FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT – A visit to The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR).

This past weekend I was in Winnipeg for a conference hosted by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WomeninAfghanistan) and on Sunday they had arranged for a visit to The Canadian Museum For Human Rights.
I had read about the controversy surrounding the opening last month, but decided that I want to see for myself what this is all about.
While at the conference, I spoke with some locals from Winnipeg and asked their opinion. Most were very supportive, but there was some hesitancy and critique – mostly from those who had not been to the Museum yet, which I found interesting. One Arab woman was quite hostile and said that the Museum did not reflect all the human rights atrocities across the globe and focused on one particular aspect. I asked if she was referring to the Holocaust exhibit and she said “yes and also the Native community is not represented”. I recalled that among those who protested at the opening were the Aboriginal community and remarks were made by some Arab groups about the lack of representation for their cause. Fair enough as I had not seen the Museum yet.
However I said to the lady that if I had the vision and finances of Izzy Asper, and the opportunity to create a Human Rights Museum, I would probably have the Pakistan-India partition as one of the largest exhibits. Why? Because in my lifetime that is the event that personally impacts me. So, more power to the Asper family for making the Holocaust exhibit front and center as we all need to remember.
As we walked through CMHR, the first thing I noted was that the building itself speaks of human rights. Antoine Predock, winner of the coveted American Institute of Architects Gold Medal has built a most unusual structure. It’s an awe-inspiring experience as you start at the lower level which is quite dark and walk over various ramps to the top and as you go up, you keep finding more light until you reach the top where there is a tower of hope and a panoramic view of Winnipeg (quite the change from the flat, dull view from my hotel window). The architecture throughout is not beautiful but stunning in its starkness and the play of light and darkness, making us acutely aware that human rights are fragile and need to be protected.
After our tour of the building, we were taken to a classroom where two Directors from the Museum took us through a power-point presentation of the exhibits that are already in place and those that are planned for November and beyond. This presentation was created with a special segment for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan because with their input, the Afghanistan exhibit has been enhanced. At the end of the presentation, one elderly Afghan woman stood up and tearfully thanked the Directors and Canadians for their role in Afghanistan. It was a touching moment giving credibility and credence to the Museum and its thoughtful exhibits.
I was impressed to see that once complete, CMHR will cover almost every human rights atrocity that I can remember in my lifetime and perhaps to the beginning of the century.
On level 2, they begin with an experience called “What are Human Rights” and work their way through “Indigenous Perspectives” to “Canadian Journeys”. Indigenous Perspectives is considered the most dramatic spaces of the Museum consisting of a circular theater of curved wooden slats representing the multitude of Aboriginal traditions.
On level 3 there is an exhibit about Protecting Rights in Canada which deals with the legal aspects of human rights. A “living tree” projection evokes the constant growth of laws and social change while through a digitally interfaced debate table visitors can explore legal cases and give their own opinion.
On level 4 is the Holocaust gallery where ‘broken glass’ theater examines Canada’s own experiences with antisemitism along with and exhibit called “Breaking the Silence” and “Turning Points for Humanity”.
On Level 5 we examine “Rights Today” dealing with contemporary human rights struggles through an interactive wall map. Level 6 deals with Expressions, a gallery that will feature a range of temporary exhibits and Level 7 is about Inspiring positive social change, inviting visitors to contemplate their own role in building human rights for a better world.
Most of the exhibits are digitally interactive and I was impressed to see that there is a digital learning table where one can study and explore up to 80 human rights tragedies of the world including Residential Schools, the Pakistan/India partition, Palestine and other causes.
I came away a proud Canadian for the opportunity to visit The Canadian Museum for Human Rights and thinking that perhaps Canadians like controversy because I saw no cause for it.