Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Media Studies


Sliwinski, Sharon


This dissertation examines the visual communication of human dignity. With the opening of human rights museums, such as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, human dignity’s visual communication has been exposed to new issues of corporeal and mediated expression. In response to photographic mediation and theory, which often poses individuals as central claimants or possessors of human dignity, human rights museums openly suggest that communities and relationships between individuals are central to human dignity’s visibility outside of the law. As such, I propose that curatorial mediation is important to the contemporary apprehension of human dignity because its notable forms – atlases, albums, and museums –help to shift conversations from individual human persons to communities of human beings. Exhibiting Human Rights: Making the Means of Dignity Visible theorizes human dignity as a relational property, which entails thinking about larger constellated strategies of representation. I theorize human dignity as a product of life shared with others, across families, communities, cultures, and borders, seen most dramatically in curatorial forms.

Combining museological notions of curation with Walter Benjamin’s concept of the constellation, this thesis demonstrates how a theory of human dignity founded on relation also grapples with its tendencies towards rationality and immateriality. Working from these forms and concepts my key questions include: How has human dignity been visually depicted? How can a focus on curation help to support a relational theorization of human dignity? And, how can an emphasis on the history of the affiliation between human dignity and curation help us to understand human rights recent move into museums? Curation, I argue provides a framework that acknowledges how our means of existence create demands on others, thus expanding conversations about the ends of human dignity. Three case studies aid in the development of my argument: 1) August Sander’s People of the 20th Century (1910-1964); 2) UNESCO’s Human Rights Exhibition Album (1950); and 3) The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (2014). Shifting attention towards exhibitionary projects offers creative and constitutive language that speaks to the communities and alliances foundational to human dignity’s contemporary communication and significance.