The Human Rights Museum Winnipeg

By Abi King | Canada

Apr 05
What does it take to make a museum and are some human rights worth more or less than others?

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights

These are the two core questions that emerge through a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. They bubble up through the purpose-built pathway that coils from the charcoal basement to the glass-lit summit 100 metres above the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.

This is the only museum of its kind in the world: a fact that makes Winnipeg proud.

And it doesn’t stop there. Beyond simply “being a museum,” the place itself also aims “to herald in a new era of human rights leadership.”

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Empty inside?

The curious part, on first impression, is the relative lack of exhibits. Unlike Auschwitz, with its crushing weight of human hair, squashed shoes and battered suitcases for journeys that never came true, the CMHR has little in the way of authentic artefacts to lend weight to the conflicts displayed.

Instead, it attempts to shine a light on the issues of human rights through testimonials and memoirs, modern art, modern prom dresses, audiovisual displays and architecture. And in some cases, actual shining lights.

The architecture, in particular, is impressive, a love child of the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Eden Project in windswept Cornwall. Designed by Antoine Predock, it glitters in geometric design from outside and forms the idea of the human rights journey itself within: the pathway from dark into light.

The 100 metre Tower of Hope at The Canadian Museum for Human Rights takes place on the seventh floor, after 4000 square metres of galleries and exhibits. Exhibit planner Ralph Appelbaum described the experience as a "journey from darkness to light" and a "climb to the mountain top."

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Whose Human Rights?

One of the strangest things, when attempting to represent the whole of mankind, is that decisions have to be made as to whose human rights abuses should be displayed. Such a decision, of course, means that there is an opposite here: whose human rights abuses do you exclude?

The history of man’s inhumanity to man (and woman, of course) is vast: an endless smear, vomited across the tapestry of time. No period of time nor nations of people escape.

Yet, reality is what it is, museum space is finite and choices need to be made.

In Auschwitz, for example, the choice of which story to tell is clear: it is the story of suffering bound by geography. What took place here, in that moment, on this soil. So, too, the stories of slavery and apartheid in South Africa and Mandela’s Soweto. The Killing Fields in Cambodia, the House of Terror in Budapest, the KGB Headquarters in Latvia. And so on. And so on.

And so on.

To an extent, the CMHR follows this geographical lead: it showcases a footprint cast on a wall as a symbol of the those who lost their ancestral land in this space near The Forks.

Beyond that, it takes on the world.

Ancestral land art in Winnipeg

Human Rights Controversies

The 4th floor gallery focuses on perhaps the best known and best documented mass abuse of human rights: the attempted genocide of the Jewish race in Nazi Germany throughout the second world war.

It’s a relatively small section, certainly in comparison to the museums in Berlin or those cold, long paths from the railway tracks in Auschwitz.

But its inclusion did, perhaps inevitably, upset some Winnipeg residents.

Why this incident, they asked, and not others that affected their own people? Modern Canada, with its extensive immigration roots and heterogenous ethnic identity, is, sadly, not short of people whose people carry terrible tales.

The “Suffering Olympics?”

And what of those descended from Germany: resident German-Canadians? I think we can all agree that what Hitler did was wrong, but what about Stalin? Pol Pot? Why are Russians and Cambodians “let off the hook?” And given that we now live in a multicultural world, is there an argument instead for promoting social cohesion rather than selectively raking up the past?

It is, of course, a fight that the museum simply cannot win. (Nor can this blog, when it comes to that, too.)

The Museum’s message is that they are in no way trying to rank the horrors of the past (and indeed present) in a “suffering Olympics” but trying to tackle the enormity of human rights in general. And there is a focus on Canada’s past and present, in the context of the world.

The focus on indigenous peoples in Canada through recent art

The focus on indigenous peoples

All of which makes me sound as though I’m presenting an incredibly dreary and depressing way to spend your precious time away.

But the museum focuses on hope as well. But it’s a hope you have to work for.

The Tower of Hope at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The 100 metre Tower of Hope takes place on the seventh floor, after 4000 square metres of galleries and exhibits (that is, too much to see in one day.) Exhibit planner Ralph Appelbaum described the experience as a “journey from darkness to light” and a “climb to the mountain top,” which after the physical effort involved, sounds more pragmatic than poetic.

The name itself confused me: the Israel Asper Tower of Hope.

But it’s nothing to do with the holocaust nor the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It refers to the man, Israel Asper, corporate sponsor and Winnipeg media mogul.

So, the message of a hope-filled future comes with a named corporate sponsor. It’s a thought-provoking statement on the power of capitalism and the fundamental quest for freedom.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

What to make of it all?

And what did I think as I stood within that backlit alabaster?

I felt tired. Feverish and tired at the end of a fascinating but full-on few weeks covering unusual festivals across Western Canada.

But the tiredness also, I suppose, comes from the relentless misery the world manages to inflict on itself. The lack of clear solutions, the sense of suffocating overwhelm.

It is not, surely, difficult to accept the basic premise that we are all born equal, that we all deserve respect. It is not, surely, difficult to agree that gassing people to death in their masses, for any given reason whatsoever, is wrong.

But to fix the problems that chip away at the beginning of all that? At the slippery slope, the treacherous pathway that leads down into the abyss?

It’s so easy to say love one another, to write heart shaped poems and fly rainbow coloured flags. But what, in effect, does that achieve?

As far as we can tell, humans have always been at war and people have always wanted what’s best for themselves.

Intervening At The Beginning

The very bad is clear to see, the moderately bad less so. Even here, within this museum, certain biases emerge. The perpetrators of the recent Rwandan genocide are described as “extremist Hutus,” limiting the blame to a segment of the population, and a set of ideas.

Yet there’s no such distinction made in the neighbouring text: “Europeans deliberately destroy Aboriginal population of Tasmania.” All Europeans are responsible: the horror did not emerge from a set of terrible ideas but from an inherently evil people.

Elsewhere, too, language veers away from the facts, adding in dramatic license where the facts themselves need no exaggeration. And religion is presented in a remarkably positive light.

This, of course, is how many exhibits on human rights proceed and what made my visit to Hiroshima so exceptional: the in built questioning of the roles of both sides.

Winnipeg Human Rights Museum wall Text

What Next?

And it’s the sort of thing, I’m sure, that will not matter to many. But after years of study in science and history, I feel these discussions are far more powerful and teach many more lessons when we can stay as level as possible in our descriptions, lest we inadvertently pass on hidden hatred to the generation ahead.

All of which makes for heavy reading, I know, but then I suppose that that’s the point.

There is hope, of course, and progress in this world.

However awful things sometimes appear, a glance back over history reveals that enormous progress has been made.

What does it take to make a museum and are some human rights worth more or less than others? These are the two core questions that emerge through a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It is a definitely something to visit in Winnipeg.

Human Rights Progress

The development of humanitarian agencies (and the obstacles they face) as described in Geneva at the museum for the Red Cross and Crescent.

The reinvention of Nuremberg as an ambassador for human rights.

The smaller stories of friendship and reconciliation in troubled regions across the globe, from Jordan to South Africa to Ireland, Australia and Japan.

The Power of Winnipeg

And here, near the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, people are trying to make things better.

Yes, you could see most of the exhibits from the comfort of your home, in an iPad-ready multimedia app that brings the global story of the human rights struggle right to the palm of your hand.

But you would miss out on the physical experience.

The architecture, yes. But more importantly, a walk through the sun-lit streets of Winnipeg.

Canada has its problems, let’s not gloss over that. But on a worldwide scale? It’s one hell of a shining example.

The streets around the museum flutter with passionate street art, sizzle with street food and simmer with the promise of summer.

It’s a city, and a country, with a remarkably joyful sense of prosperity, integration, wellbeing and peace.

So, for all the $351 million spent on this project, perhaps its most profound message at the glass-sheltered summit is the outlook of the city in which it lives.

A road from Winnipeg

Disclosure I travelled to Canada as part of the #mustlovefestivals project, with sponsorship from Expedia and Destination Canada. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, it’s just no fun!

What do you think about what makes a museum and where we can look to for hope?

Thought Provoking Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg Canada via @insidetravellab

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Niim SIngh says:

    A very thoughtful and insightful piece. Really enjoyed reading that.

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