A national museum with a difference—one that will showcase the highs and lows of Canada's human rights record—is in the works for Manitoba
The federal government has announced it will make the proposed Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) a national institution and will cover its annual operating costs. It is the first national museum to be built outside the Ottawa area.
"Rights only flourish in free, democratic societies like Canada, where the principles of fairness, pluralism, and justice are embedded in the history of the country and the values of its people, as well as the laws of their governments," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in Winnipeg last week, where he made the announcement.
The museum, to be based in Winnipeg, was the vision of the late media mogul and philanthropist Israel Asper, and marks the first time three levels of government and the private sector have collaborated to build a museum.
The anticipated $22 million-per-year operating cost is in addition to the $100 million for construction costs originally committed by the previous Liberal government, which is contingent on other partners raising $165 million.
While efforts are still underway to raise more funds, private sector donations have topped $72 million, and the province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg have pledged $40 million and $20 million respectively toward the project.
The proposed design of the museum, created by New Mexico-based architect Antoine Predock, is an iceberg-like glass and stone building with a glowing tower, which the advocates of the museum hope will make it a distinguishable world-wide symbol for human rights.
In an article written for the National Post , Predock explains his design is rooted in humanity and portrays the fundamental commonality of humankind—"a symbolic apparition of ice, clouds, and stone set in a field of sweet grass."
Naomi Grattan, director of communications with the Canadian Museum Association, says that interesting architecture serves to attract more people to museums, especially if the architecture is related to the content of the museum, but warns that in the end what matters is what the museum contains.
"People would go once to see the architecture, but they go back for good programming and good content and interesting exhibitions," says Grattan.
So far, there are no formal proposals in place for the content of the museum, although the group acting as the proponent of the project, "Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights," have put forward a vision of what the museum would contain on the CMHR website.
"At this point in time there is no formal proposal out there, because, until we knew whether the museum was a go ahead or not, it was proposed as an idea and what we'd like to do…but it hasn't been fleshed out in a formal proposal…it's just too soon in the process," says Kim Jasper, CMHR director of communications.
Some of the ideas envisioned for the museum include having "experience stages" where dramatic human rights-related stories are told, with space for forums and interaction for each stage. Different thematic areas would include topics such as the Indian residential schools, the Chinese head tax, lessons from the Holocaust, and other human rights-related issues.
In certain areas of the museum visitors would also have an option to use a key to select famous or ordinary figures which would act as their virtual guides.
It has also been proposed that the museum be a venue for international human rights conferences, and a centre of learning for Canadian youth, teachers, police officers, government officials, and others.
"We figure there is a need for a national student program that by year two would have 20,000 students come from various different communities across Canada where they would have a human rights course in their own community…and it would culminate in a paid-for trip to the museum as part of that more comprehensive human rights course," says Jasper.
"The other proposal is we would be a center to provide training—sensitivity training—for peace-keepers and police and other organizations."
It is also expected that the museum will have strong aboriginal-related content.
"It's proposed that there be an aboriginal gallery that would talk about not just the aboriginal issues and events like residential schools and things like that, for example, but to also talk about aboriginal concepts of peace and justice so that we can learn from those concepts."
Wayne Spear from the Ottawa-based Aboriginal Healing Foundation says that depending on how it's done, having exhibitions about human rights violations could help to heal some of the wrongs of the past.
"I think the important thing is you try and represent people's experiences; people who went to residential schools, I know it's always very helpful to them because it validates it," says Spear.
"I think as long as you are respectful of people's experience, you try as best as you can to present that. That's probably the best approach."
The museum will open sometime in 2011.