Having followed debates over the recently-opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), I was eager to visit the site on a recent trip to Winnipeg. Many criticisms of the museum focus on the lack of content addressing Canada’s human rights abuses (e.g., towards First Nations communities). After visiting the museum I can say that those who believe it excludes key Canadian human rights issues have misunderstood some fundamental aspects of contemporary museums.
At the time of my visit, many of the galleries had yet to open to the public (unfortunately, the Holocaust gallery was among the sections not open). My only criticism of the current exhibitions is the lack of context explaining why the objects relate to human rights issues. For example, a “bentwood” box from the Truth & Reconciliation Commission is displayed with a small label mentioning the artist: Coast Salish artist Luke Marston. Only after researching the box did I learn that it contained individual stories of human rights abuses toward First Nations communities (the Truth & Reconciliation Commission was a landmark attempt to expose the history of Canada’s residential schools). The stories are unfortunately not exhibited, even though they provide important context to the piece.
With the dearth of exhibitions open, the visitor’s attention is instead focused on the CMHR’s stunning, Antoine Predock-designed architecture. Rising from the Forks (the meeting of the Red and Assiniboine rivers) the shimmering museum appears on the flat landscape like a glass and stone mountain. The design, symbolizing hope, takes visitors on a journey from “darkness into light.” Visits start on the main floor which is purposely devoid of windows and light. It’s here where the main First Nations galleries are located. My guide explained this layout symbolizes the roots of Canadian history and the aboriginal foundations. As the visit progresses, viewers journey out of the dark, lower sections into the expansive, light- and glass-filled upper sections of the museum. The symbolic design culminates in the 24-metre-high “Tower of Hope,” featuring panoramic views of the prairie landscape. While the base of the museum represents Canada’s history, grounded by its First Nations, the view from the Tower is contemplative and universal, symbolizing hope and optimism for the future.
Symbolic, non-object-based museums, such as the CMHR, reflect contemporary trends in museology. Many “post-modern” museums, especially Holocaust museums, focus less on collections, and more on symbolic, meaningful architecture. It is important to remember that the late Izzy Asper, who conceived of the idea of a national human rights museum in Winnipeg, originally planned to build a “tolerance” museum examining racism and atrocities, particularly the Holocaust.
The CMHR has important similarities with Holocaust museums around the world. The
Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, designed by world-renowned Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, follows a similar darkness-into-light narrative. Lower sections of the building are underground and dimly-lit, symbolizing the horrors of the National Socialist period in Europe. Visits conclude in a light-filled room with sweeping panoramic views of Jerusalem, representing the rebirth of the Jewish people in Israel. Location is a key component of Yad Vashem’s symbolic program. With its strategically-placed view of Jerusalem, the museum takes full advantage of its location in the capital of the Jewish State.
Like Yad Vashem, the location of the CMHR is crucial to its overall symbolism. The museum is similarly built on historically charged ground: the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, a millennia-old meeting place for First Nations communities. A ca. 800 year-old footprint is preserved on the museum’s ground floor to honour the ancient human presence on the site. Human rights are complex and difficult to illustrate through architecture. However, the iconic design of the CMHR, and its optimistic message of hope for the future, are a fitting tribute to the legacy of the site.
Rob Coles is Publications Chairman and Editor
at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research