Notes left at the War and Women's Human Rights Museum in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Sulamith Graefenstein.

Notes left at the War and Women's Human Rights Museum in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Sulamith Graefenstein.

Travel journal: Global human rights museums

Museums are increasingly under pressure to promote social action through their educational work.

How do these institutions use violent pasts to promote social change?

ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics PhD candidate SULAMITH GRAEFENSTEIN finds the answer.

Engaging with sensitive and controversial human rights themes can be tricky for museum curators.

How do you use the museum as a platform to facilitate a meaningful encounter with a difficult past to inspire social change in the present?

It's an issue that struck me as fundamental in today's society.

It's why I have decided to write my PhD thesis on the topic, examining how museums around the world represent violent pasts in an era of Holocaust memory and human rights.

My thesis is a transnational comparative study, so on-the-ground-research was vital for its success.

Conducting research at seven museums and memorial museums spread across Asia, North America and Europe brought rich rewards.

I found there are many ways of employing the human rights concept in museums due to the unique cultural, political and financial circumstances that profoundly shape each one.

My trips also revealed some commonalities in the use of the concept of human rights across cultural and political borders, including how visitors should take action.

At the War and Women's Human Rights Museum in Seoul, South Korea, I found an institution run by the political grass-roots organisation, Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

It aims to get visitors involved in political activism.

The museum addresses the unresolved past of the former Korean "comfort women", who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the Second World War.

Visitors are explicitly asked to support the survivors' demands for reparation and an apology by Japan by joining the regular Wednesday demonstrations held opposite the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.