By Joelle Kidd
With stunning architecture, a strong mandate, and an eye towards a future of purpose and hope, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is leading the charge for human rights education.
Rights for All
Entering into the cool, dark belly of the CMHR feels like the beginning of a journey. This is intentional. Architect Antoine Predock took painstaking care to integrate the building into the land, incorporating elements such as concrete stained the colour of Red River clay, and more than 50 species of indigenous tall grass prairie planted on either side of the building’s concrete “roots”. A massive screen displays video of silhouetted figures writing ‘welcome’ in 36 different languages. Nearby, a fossilized footprint discovered during an archeological dig of the museum’s site in 2008 reinforces this ground’s status as an historical meeting place; this particular moccasin print is 750 years old.
It’s an impressive start to a visit, one that shows the care taken with every detail in the vast museum. The philosophy is holistic: from the building’s design to individual exhibits, every part of the experience points back to a mandate based around promoting greater understanding of human rights and prompting reflection and dialogue.
The CMHR marks a new generation of museum, one that promotes interaction and hands-on learning, that doesn’t shy away from technology, and is more interested in posing questions than loading visitors up with facts. This is not to say the museum is lacking in material: more than 100 hours of video, 250 artifacts and works of art (including 10 original art pieces), 2,543 images, and 100,000 words of original text are packed into the mammoth space.
Luckily — you guessed it — there’s an app for that. The experience-enriching application is free to download, full of content like an audio tour for self-guided wandering, the ability to sense nearby exhibits, a ‘mood meter’ that allows visitors to rate how they’re feeling and take the temperature of every gallery, and a GPS overlay that adds “hotspots” to a camera’s view of the Winnipeg skyline, pointing out additional attractions in the city.
Moving through the galleries is a conceptual journey from darkness to light, following criss-crossing ramps of backlit Spanish alabaster from the shady entranceway to the sun-dappled Garden of Contemplation, a basalt stone space offering respite and reflection, and up to the glass-walled Tower of Hope, the brilliant panoramic sweep of which symbolizes the impact of changing one’s perspective. Along the way, multimedia exhibits challenge, educate, and inspire. Global events, historic documents, deeply personal stories, and powerful works of art all share the space, providing a deep, rich, and multifaceted view of human rights. Without shying away from the past, the museum points to a better future, highlighting human resilience and ingenuity in the fight for all people to be recognized as free and equal.
What You’ll See
Lean about historical and contemporary human rights issues through powerful personal stories.
Racial segregation in Canada. A collection of documents and a recreation of a 1940s movie house pay tribute to Viola Desmond, a black Nova Scotian woman who was arrested after sitting in the white-only section of a segregated movie theatre.
Holocaust survivor. Sigi Wasserman, like thousands of Jewish children in Germany, was sent along to Great Britain to escape the Nazis.
Inspiring youth. Craig Kielburger began advocating against child labour when he was only 12 years old. He went on to create an international charity, Free The Children, and the We Day initiative.
A singing activist. Read about the life of First Nations singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, hear one of her songs, and see the Oscar she won for her song, “Up Where We Belong”.
Lifting the veil. See Quebec artist Andreanne Paquet’s photo exhibit of Muslim women wearing the hijab, which aims to promote understanding and express freedom of choice.
Keep an eye out for these fascinating items on display.
A ballot box. This unassuming object has historical significance as the box that held the votes cast in South Africa’s 1994 election, in which Nelson Mandela was elected president.
Suitcases. See luggage belonging to Japanese Canadians interred in camps during World War II.
The world’s largest Metis beaded artwork. This record-holder stands 18 feet tall, made by artist Jennine Krauchi with thousands of antique beads dating back to the fur-trade era.
The Proclamation of the Constitution Act of 1982. The original document, signed by Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, enshrines Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A red prom dress. Worn by Mareisha Rucker, who organized her school’s first integrated prom in Wilcox, Georgia, in 2013.
Try out these high tech interactive activities.
The circular basket theatre. An original film exploring Indigenous conceptions of rights and responsibilities plays on a 360 degree screen inside a theatre made from ‘woven’ wood.
Interactive table game. This digital exhibit reacts to shadows of visitors’ hands passing over it.
Lights of Inclusion floor game. A motion sensor tracks movements with colourful spotlights that merge and tremble when visitors interact.
Interactive study table. This long, touch screen table contains information and images about 16 atrocities from around the world.
Digital canvas. A 95-foot canvas in the Canadian Journeys gallery plays silent films that tell individual stories of human rights.
Visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights website for admission prices and hours. 90 minute guided tours are available, as well as self-guided audio tours for mobile device from the App Store or Google Play. 3-4 hours are recommended to delve into the CMHR’s massive array of content.