Canada: Human rights, superhuman scale

Can a museum almost entirely devoid of artifacts be anything other than a gimmick? The Canadian Museum for Human Rights aims to prove it can, and it may just be a vision of the future

By Sarah Barrell
Published 31 Jan 2017, 08:00 GMT, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 11:24 BST

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg.

Photograph by The Canadian Museum for Human Rights

I'm standing in an idea. It's a very big idea, and I know this because I can't quite understand it yet. Words describing this idea glide above my head, and appear and vanish before my eyes as I approach numerous screens imbedded in walls and set on podiums. If I get close enough, voices can be heard, urgent, passionate and at first seemingly disembodied.

But as I slow down and home in on the sounds, I find each voice has a face and each face has a story. Some are stories we know — Gandhi's Salt March or Mandela's imprisonment — but so many more — and there are thousands upon thousands of them — are human stories, often previously untold, of struggles for human rights.

Putting together these stories — and the elegant, mountain-like building that houses them, sculpted from basalt, limestone and alabaster — took 10 years. There are green roofs, carpeted in prairie grass, and a Tower of Hope that rises 328ft above the ground and, on clear days, offers views far beyond Winnipeg — the city in which it stands — out into the prairies where so much more grass grows.

It's a seriously impressive structure, with echoes of Bilbao's Guggenheim, but unlike that museum — which put the previously down-and-out Spanish port town on the map — here, will it be a case of build it and they will come? New direct flights from the UK (WestJet from Gatwick) mean this city gateway to Canada's prairies is now somewhat more accessible for Brits.

Why Winnipeg? Local media mogul Israel Asper, the driving force behind the museum, put several million dollars into the scheme before the Canadian government came on board, signing up to what's the first national museum outside the Capital Region. The building, located in the heartland of the Métis people, has been a major First Nations meeting place for thousands of years.

Unlike most of the world's other notable human rights museums — Liverpool's International Slavery Museum or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, for example — this is not a one-cause venue. Tales of the Holocaust loom large (Asper, who died before the project finished, was Jewish) but it's perhaps the First Nations stories that speak the loudest.

There are almost no artifacts here — although the poignant few include the blood-stained clothes loaned by Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Malala Yousafzai, worn on the day she was shot by a Taliban gunman at her school in Afghanistan. But amid the floor-to-ceiling, high-tech digital show, there are several art installations.

The REDress Project, by local artist Jamie Black, features empty red dresses draped on hangers in front of a woodland backdrop, a haunting metaphor for the hair-raising number violent crimes and murders committed against indigenous women in Canada. I'm moved to investigate, dipping into several hours of video and audio clips from the families who've suffered, and the few journalists who've fought against apparent state indifference to tell the tale of entire generations of women being wiped out.

It's a story I knew precious little about before now, but one that leaves a lasting impression. As I walk up and down the dramatically glowing ramps that connect the floors, constructed from mile upon mile of 'healing' alabaster stone, I wonder: Can a museum do anything more than tell a tale? And should it? This project that cost $351m (£328m) sits cheek by jowl with one of Canada's most destitute neighbourhoods, and alongside a river that was only recently dredged for the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, just one of the numerous indigenous women who've gone missing in Winnipeg in recent years.

"It has been controversial," says my guide. "This museum is primarily about education and providing a place for discussion. We're not here for campaigning, but we do take a basic stance on some things. We work with the UN, truth and reconciliation committees, and other international bodies to promote discussion."

And it's a discussion that has, in some cases, produced tangible results, working with the Canadian government to call out genocides in countries where they haven't been recognised. Notably, as visitors learn in the Breaking Silence Gallery: Holodomor, the 1932-33 Soviet-orchestrated Ukraine famine. But for many, including some vocal Ukrainian Canadians, this is is merely lip service.

This place of ideas is a complex place to exist. A defence of human rights can't be sterile but how far can an institution such as this, go? "Part of the museum's main mandate is that people get heard," continues my guide. "Our digital architecture is something that's designed to keep being added to," he says, pointing to video booths where patrons can record their own stories. In an age where museums must compete with IMAX theatres and more distracting, immersive cultural experiences, some might say the show needs to be as important as the tell.

In the two years since it opened, this museum has won numerous awards for it digital innovation and design, including, last year, at the so-called Oscars for Museums, a Leading Culture Destinations Award. As I watch kids swiping at screens and conjuring 3D video displays that wouldn't look out of place in a Matrix movie, dealing with issues and subjects as varied and complex as the Supreme Court and racial segregation, I can't but hope that this engagement does more than offer distraction in a digital age.


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