Day 22 CCR: Canadian Museum for Human Rights
When I planned the Cross Canada Ride six months ago, I included a non-riding day in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, and wanted to spend time there learning something about Canada and Canadians. So, I outlined my off-day to include a couple of hours at two museums: The Canada Museum for Human Rights and the Manitoba Museum. I didn’t really know what to expect from either, but I figured I ought to be able to learn something.
Today, I only visited one of the two museums on my checklist. I was there six hours. I could have spent six days, and still not taken in all this first-rate Canada National museum had to offer. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights ranks as one of the top two or three museums I’ve visited, and I’ve visited a few museums. On every long motorcycle trip I take, it seems, I go to places that produce unexpected and special memories. This was one of them. My blog efforts tonight will not do justice to this museum, but I’ll do the best I can.
As I toured the museum, I struck up a conversation with a helpful and friendly member of the staff, more than willing to talk about a workplace she clearly has a passion for. The museum started as the brainchild of Israel Asper, a wealthy, philanthropically-minded Manitoban who envisioned a museum about the Holocaust and other human rights issues. His enthusiasm and commitment attracted other civic leaders and the scope of the project grew. It grew so much, in fact, that the Canadian government decided it should be involved, and parliament voted to create and help fund a new national human rights museum. But officials initially said it should be in Ottawa, the locus of all other Canadian national museums. That plan didn’t fly in Winnipeg, and Ottawa gave in to a Manitoba location, making this the only national museum outside Ottawa.
American architect Antoine Predock, won the design competition, and the striking building was completed and the original exhibits installed in 2014. The building itself deserves more than I will say about it, but suffice to say that my best analogy compares it to a complex musical symphony with numerous intricate parts that must work together for the whole to succeed. This building succeeds.
Intricate, angular ramps lined with lighted alabaster sides guide visitors from one level to the next, each level focusing on a different element of human rights. The first level has specially designed space for temporary, professionally-mounted exhibits. The current exhibit challenges the way we think about racism, noting that the brain’s wiring makes it easy for biases and prejudices to take hold, even if we think we’re trying to be anti-racist.
The second level explores what, exactly, are “Human Rights,” pointing out that defining that term over the centuries has challenged philosophers, legal experts, and religious leaders. It also includes a powerful exhibit on indigenous perspectives and the relation of people to mother earth. A third section examined “Canadian Journeys,” with more than two dozen separate kiosks or alcoves tracing Canada’s connection to slavery, the underground railroad, anti-black racism, Chinese exclusion policies, LGBTQ issues, language rights, residential schools designed to destroy indigenous culture, discriminatory polices related to physical or mental differences and many more. In short, this section was inclusive of human rights issues and astutely probed Canada’s checkered past.
Ascending the ramps inside what seems to be a massive, hollow mountain, other exhibits, all constructed with the latest in museum technology and wizardry, included the Holocaust, the Holodomor in Ukraine in the 1930s when Stalin attempted to starve Ukrainians out of existence, other genocides, current debates among human rights experts, artistic expressions of human rights, and a chance for each visitor to contribute thoughts about human rights past, present and future.
Finally, the glass Tower of Hope rises above all seven levels to a total height of more than 20 stories, giving a panoramic view of Winnipeg and the countryside beyond. Visitors can choose to make the final ascent by elevator or by spiral staircase. I chose the 103 steps.
Did I mention I was impressed with this museum? Really impressed? The exhibits are thoughtful, professionally designed and constructed with the latest techno-magic. The Canadian government uses the museum to explore dark and unpleasant parts of Canada’s past, especially as it relates to indigenous people and immigrants from around the world, and to offer insights into remedying past errors and to how all Canadians can participate in ensuring equity, equality, tolerance and understanding.
I went to this museum anticipating a quick, educational, two-hour tour. Instead, I got an emotional and moving reminder of how evil humankind can be yet how courageous, dedicated, and innovative are the brave souls who stand up to evil for all of us. If one doesn’t leave the Human Rights Museum asking “What can I do to promote and protect fundamental human rights,” then the point of the museum has been missed.
I can’t do the Canada Museum for Human Rights justice. But the people who run it can. Click here for more information.
Tomorrow, it’s back on the road again, headed north to the town of Swan River (pop. 4,000) in the heart of Manitoba’s great outdoors. More adventures await.