project. Sites of conscience should serve as an open forum, for raising both sides of an issue and encouraging debate stimulates citizen participation more effectively than teaching a single story to a passive audience. Most importantly, use the individual human experience as a starting point, in order to help visitors connect the story to their own personal experiences and inspire them to take action and work towards lasting justice and reconciliation.

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.