International Spotlight: An Interview with International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

//International Spotlight: An Interview with International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

International Spotlight: An Interview with International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

This article was released in the ICOM Canada September 2019 e-newsletter on Cultural Diplomacy. See more articles from this issue here.

Ben Fast (Alberta Museums Association; ICOM Canada)

Each e-newsletter issue will feature an international spotlight, highlighting the work of an ICOM committee, international museum, partner organization, or other related body working in the area of our newsletter theme. 

For this issue Ben Fast, ICOM Canada’s Digital Content & Outreach Coordinator, connected with Dina Bailey (Director of Methodology and Practice), Linda Norris (Global Networks Program Director), and Sarah Pharaon (Senior Director Methodology and Practice) to learn about the cultural diplomacy work conducted by and through the US-based International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. 

BF: What is the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience? 

SP: The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC) is a worldwide network of sites, museums and memory initiatives dedicated to remembering past struggles and addressing their contemporary legacies. Sites of Conscience, like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in the United States, the Gulag Museum at Perm-36 in Russia, and the District Six Museum in South Africa, activate the power of places of memory to promote a deeper understanding of the past and shape a just future. The Coalition supports its members in many ways, including providing direct funding for civic engagement programs; introducing members to a global network of similarly minded sites, which helps them establish best practices and new partnerships; organizing leadership and program development opportunities; offering training; and, conducting strategic advocacy for individual members and the Sites of Conscience movement as a whole. The Coalition includes more than 275 members in more than 66 countries. 

BF: The ICSC does a lot of work with organizations and museums based in different countries, and with subject matter that crosses borders. How does ICSC navigate those different sectors, and how does the organization’s work contribute to the idea of Cultural Diplomacy? 

LN: One key aspect of our work is the ability to listen, particularly to victims, survivors and stakeholders. We find that Sites of Conscience want to learn from others and are eager to navigate across differences. For example, last fall we hosted a webinar that brought women survivors from conflicts in Sri Lanka and Nepal together to discuss their experiences. Despite the challenges of both technology and language, these women dove deep into both personal reflections and shared concerns about justice. Mutual understanding begins at the person-to-person level. Sites of Conscience make that person-to-person dialogue possible – and it’s those conversations and reflections that begin to build trust between nations, organizations, ethnicities, religions, and gender. 

BF: ICSC connects “past struggles to today’s movements for human rights” by “[turning] memory into action.” What does that action look like for museums, and why is this an important initiative?  

LN: As I write this, ICOM members are preparing to vote on a new museum definition, which will have global implications. That definition makes explicit the importance of connecting museums and human rights. Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. [bf added] 

The proposed ICOM museum definition includes the following statement: 

[Museums] are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing. [bf added] 

What does this action look like? A great many members place a strong emphasis on engaging young people in working towards a more just future. At Constitution Hill in South Africa – a former prison and now the home of the nation’s highest court – school programs focus on making the Constitution a living, vital document, providing students with the tools to embody the constitution’s values. The Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, was the departing point for millions of European immigrants coming to the United States and Canada, however today, Antwerp is home to migrants and refugees from around the world. The museum’s Red Star Line story bus gathered current migration stories of people who moved to Antwerp and became residents. Creating that connection between different generations (and directions) of immigrants is another way to turn memory into action. 

BF: You coordinate a series of regional networks around the globe. How do these networks differ from each other, and from ICSC’s other projects? Why are regional networks important for the success of this coalition?  

LN: We work both regionally and cross-regionally. The regional networks serve several purposes: they bring together members who often have shared histories or shared interests. They allow us to more affordably connect members for in-person meetings and, over the years, the members have built strong ties of support for each other. Many members in the Latin American and Caribbean network explicitly address the history and legacy of dictatorships in the region, for instance. As each of the regional networks – and the Coalition’s membership as a whole – grow and expand, we find new interests in each region and increasingly, cross-cutting interests. Those cross-cutting interests include issues around women and gender, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, decolonization, migration, and the rising tides of xenophobia. Our ability to connect globally – and concretely in terms of capacity-building, shared resources and project support – is what has built a deep, sustainable network over the last twenty years – unlike any other. 

BF: Many of your members deal with difficult, politically-sensitive, and emotionally-charged history. How do you help those members navigate such difficult subjects and contexts? 

DB: When considering these histories, we first encourage our members to think about why they (and others) find the histories to be difficult, politically-sensitive, and emotionally-charged. In order to be able to develop solutions, we must be very clear on what the challenges are. Additionally, we recognize that the challenges often have layers of complexity to them that involve race, gender, class, power, violence, etc. Then, we support our members in becoming more aware of these layers and what they (and their visitors) bring with them into the space where these subjects are being navigated; in this way, we increase knowledge and foster empathy. Finally, we encourage action—both on the part of the member as well as on the part of the visitor.  

Now that we have better awareness, more capacity for empathy and are more consciously able to meet people where they are, we work with members on strategies to provide impactful support to visitors who want to take the next step on their knowledge/empathy/action journey. Sites of Conscience customizes a number of offerings including, but not limited to: dialogue training, implicit bias training, community engagement training, organizational inclusion assessments, dialogues on difficult histories, strategic planning, diversity and inclusion activation, interpretive planning, exhibit consultation, community-based memorialisation, and creative practice. For more information, go to:  

BF: How can Canadian museums take part in the ICSC’s work and contribute their expertise to the international community?  

SP: We are fortunate to count a number of Canadian museums and sites of memory among our members (Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Carlisle Indian School Farmhouse Coalition, Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University) and have had the opportunity to work with the Ontario Museum Association, the Saskatchewan Museums Association and will be offering a keynote address at the 2019 Interpretation Canada annual meeting. Additionally, we’ve just completed our first year of work with Parks Canada, hosting five regional workshops on dialogic interpretation. Sites of Conscience members are invested in building a global community of practice, sharing skills and subject matter expertise across national lines through our resource center, webinars and as invited trainers at onsite workshops. Sites also work collaboratively on the development of regional and global initiatives, like Women of Conscience and the National Dialogues on Immigration. We are hopeful that more Canadian sites will join the movement. They can find out more at:

2019-09-01T15:36:04-04:00September 1st, 2019|Newsletters|