Building the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba: architecture and perseverance
On September 19, 2014 I watched the Opening Ceremony for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on television. The museum had been in the works for 14 years and it was hard to believe it was finally opening. The moving ceremony was held on the grounds outside the building in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The museum is the first national museum to be built outside the capital region and the first museum in the world dedicated solely to human rights.
The museum was the vision of businessman and philanthropist Israel Asper, who laid out the vision in a concept document in 2000. In 2002, Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was created to oversee the creation and spearhead funding. Massive fundraising was needed. In addition to financial support from the City of Winnipeg, the province of Manitoba, and the Canadian federal government, over 8,000 donors contributed over $147 million.
On April 17, 2003 Israel Asper announced the museum would be located at the fork of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Less than five months after that announcement, Izzy Asper died unexpectedly. His family continued to work on his dream. Two weeks after his death, there was a symbolic sod-turning ceremony and an architectural competition was announced.
Architectural entries were submitted from 64 countries. The winning design was by Antoine Predock, an architect based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The building was designed to give physical shape to the idea of an upward journey in the struggle for human rights around the world, a journey of hope. The museum has four foundations or “roots” connecting it to the earth. Prairie grasses grow on three of the roots. 800 meters of ramp take you up the Mountain, its walls made of Tyndall stone. Great sheets of glass fold around the northern facade like the wings of a dove. A glass spire rises 100 meters into the air with an observation deck at 85 meters. The tower is illuminated at night as a symbol of enlightenment, the goal of the human rights journey. The building has dramatically altered Winnipeg’s skyline.
The journey to build the museum was not without controversy. Funding, construction, and the exhibits themselves have come under criticism.
The location at The Forks is historically significant. This has been a traditional meeting place for thousands of years. Archaeological digs done during excavation uncovered over 400,000 artifacts, some dating back to 1100 A.D. Findings included a large number of hearths, ceramic pottery, and sacred materials, such as ceremonial pipe fragments. Critics claim the dig was too hasty and not thorough enough. Some claim the building shouldn’t be there at all, as it is covering up an important archaeological site.
Before exhibits were opened to the public, various groups claimed their human rights struggles weren’t represented or given enough space. Some claimed the darker parts of Canada’s human rights record were being glossed over. However legitimate these claims may or may not be, it is a sad reality that chronicling all the details of mankind’s history of human rights abuses could fill several museums.
Protesters were present on opening weekend. Protesters were there for a variety of reasons – environmental concerns, demands for justice, claims that their rights weren’t adequately represented in the museum. Some protested the very existence of the museum at all. Others were there to demand basic human rights, such as access to clean water. It is another sad reality that there are still people whose human rights are not respected or fully realized, in far flung corners of the world and close to home. The journey of hope is not over. Part of the mandate of the museum is to encourage reflection and dialogue about human rights. It is clear that dialogue has started. Hopefully it will lead to positive action.
The opening of the museum was the culmination of years of efforts, but it was just the beginning of Israel Asper’s vision of a museum to inform and educate, a place to take lessons from the world and foster dialogue and action on human rights. The good and bad of our human rights history needs to be examined to achieve that. To see inside the museum, visit my other posts about the museum Inside Human Rights, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and Human Rights: No Right Angles.
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