Touring the Canadian Museum for Human Rights shortly after it opens
After years in the making, on September 20, 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba opened its doors. Six of the eleven galleries were still under construction, but group tours provided visitors access to the five completed galleries. I was on one of the tours and found the experience inspiring and thought-provoking.
My visit began by walking down a slight decline to the museum and into the Bonnie and John Buhler Hall, a large, darkened room where the tour began. The decline and dark room symbolizes starting the journey from the middle of the earth. At one point during the tour, our guide asked the group how we felt while we waited in that room for the tour to begin. Many commented on the darkness or a feeling of being closed in. I also felt a quiet reverence and solemness.
The first gallery we entered, What are Human Rights?, is considered an introductory gallery. It contains a human rights timeline dating back 4000 years. The information can be read on hanging boards or delved into through interactive screens.
The following description of the gallery appears on the wall as you enter:
Throughout history, people have grappled with ideas about human dignity, respect, and responsibility. Today the term “human rights” generally refers to the rights and freedoms we have simply because we are human. It is an idea thousands of years in the making.
On exhibit in the What are Human Rights? gallery is the Brentwood Box, a box meant to reflect the strength and resilience of residential school survivors and their descendants, and honour those survivors who are no longer living. The box traveled across Canada with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as personal stories were collected.
As early as the 1870s and as late as 1966, many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children in Canada were forced into residential schools, often against parental wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their culture. In a number of schools, physical and sexual abuse also occurred. In 2008 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to learn and document the truth of what happened as a step toward reconciliation and healing. They examined records and collected testimonies from school officials and residential school survivors and their families and communities.
Adjoining the What are Human Rights? gallery is the Indigenous Perspectives gallery, another introductory gallery. It provides an introduction to the indigenous view of human rights through art, displays on the walls, and a short film in a 360-degree theatre. Nothing was mentioned in this gallery about the indigenous peoples’ struggle for human rights in Canada. I asked one of the guides about that and was told the stories are told in other galleries not yet opened. The Break the Silence gallery will focus on mass atrocities.
Words are powerful. When people dare to break the silence about mass atrocities, they promote the human rights of all people.
Our guide described the Rights Today gallery as a “flip” gallery showing there is more than one side to things. Projected along one wall are stories of current human rights abuses and tweets from the museum. A wall on the other end of the gallery highlights modern day human rights defenders, people making a difference.
The last gallery in the museum is Inspiring Change. This gallery focuses on what positive change for human rights looks like and encourages visitors to contemplate their own roles in human rights.
The Tower of Hope is named in honour of Israel Asper, the man who conceived the idea of a Canadian human rights museum. The Tower of Hope is a 23-story glass spire reaching into the sky. An observation deck offers panoramic views of the Prairie landscape.
The remaining galleries are expected to be open mid-November 2014. Guided tours will still be available, but at that time visitors will also be able to tour the museum at their leisure, self-guided via information on headsets or a mobile device application. I look forward to returning. I felt there were some spots on the tour where I didn’t have enough time to explore the information in a way I would have liked. Adult admission will be $15. The ramp through the galleries is wheelchair accessible. There is also an elevator.
For more information on the building and design of the museum, read my post on the building of the museum.
Have you visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights? Do you plan to? What do you think?