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Inside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the labyrinth of conscience

James Adams reflects on a monument to both moral atrocities and a more tolerant future – that won't turn off visitors.

Interactive by CHRISTOPHER MANZA and LAURA BLENKINSOP, Graphic by MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL. Graphic image courtesy Architecture49.

Trudging back to my hotel room one afternoon this week after touring the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights, I wondered why the weariness I felt seemed familiar, so déjà vu. Certainly the museum, which finally opens to the public this weekend after a construction and installation phase of more than five years, can take a lot out of a visitor physically and emotionally. The $351-million building, a bulky gyre of glass, limestone, steel and concrete designed by U.S. architect Antoine Predock, takes up almost 24,300 square metres – roughly four football fields, as CMHR publicists are fond of saying – on a site of Treaty One land near the juncture of the Red and Assinboine Rivers.

It’s a picturesque locale. But haunted, too. Less than a kilometre to the north are the Alexander Docks where last month the body of murdered 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found wrapped in a plastic bag. On Wednesday, a flotilla of about eight boats was expected to drag the Red near the CMHR. The hope was, if hope is the right word, to recover from the river bottom whatever remains there may be of some of the purportedly dozens of aboriginal women who’ve been murdered or gone missing in recent years.

The Basket Theatre in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg Manitoba. (Lyle Stafford For The Globe and Mail)

One of the first galleries encountered in the CMHR – the only one with an outdoor terrace facing the Red – is, in fact, called Indigenous Perspectives. Dedicated to exploring what the museum calls “aboriginal concepts of humanity and our responsibilities to each other,” it’s centred on a large, striking assembly of slats of pine shaped like a basket. There’s seating inside, primarily to permit the viewing of a 360-degree film but the space also can be used for discussions, performances and the telling of stories. Maybe, some day, even stories about Tina Fontaine.

There are 11 galleries in total in the CMHR, staggered over seven levels, taking up a little over 4,000 square metres. All are accessed via an astonishing Escher-inspired labyrinth of ascending, gently inclined walkways, each covered in back-lit translucent alabaster imported from Spain.

Of course, there are elevators. But since Mr. Predock and the museum’s New York-based exhibit planner Ralph Appelbaum conceived the CMHR experience as “a journey from darkness to light,” “a climb to the mountain top,” walking’s the preferred way to go. And walk you will – almost a kilometre en route to the museum’s pinnacle, the 100-metre-high Israel Asper Tower of Hope, which is itself circumnavigated by a curling white metal staircase similar to what Frank Gehry installed in the Art Gallery of Ontario six years ago, only way scarier.

I’d never seen a museum quite like the CMHR, so why the déja vu? The answer came while I was reading a 2007 article by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik on the evolution of the museum. Its earliest iteration was “the museum as mausoleum,” a place like the Louvre, or the pioneer museum in Simcoe County, “where you go to see old things ... and re-enter the past.” This was succeeded by the “museum as machine,” not a place “where you went to commune with the past,” but “a place where you went to learn how to be modern.” Like the Guggenheim in New York. More recently, Mr. Gopnik argues, we’ve seen the rise of the “museum as mall” – not a citadel, in other words, but an accessible “arena” of y’all-come sociability and ritual.

At that, I realized the weariness I’d felt at the CMHR was akin to the lassitude I used to feel years ago wandering through the sprawl of the West Edmonton Mall. The CMHR, of course, has no wave pool, no NHL-size skating rink – but it does partake of the same sense of spectacle we seem to require of our public places, whatever their raison d’être. Hence, among other features at the museum, the Stuart Clark Garden of Contemplation, an oasis of plants, water and rugged basalt rock lumps mined from the dormant volcanos of Inner Mongolia.

Last month, Mr. Appelbaum told a group of travel writers that museums today are part of the “reality-based entertainment” industry complex. Extraordinary architecture (more architecture, perhaps, than necessary), audacious presentation, cutting-edge technology – “it’s about protecting the museum” from all the other distractions we have to choose from.

If all that dazzle, be it in a shopping mall or cultural emporium, can be exhausting, it is necessary, perhaps, to simultaneously compete with even just the 20 or so other “museums of conscience” already out there in the world and to animate human rights, an abstract concept (“more field than discipline,” in Mr. Applebaum’s words) for a broad public.

Looking down on alabaster ramps connecting the various galleries at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Lyle Stafford For The Globe and Mail)

‘The suffering Olympics’

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in the spring of 2007 that the CMHR would be the country’s fifth federal museum, based in Winnipeg, with the government providing $100-million towards capital costs and $21.7-million for annual operations, the initiative was greeted with applause – and dread.

Applause because it realized, at least in part, the hard-fought-for vision of its prime mover, the Winnipeg media mogul Israel Asper, who’d embarked on what many deemed a quixotic cause in July, 2000. (Upon Mr. Asper’s death in 2003, the initiative was taken up by his daughter, Gail, who, through the Friends of the CMHR Foundation, has so far overseen the solicitation of $147.5-million from more than 8,000 donors in the private sector.)

The dread arose because heretofore it was widely assumed that the best way to protect and popularize human rights was through the documentation, presentation and commemoration of their violation, largely through the display of artifacts. Certainly this remains the case with Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda and Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

But this was not to be an institution dedicated to a specific horror. Legislation passed in 2008 outlined the CMHR’s primary roles as preserving and promoting Canadian heritage, contributing to collective memory and inspiring research and learning. However, the legislative summary appended to the bill creating the CMHR said the institution would “house the largest museum gallery in Canada devoted to the subject of the Holocaust.” Strenuous complaints ensued from segments of many communities – First Nations, Ukrainian-Canadians, Polish-Canadians, Armenian-Canadians, among them – who claimed the CMHR, by “privileging” the Holocaust in what U.S. scholar Antony Polonsky calls “the suffering Olympics,” was guilty of “a lack of representational adequacy.”

On the other hand, some German-Canadians feared a Holocaust gallery would shine too strong a light on their Fatherland’s troubled legacies. Wasn’t Stalin a bad guy? How about Pol Pot? And shouldn’t a federal, taxpayer-subsidized institution be contributing to social cohesion, not undermining it?

Stuart Murray, named CMHR president and CEO by Mr. Harper in 2009 after six years as head of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party, said in an interview “it took [the museum] a couple of years to turn the channel from what we weren’t to start talking about what we were.” But the CMHR realized the best way – the Canadian way – to be a human rights museum was not to dwell inordinately on human wrongs. In late 2012 then-Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore warned that the museum had to be a forum for unity and conversation – “the museum as the nation’s kitchen table,” to quote the ever-pithy Mr. Appelbaum – “because taxpayers are not going to pump in $21-million a year to operate this museum if they see it as a perpetual source of division for the people of Winnipeg, the people of Manitoba and the people of Canada.”

The approach, then, was to focus on “the broad issue of human rights [through] a human-rights-education lens,” grounded in Canadian history, Canadian experiences,” noted Mr. Murray. The museum would organize itself around particular themes and ideas. Stories – told through digital technology, passive, interactive and immersive – would constitute its “collection,” not artifacts.

Content, moreover, would change, not every day or every week, mind you, because “we’re not a news agency,” said exhibitions and digital media co-ordinator Corey Timpson. “But we know and we believe the subject of human rights is adapting and evolving and changing and we have to keep up with that.”

An interactive exhibit in the Turning Points for Humanity gallery at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Lyle Stafford For The Globe and Mail)

Object lessons

Museums used to celebrate both the aura of “the real thing” and the act of witnessing implied between viewer and “the testament of the object.” Think of the power of seeing the 4,000 dusty shoes from the Majdanek concentration camp housed since 1993 in the Holocaust Memorial Museum or, at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the bright red tunic worn by Isaac Brock that day in October, 1812, when he was fatally felled by sniper’s bullet precisely targeted at his heart. Can such palpable treasures be adequately replaced by, say, the 512 video clips that the CMHR claims to have prepared or the 18 mixed-media story niches in its Canadian Journeys gallery?

The CMHR is not entirely bereft of things. There are more than 250 artifacts scheduled for display, an estimated 80 per cent of them loans. One bound to attract an audience, at least for a while, is the original 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an unprecedented loan from Library and Archives Canada. Printed on Manitoba flax paper, the Charter plays a key role in the “creation myth” of the CMHR: Gail Asper, as president of the Asper Foundation, used to accompany Canadian high-school students to Washington to see the Holocaust Museum and such key U.S. touchstones as the original Declaration of Independence. She got to wondering why they were flying such a distance to pay homage to a foreign country’s trophies. Weren’t there artifacts in Ottawa – the Charter, for instance – that the kids could be seeing instead?

As it turns out, the Charter is not displayed or permitted to tour. Only by some miracle of suasion is it now in Winnipeg, albeit displayed under strict conditions – hung behind dark glass that can be illuminated for only 20 seconds at a time for a total of four hours a day, with the loan ending after the Charter has been exposed for a total of 625 hours.

The CMHR figures it has the Charter for about 14 weeks if the exposure protocol is “maxed out” every business day.

"Traces" by artist Rebecca Belmore at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Lyle Stafford For The Globe and Mail)

Another object, this one a permanent installation, is likely to be an enduring favourite. Called Traces, it’s a site-specific work conceived by the award-winning aboriginal artist Rebecca Belmore for the Indigenous Perspectives gallery.

It consists of some 14,000 fired “beads” of Red River Valley gumbo, each bead attached to the other by metal threads to form a wavy wall piece nine metres high, nearly 74 square metres in area. From a distance Traces looks, variously, like a blanket, a teepee, a totem pole, a Kasimir Malevich sculpture, a giant reddish ghost. Up close the clay beads, formed by hand by dozens of volunteers, look rather like bones – skulls perhaps or skeleton fingers – or dried corn husks, faces. Ms. Belmore says she was inspired, in part, by the excavation in 2008 of more than 400,000 aboriginal artifacts during a lengthy pre-construction archeological dig.

Yes, CMHR visitors will find a Holocaust gallery on the fourth level. It doesn’t feel especially large. It’s not encyclopedic either, with just three overarching themes – abuse of state power, persecution and war and genocide – each tightly congruent with the larger “message” of human rights.

In the persecution section, the focus expands beyond European Jewry to include the suffering of Roma, homosexuals, the handicapped and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But centred in the space is a small theatre made of black metal and shards of glass, a reference to 1938’s Kristallnacht; the theatre is screening a short film on Canada’s own experiences with anti-Semitism, with particular emphasis on the country’s dismal admission of Jewish refugees from 1933 through the years just after the Second World War.

In the nearby Breaking the Silence gallery is another small theatre, this one screening a 10-minute documentary about the Holodomor, the Soviet-orchestrated Ukraine famine of 1932-33 and one of the five genocides officially recognized by Canada’s Parliament. The film explores, in part, how the Western media both suppressed news of the famine and contributed to what’s known about it today. Followers of the CMHR’s fortunes know that some Ukrainian-Canadians have criticized the museum for insufficiently recognizing both the Holodomor and the internment, between 1914 and 1920, of thousands of Ukrainians and other Europeans as “enemy aliens” under Canada’s War Measures Act. These days CMHR officials like to point out that the museum deals with these issues in more than 10 instances, including the film and a “Defining Genocide” exhibit.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg Manitoba. The CMHR, which opens September 20th, is the first national museum to be built in nearly half a century, and the first outside the National Capital Region.

A museum ‘for’ human rights

So will this be enough to stay further complaints and talk of boycotts? And will Jewish-Canadians who have long pressed for a Canadian Holocaust museum see the CMHR gallery as too modest?

Even as it rolls out the welcome for the 117,000 visitors expected during its first six or seven months of operation, University of Manitoba Press is publishing a hefty tome of essays on the CMHR and other museums of conscience, The Idea of a Human Rights Museum, that’s sure to be a catalytic document. One contribution, by Dirk Moses, an Australian professor of global and colonial history in the 19th and 20th centuries, argues that the CMHR is “a flawed compromise” with an “incoherent message,” shaped by “an ad hoc eclecticism driven by domestic pressures rather than a systematic and coherent vision.”

Angela Cassie, the museum’s director of communications and external relations, says it would be better to judge the CMHR in five or 10 years, when, it’s hoped, “a sense of shared ownership” among visitors have more fully evolved. “Right now is just the end of the beginning,” she said.

Adds Mr. Murray: “One of our greatest opportunities and challenges is to be a place where my father, who’s a farmer from Saskatchewan will feel as engaged in this journey as scholar from the University of Toronto.”

Perhaps even trickier will be how the museum realizes the “for” in its name. “For,” after all, implies advocacy but, pace James Moore, it almost behooves the museum, as, ostensibly, an arm’s-length Crown corporation, to maintain a strict neutrality even as it supports something called “human rights.” Mr. Murray says the CMHR “shouldn’t be afraid to bring in issues” – the museum already has co-sponsored events such as last year’s Ryerson University Conference on Prevention of Mass Atrocities – “but there’s a balance to be brought to [them]. We have to be nimble.”

Thus, he says, it’s unlikely the CMHR would ever press the Harper government for a national inquiry into the disappearance of native women. However, if the premiers recent push for a national roundtable on the matter comes to fruition, “why wouldn’t it be here?” he asked. “This is the centre for discussion and dialogue on human rights. We have to start proving that on the basis of bringing issues in, bringing on debate and allowing the public to participate.”

Of course, the greatest, perhaps most extravagant ambition of the CMHR is that its bazaar of moral kiosks, in tandem with its programming and educational regimes, will engender a new, larger generation of human rights advocates, activists even, while helping create a sophisticated, tolerant culture that sees so-called “others” as brothers. (In fact, once the Friends of the CMHR finishes raising the final $2.5-million in its $150-million private-sector fundraising campaign, it plans to create an endowment that will bring thousands of students from across Canada to the museum each year.) “We were born to be good. We were born to do good,” says Ralph Appelbaum. “This is about finding the tools to realize that.”

Is it too much to suggest that one measure of the CMHR’s long-term success might be a reduction in the number of girls and women suffering the fate of Tina Fontaine? Let’s just say the hard part is beginning for the CMHR.

James Adams is a feature writer with Globe Arts.

Free public tours of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, 85 Israel Asper Way, Winnipeg, occur Saturday and Sunday. However, the 9,000 admissions have already been spoken for. The CMHR opens as a paid-admission institution Sept. 27. Until the end of the year it will be open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT. Among the many opening events Saturday and Sunday is a free outdoor evening concert Saturday just east of the CMHR featuring Bruce Cockburn, Buffy Sainte-Marie, A Tribe Called Red, Shad and others. Details: www.theforks.com.

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