A Fine Balance

A museum expert likes what he sees at The Forks.

We are in the midst of a revolution in the design and management of the world’s museums and galleries. They are being refashioned by borrowing technologies and techniques first seen in Hollywood and theme parks. Cities are using museums as anchors for urban renewal; they hire starchitects and promote their buildings as attractions in themselves, sometimes as important as the works they house.

Today’s “total visitor experience” relies on scenario creators, scriptwriters, lighting crews and set designers, as much as on expert curators and researchers. These changes have brought immeasurable popularity and renewal to the museum world. But they have also brought serious concerns about the effects of populism and the downgrading of thoughtful museum work, well summed up by The Guardian’s warning about “the slippery slide of mass cultural folly.”

Enter onto this stage the newest member in Canada’s network of federally owned national museums, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. It has navigated the challenges of construction, deeply sensitive subjects and uncertain funding, delivering a cultural product of great value. It also reflects many of the ways in which museums around the world are changing.

The CMHR opened to the public in September 2014, following twelve years of planning, fundraising, controversy and construction. It has already received more than 600,000 visitors and many thousands of students (which puts it in the attendance league of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario or Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature).

The CMHR’s physical presence is defined by its metaphorical architecture, ascending from darkness to light. It occupies an incomparable urban site at The Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet. Its interiors feature strong narratives, interactive displays and technical wizardry. Is it really a museum? Is it an education centre? Or is it a signature tourism attraction? Or have these distinctions been erased by modern Canadian museum practices?

The story of the origins of the Human Rights Museum is essential to understanding its evolution. The late Izzy Asper, a uniquely imaginative lawyer, one-time leader of the Manitoba Liberals, founder of the CanWest Global media company, conceived it as a privately operated Holocaust museum. Asper wanted an educational legacy that would avoid Ottawa’s political and bureaucratic opposition, which had derailed previous efforts for a federal Holocaust museum.

Izzy Asper’s sudden death in 2003 brought his daughter, Gail, to the fore. She tirelessly and effectively pursued her father’s goal, in collaboration with Moe Levy, the Asper Foundation’s director. The foundation became the project’s planning centre and largest private supporter, donating well over $20 million.

Despite their success at creating a vision and raising funds, the Aspers and their supporters concluded that a landmark museum with a national educational program needed federal commitment. Their next great battle began: to persuade the government and its officials to adopt the project as a “national museum” with operational funding. A favourable decision was reached through the personal involvement of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who overruled those opposed to having national museums outside the Ottawa area. Both the Human Rights Museum and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax were given federal status and funding.

Important compromises were inevitable after the Department of Canadian Heritage took charge of construction and content development. The Holocaust narrative, central to the original Asper-led concept, was fully subordinated to a wider emphasis on human rights development. In fact, the legal mandate for the new CMHR, set out in the federal Museums Act in 2008, nowhere mentions the Holocaust or any genocidal events.

This shift in mandate meant that the Holocaust and its lessons would be universalized. While this disappointed some supporters (who stressed that Canada was the only major western country that did not officially memorialize the victims and methods of the Nazis and their allies), it did emphasize a broader, more Canadian-centric theme. It also opened the doors to other groups, such as Ukrainian-Canadian representatives, who argued that the past sufferings of their communities deserved recognition comparable to the Holocaust.

Over the next six years, the museum took shape. This required many steps: creation of a new Crown corporation, archaeological site exploration, consultations across Canada, design and construction, more private fundraising, development of content and educational programs, plus responding to continuous enquiries and critiques. The complexity and sensitivity were staggering.

But is the Human Rights Museum really a museum at all? Its legal mandate states that its purpose is “to explore the subject … in order to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue.” Note how the emphasis is on education, explanation and discussion. This mandate hardly reflects the key element of museum work as understood by UNESCO and museum practitioners around the world—namely, the care and expansion of artifact collections and research on material history. The CMHR is not prohibited from doing this; it just is not required to.

The CMHR sidesteps this question by describing itself as a “museum of ideas.” This innovative expression appears in many documents, and is even repeated by the friendly greeter who welcomed me at the entrance. I wondered if this was a selling point or a warning. Beware, it seems to say, here you will not see beautiful objects—but you will be expected to pay attention, watch and think.

And with that greeting in mind, I began several visits to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. My goal was to explore its content with the concentration and respect that I normally show for a collection of essays, aiming to read the exhibitions as if they were chapters in a thoughtful publication. I wanted much more than a leisurely day of museum tourism.

Setting aside professional debates about museum practices, here is my unambiguous conclusion: the CMHR delivers impressively as a centre for ideas about human rights. Its exhibition spaces, known as levels, present a range of themes using texts, photos, videos, and a few objects or artworks. Some of these spaces are exceptionally strong, some weaker, but together they create a challenging and emotionally satisfying experience.

The building’s architecture guides people along a prescribed path. A visitor will walk along the illuminated ramps, gradually rising from the reception area toward the peak on level 8, known as the “Israel Asper Tower of Hope.” Major themes are set out on levels 2, 3 and 4.

The core exhibitions are dense, beginning on level 2 with a sophisticated introduction on the question of what are human rights. Information is presented on several dimensions, identified by colour codes: timelines, specific events and philosophical concepts. Touchscreen computers offer even deeper information. Altogether, it is an impressive, thought-provoking display that requires more than one visit to absorb.

Still, with so many events and facts in the introduction, one is tempted to ask why some items were included or excluded. For example, why is the publication of Marx’s Das Kapital portrayed as a human rights event? And why is the 1905 founding of the Industrial Workers of the World included, but not Canada’s Trade Unions Act (1872)? And why is the New York attack of 9/11 a human rights event, not a political and military event?

A second part of the introductory area is called “Indigenous Perspectives.” It combines recent works of art, a beautiful circular wood theatre, and a 360-degree film that projects voices and faces from aboriginal communities. The tone of this installation is deeply respectful but also tends toward the didactic, and on my several visits I noted that few visitors remained in the theatre for the full showing.

The largest part of level 2, “Canadian Journeys,” is a masterpiece. It consists of 18 separate pods, each recounting an event or issue. Examples include the Japanese-Canadian internment during World War Two and the 1988 apology extended by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney; the St. Louis vessel with its 937 German refugee passengers who were denied permission to land here or in the United States or Cuba (thereby buttressing Hitler’s assertion that no country wanted refugee Jews); plus small exhibitions on the right to vote, equality for women, union recognition, same-sex marriage, farm workers’ protection and so on.

Canadian Journeys responds to a challenge thrown at the CMHR from its inception: to talk openly about bad episodes from Canada’s past, not only the positive achievements. This entire exhibition space comes closest to traditional museum standards, with genuine artifacts on display, inviting viewers to gain impressions and draw conclusions. The presentations do not pull punches. Individuals and institutions are named and their actions, positive or negative, are described.

There is unevenness in some places, notably its presentation on the 1970 FLQ crisis (highlighted in a film). This was a seminal episode in modern history when the powers of the War Measures Act were invoked. The event is presented by the museum as an example of human rights abuse, with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government criticized for the arrest of people suspected of supporting the Front de libération du Québec. Yet what about the rights of people who were harmed by those terrorists? Was Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s minister of labour, not entitled to his human rights when he was kidnapped and murdered by the FLQ? Was Walter Leja, an army engineer permanently disabled by an FLQ mailbox bomb, not entitled to his human rights? The CMHR’s treatment of this period is ambiguous, at best.

Level 3 of the museum is accessed along a set of rising ramps that glow from their interior lighting. We arrive at a metaphorical “living tree,” evoking the idea of democratic laws that evolve and mature. National treasures on display include an original Proclamation of the 1982 Constitution as well as Sir John A. Macdonald’s annotated draft of the 1867 British North America Act. An interactive video presentation asks visitors for reactions to recent controversial legal cases.

The museum’s level 4 is, by contrast, a dark space that speaks to the absolute negation of human rights during the Nazi Holocaust. It also describes the impacts of the Stalinist starvation policy imposed in Ukraine during 1932–33, and several other modern genocidal events. We see in stark terms the impacts of abusive authority and unrestrained group power. The Holocaust has a central place physically and intellectually within this gallery, expressing the totality of evil created by a “rational” state intent on eradicating a targeted ethnic group.

This gallery has been criticized by some groups who wanted to reduce the presence of the Holocaust. The former CEO of the museum, Stuart Murray, who successfully oversaw the CMHR project and handled many of the public tensions, replied many times that “this is not a competition,” nor was it “a discussion over whose genocide was worse.”

My personal reaction is that this gallery intelligently and poignantly describes the depravities of modern history.

The CMHR does not diminish the importance of the Holocaust by including other recent episodes of organized human evil. It explains effectively why consistent human rights law is essential to civilized behaviour, highlighting the personal contributions of Raphael Lemkin and Canada’s John Humphrey, two men who created the concepts in the United Nations Convention on Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Humphrey’s dictum cited by the CMHR—“there is a fundamental link between human rights and peace”—resonates today for its idealism and pragmatism.

The museum visitor continues on an upward journey, with personal stories from human rights defenders and emotional descriptions of current events. This is part of the CMHR’s goal reflected in its title, to be a “Museum FOR Human Rights,” consciously rejecting neutrality or institutional distance from its subject matter. The museum’s extensive program of organized student visits, its well-trained floor staff and its growing web content are designed to help achieve its educational mandate. These activities, together with other web-based initiatives promoted by the current CEO, John Young, will likely expand if funding is available.

Although its messages are compelling and stimulating, there are some points in the CMHR’s installations that I find problematic. The most notable, for me, is its treatment of Quebec’s 1970 FLQ crisis. The museum gives the impression that Trudeau was an opponent to political decency and civil rights. Yet, the same Trudeau was the visionary leader who, in 1980, launched the initiative to enshrine the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada’s Constitution. His success changed this country forever.

This points to a deep gap in how the CMHR explores the conditions under which human rights advances can be made through the political process. Regarding Canada, for example, could the CMHR in the future develop a mature treatment of how the civil and human rights agenda was inserted into our constitutional debates? Could it explain how success was achieved in a difficult political process? And, finally, could it assess the singular role that Trudeau and other leaders played in this achievement?

More broadly, the Museum for Human Rights will need to avoid mission creep by choosing to portray political differences as human rights issues. There may be human rights dimensions in some political disputes, but often these are differences over policy goals and the distribution of public funding. Will the museum be tempted to identify political positions that it supports, expressing admiration for militancy if demands are framed with the language of human rights?

For example, the museum has a small exhibition that sympathetically describes civil disobedience by students in Quebec who were protesting against increases in tuition fees. Are lower fees for post-secondary education really a human right? The challenge for the CMHR is to be current and engaged while recognizing the range of normal democratic discourse. Most disputes and protests do not revolve around human rights, even if protagonists may claim they do.

Future revisions to exhibition content can be handled by a confident institution. My overall conclusion remains: the new CMHR is fulfilling its promise brilliantly. Although it is more like a centre for education and research than a classic museum, it has adapted modern techniques to explain and illuminate the concept of human rights. Presenting personal narratives and specific examples elevate the abstract idea of rights into something concrete and meaningful. The CMHR has created a place for serious study and policy analysis. Visitors will be challenged, entertained and inspired. I look forward to returning, once again.