Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Money Well Spent?

I received the comments below from childhood friend Bill Browett and thought that EDT readers would enjoy his insightful perspective on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Human Rights.  I have received many other comments from readers which I have added to the end of the blog.  I hope you will enjoy this revised blog. 

Bill Browett writes:

I have been thinking about this blog since you sent the link out. Rather than focus on whether the money was well spent, I was struck by your subtitle …

“Museum without artifacts …  One of the things I associate with great museums and art galleries is allowing visitors the opportunity to see things you can’t see anywhere else.  “

I too love seeing the artifacts, but mostly when I go to museums and art galleries what I am doing is looking at the stories that are told … the meta messages … Stories that reveal the attitudes and aspirations of the curators, owners, and artisans in both the artifacts and messages. Public institutions tend to tell institutional stories, and institutions pretty much by definition are conservative. Dissenting opinion is often. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is no exception, as noted by “WB”.

Canadians have played pivotal roles in the progress of Human Rights … e.g., the creation of the UN "Universal Declaration of Human Rights” … I am all for celebrating both the positive contributions … However, these celebrations are empty and appear only as propaganda, if the institutions do not reconcile and work to reconcile Canadian failures, and entrenched cultural bigotries whether colonial and tribal [e.g., European biases] histories, e..g, genocidal policies, such as the Residential School program for First Nations children, and failure to include reconciliation in the Truth and Reconciliation process that is on-going.

I will visit the CMHR if I manage to make it to Winnipeg. Nonetheless, if the website is any indication, https://humanrights.ca/exhibit, this museum has failed to capture not only the rich, and on occasion dark history of the human rights struggles in Canada, but the CMHR has not put into a global context the Canadian struggles and contributions. … We are left with what I call a “happy face” institutional interpretation … sanitized and romanticized versions of the past.

If the CMHR, as the website suggests, has very narrowly defined the history of Human Rights, as I suspect, … then it has done a significant disservice to the many, many Canadians who have deeply sacrificed in these struggles, and worse does a disservice to current and future generations by suggesting that there are not serious conflicting histories of what Human Rights are.

Perhaps the "expressions" section of the website captures my concerns better than most, and illustrates the point of institutional messaging … (https://humanrights.ca/exhibit/expressions

 “Developed by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, this travelling exhibition explores the ways that Canadians have defined, made and kept peace at home and around the world. Peace is examined on three levels: how we negotiate to obtain and protect it; how we organize and demonstrate to demand it; and, sometimes, how we fight to achieve it."

To no one’s surprise, and as someone who has been an active participant in the Canadian peace movement all his adult life, the content in the "expressions” section is a very narrow definition of how "Canadians have defined, made and kept peace at home and around the world."

For many of us, on many levels, Human Rights struggles continue both in Canada and around the world. Appropriately, this is the season for such reflections.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Money Well Spent???????

By Richard White, December 10, 2014

The September 2014 opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg was probably one of the most anticipated, new 21st century buildings in Canada. It is the first new national museum since1967 and the first outside the National Capital Region.  The design is strange, intriguing, and not just a big box museum. In the words of Antoine Predock, the architect, “ the abstract ephemeral wings of a white dove embrace a mythic stone mountain of 450-million year old Tyndall limestone in the creation of a unifying and timeless landmark.”

 Indeed, the building is a new landmark and tourist attraction for the City of Winnipeg and another wonderful new addition to the city’s urban meeting place, The Forks, which is on par with places like Vancouver’s Granville Island.

 On a recent visit to the Winnipeg, I had a chance to tour (two plus hours) the CMHR. And while I was initially impressed by the design and the exhibitions, something seemed to be wrong. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but gradually I began to question whether Winnipeg - and Canada for that matter - got full value for the $350 million cost.

CHRM looking east is a strange juxtaposition of shapes.

The "Welcome Wall" video has a series of shadow figures who quickly enter write the word "welcome" in various different languages and then exit.

The entrance to the first exhibition hall is along this dramatic and sombre hallway. 

Museum without artifacts

 One of the things I associate with great museums and art galleries is allowing visitors the opportunity to see things you can’t see anywhere else.  CMHR has very few unique artifacts consist mainly of text and videos.  In many ways, this museum’s experience is like walking through a huge documentary film at your own pace.  This got me to thinking again perhaps a series of documentaries could have worked just as well.

 I was also struck by the fact there wasn’t much “new” in the museum; most of the information is available to anyone with a computer and Internet.  One really has to rethink the role of museums in the 21st century.

 Interesting to that the museum’s website has no video of the exhibitions – not even a short “teaser “one. I can’t but help but wonder if they realized that if they did a good video tour, there would be no need to go to the museum. 

There are quotes from individuals scattered throughout the museum. 

There are quotes from individuals scattered throughout the museum. 

IMG_7322.jpg
The first exhibition hall is dominated by a wall that documents the history of human rights on the left and video on the right. The wooden basket at the end is a small theatre space for a video.  

The first exhibition hall is dominated by a wall that documents the history of human rights on the left and video on the right. The wooden basket at the end is a small theatre space for a video.  

Detail of the history wall.

Detail of the history wall.

Several of the exhibition halls are dominated by a large billboard like video screen with words and images. 

Several of the exhibition halls are dominated by a large billboard like video screen with words and images. 

Children loved the interactive floor of colour. As each person stepped onto the floor they were surrounded by a ring of colour and as you moved closer to others your coloured rings joined.  If there are enough people, and you worked together you get the whole floor to light up. 

Children loved the interactive floor of colour. As each person stepped onto the floor they were surrounded by a ring of colour and as you moved closer to others your coloured rings joined.  If there are enough people, and you worked together you get the whole floor to light up. 

Opportunities Lost

Any museum that is focused on human rights is going to be controversial, and if it isn’t, it is not doing its job. This is an even larger issue when it is funded by the Federal government, with the many political considerations and constraints. This museum needs much more in the way of interactive and thought provoking exhibits.  There is no shortage of topical human rights issues in today’s world; it simply takes the freedom and courage to address them.

One of the most memorable exhibits is Jamie Blacks’ The REDress Project (see photo) that looks at violence towards aboriginal women.  Winnipeg and Manitoba have the largest First Nation and Metis population of any city or province in Canada and this population is rising at four times the overall rate of the city and province.  Governments at all levels are struggling with First Nation housing, education, health and crime challenges that are not being addressed. There is no shortage of aboriginal issues that could be dealt with in this museum in a thought-provoking and illuminating way.

Another of Canada’s most pressing current human rights issues is the chronic unemployment or underemployment of disabled Canadians who want to work but can’t find job.  Perhaps the money might have been better spent on job creation programs for the disabled.

And there are many other topical issues of today – violence against women, increasing government surveillance of the general population, the militarization of police forces, the role of women in today’s major religions, abuses of civil rights under the banner of the fight against terrorism, and on. This museum could be a beacon of light if it had some ideas for solutions.

Perhaps some of the space could be utilized for the topical issues of today, and allow outside organizations could develop the exhibits without bureaucratic or political interference.  The museum needed to focus more on how could we move from awareness to action. Now that would be a museum worth a visit.

 

Jaime Black, The REDress Project, 2010 to present, empty dresses collected by community donation with digital backdrop. The REDress Project is an ongoing public art installation. It is a response to the overwhelming number of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. The installation seeks to engage the public in discussion about the sexist and racist nature of violent crimes against Indigenous women. 

Jaime Black, The REDress Project, 2010 to present, empty dresses collected by community donation with digital backdrop. The REDress Project is an ongoing public art installation. It is a response to the overwhelming number of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. The installation seeks to engage the public in discussion about the sexist and racist nature of violent crimes against Indigenous women. 

Photo of residential school.  The information panel included the following quote: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem...Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic..." Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 1913 to 1931. 

Photo of residential school.  The information panel included the following quote: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem...Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic..." Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 1913 to 1931. 

Japanese

Big & Bold Architecture

 While the vastness of the building is part of its provocative statement, one can’t help but wonder, why there is so much empty space.  My guess is that less than 50% of the buildings’ space is utilized for exhibitions and offices.  This means incredible cost for heating and air-conditioning the building, especially with Winnipeg’s long cold winters and hot summers. 

One rumour I heard was that it will cost $100,000 a year just for window cleaning.

One of the biggest issues facing most major museums across Canada today is operating cost; this is not going to be efficient building to operate. 

The interior of the museum is dominated by a floor to ceiling atrium that filled with ramps that take you from floor to floor. The luminous walls are an interesting visual metaphor for the "enlightenment" that the museum is trying to foster.

While the ramps and atrium create a very haunting and perhaps uplifting space, it takes up 50% of the museum space.

The glass walls from the inside are an intricate and rhythmic pattern that fragments the visitors view of the city. 

Even when you look up to the tower, the view is blocked by all of the mechanical pipes and girders - there is no sense of awe that you might expect.

It is strange to have a glass wall that is blocked by so many lines.

Last Word

After a few days of mulling my CMHR experience over, I continue to think the $350 million spent to build a human rights museum and probably another $10 million per year to operate it, might have been better spent actually dealing with the human rights issues themselves.

I would highly recommend that if you are in Winnipeg that you visit CMHR and decide for yourself if it was "money well spent!"

If you like this blog, you might like:

The dirt on the Museum of Clean

Phoenix: Musical Instrument Museum

Calgary: Military Museums

Readers' Responses:

CW writes: 

Your blog is written rather mildly. Perhaps the CMHR building could be repurposed as Museum of the Scams We Have to Endure in This Life: the CMHR structure, the Edmonton Oilers & Toronto Maple Leafs, Bre-X, the music industry for the last 40 years, and now the Wildrose Party of Alberta. Blog that one please.

KG writes: 

I asked myself this question as well and I do believe it's money poorly spent. From my perspective, the internet allows us to reach people with almost all the content contained in the museums walls – focussing just a quarter of the money on digital media content, rather than a lavish physical monument could have led to something exciting.  Now, granted that won't bring tourists. But, will the physical museum? I doubt it, especially not repeat visits.And don't even get me started on "starchitects" designing sculptures instead of functional spaces. How many human rights were violated to get all that steel just to tie the glass facade to the actual building.

JR writes: 

I fear that a third of a billion dollars was thrown down a rat hole. Question: what part of the money was raised from private citizens; from public companies; from “we the people”? Question: where does the $10M annual operation cost come from, speculate “we the people”? Question: how are they measuring the gigantic influx of tourists who are surely flying from all over the planet to see the museum?

Anyway the real depressing part is the annual cost. Assuming a “cap rate of 5.5”, I make it that there is a negative valuation ($181,000,000) i.e. to lose $10,000,000 annually“we the people” have to deploy $181,000,000 of capital earning 5.5% return to support it, all that after deploying $350,000,000 that makes no return. Poor bloody taxpayer.

WB writes: 

Great and inquisitive article on the CMHR. Many people I know in Winnipeg have little interest in visiting the museum owing to a litany of issues. You mentioned the $10m in annual operating costs but I believe e the figure is pegged at around $26m give or take a mill.

Why? No mention of Aboriginal genocide. No Palestinian causes represented. Only 4 of the 11 galleries completed? Why? ETC. "Controversial" starts with exclusions and lots of pink slips. The CMHR may be the first politically directed public cultural museum in Canadian history and that story has yet to be aired in public.