A Very Special Sneak Peek
I had the great fortune over Christmas break to visit a new landmark in Winnipeg that is yet to be opened to the public. It is a place that is not void of controversy and debate and a place that will attract people from all over the world. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is slated to open in 2014 and has been under construction since late in 2008. The museum is an architectural and structural masterpiece, and I can only now truly appreciate the intricacies of its design and why it is taking as long as it is to reach completion. Until my visit in December, I would flippantly say “Why isn’t it finished yet?” every time I drove by or was within sight of the museum’s crystalline Tower of Hope.
As the museum’s construction gradually changed Winnipeg’s skyline, I became more and more curious about this spectacular building and in particular, its eventual contents and exhibits. As such, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have visited the museum’s construction site at this stage of development.
Our visit started in one of the construction containers where there were offices and meeting rooms. We were suited up in appropriate steel-toed boots, hard hats and protective eyewear before heading out on site.
The tour of the museum began at the main floor, where we were meant to feel like we were part of the earth. As our journey progressed, and we climbed higher through the museum experience, the sentiment was that our elevation reflected that of the notion of human rights, starting from the ground, and growing and blossoming upward.
We slowly made our way upward, viewing rooms that would eventually be used for field trips, galleries, mobile exhibits and even functions and concerts. It was clear from the beginning that a lot of thought went into the spaces of the museum and the museum’s financial sustainability. I am already predicting that once the museum opens, it will be booked solid for years for weddings and other large scale events. The location is ideal and the building is stunning. It will be nothing short of a desired venue.
Eventually, we made it to the Garden of Contemplation, a beautiful, open part of the museum which was evidently inspired by Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The space creates an opportunity for a break in the museum experience and allows for visitors to reflect in calm and quiet.
One of my very favourite parts about this particular museum is how conducive it is to people watching. A few years ago, when I had an 8 hour layover in Chicago O’Hare, I spent 3 solid hours watching people, and even at the end of the 3 hours, I still hadn’t begun to get bored. We were informed that this is an intentional aspect of the museum’s design. As human rights is a reflective and observant topic, the ability to watch people while visiting the museum is an explicit expression of the building’s purpose.
One such way to people watch is by the extensive and labyrinthine ramps throughout the museum. They are set up in such a way that they allow visitors to not only access the entire museum, but they also allow people to stop, peer over, take a moment of reflection, see exhibits from different points of view, and watch as other people absorb the museum and its contents.
Not being a huge fan of heights, but being one to push myself into doing things that scare me and make my hands sweat, I went as high as I could in the museum, to the Tower of Hope. To get there, we took an incomplete spiral staircase with no handrails. Being incomplete, each step had an inch high lip, eventually meant to hold concrete once it is poured. With no handrails, and being hundreds of feet in the air, this lip was a serious tripping hazard, and I had to step even more carefully than I normally would when climbing sky high steps. My cousin Natalie, who joined me on the museum visit, is another heights-phobe, so we shamelessly held hands and whimpered the whole way up, all the while crouching as low to the ground as possible and shielding our view of the horrifying height below us. In retrospect, our performance was nothing less than entertaining for the other people on our tour. They should really thank us for the free show.
As the museum approaches completion, it continues to face challenges and controversy. Because Winnipeg is a hugely multicultural city, there are cultural and ethnic groups that have expressed concern that their own history and human rights issues will be overlooked. Interestingly (or ironically), there has even been chatter than some groups will be over-represented in the museum.
Another difficulty the museum faces is ensuring visitors experience the museum the way it is meant to be, without herding people from start to end. With the presence of the Tower of Hope, there is immediate temptation to visit it first, meaning that on the way down, visitors would essentially be visiting the museum backwards. The museum’s developers are aware of this and are trying to approach this in a way that doesn’t impinge on visitor’s rights to make their own choices within the museum walls. It’s a bit comical that such an issue can be reduced to basic human rights, and yet it is a legitimate concern of museum planners.
I’ve also heard people joke about how Canadian such a museum is. Canadians are known the world over for being friendly, kind and keepers of the peace. On the flip side, I’ve also been verbally attacked by people I’ve met while traveling for Canada’s indiscretions and less than pretty past. One example of this is the seal clubbing we’ve all heard far too much about. And while this isn’t a human rights issue, it illustrates my point perfectly. Canada is not perfect, and we have our own dark past (and even present if we look North). Our guide informed us that some of the museum will be dedicated to exploring this part of Canada’s history, from Japanese internment during the second world war to the residential school system. I am proud that they are stepping up and acknowledging these truths. It creates a platform for honest discussion, and the museum will serve as a source of information and education for years to come. I’m beyond pleased that such a place is going to be in my hometown.
For more information on the museum, visit the website, or contact them through this form. If you’ve read this post and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is something you want to support, you can also do that here.
What do you think about the idea of a human rights museum? What human rights issues and pieces of history should the museum absolutely have to exhibit?