Touring the first galleries opened at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
After years in the making, on September 20, 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba opened its doors with half of the galleries still under construction. Group tours provided visitors access to the completed galleries. I was on one of those 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. (Update May 2023: The box is now in permanent residence at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation on the grounds of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.)
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.
A group of grandmothers at Hillcrest AIDS Centre in Durban, South Africa yarn-bombed a tree with crocheted squares as a symbol of hope and a reminder of families in need. The tree in the above photograph is decorated with squares sent from those grandmothers. The squares were knit and crocheted onto the tree by Winnipeg members of Grand ‘n’ More, an organization working to improve the lives of grandmothers and AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. The tree is a symbol of solidarity and partnership.
The Israel Asper 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.
A couple of months after I took this tour, the remaining galleries opened, but it was almost a year later before I had the opportunity to visit them. You can read about my self-guided tour of those galleries here.
Guided tours of the museum are available. Visitors can also tour the museum at their leisure, self-guided via information on headsets or a mobile device application. The ramp through the galleries is wheelchair accessible. There is also elevator access to all the galleries.
I have visited the CMHR several times since this first tour and written about the visits. Each experience was slightly different as I focused on a different area of the museum or had different instances of the human rights struggle resonate with me. In Canadian Museum for Human Rights, I examine the other galleries. In Human Rights: No Right Angles, I look at some stories with new perspective inspired in part by being told upon entry that the building had no right angles because the architect said you cannot box in human rights. In Human Rights Museum, I talk about the opening of the museum and the significance of its architecture.
Have you visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights? Do you plan to? What do you think?
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