What do a mural from the Arab Spring, a short film on conscientious objectors, information on Nelson Mandela, and stories about the Famous Five have in common? They are all part of the exhibits at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
Since its opening on September 19, 2014, the museum has attracted many visitors to hear stories about the struggle for human rights in Canada and around the world.
The museum’s existence is the result of a process that began years ago and resulted in a change to the Museums Act in 2008, allowing for the establishment of a monument to human rights, to be built in Winnipeg. It is the first national museum located outside the Ottawa region and the first to be built in almost fifty years.
The new legislation, which came into effect on August 10, 2008, allowed for a museum that would explore issues of human rights in Canada and around the world, promoting dialogue among people while preserving Canadian heritage, identity, and collective memory, as well as promoting learning, research, and entertainment.
Construction of the museum took several years, but the exhibits now on display are worth the wait. The museum has eight floors, connected by long ramps rather than stairs, with each floor reflecting a theme such as Indigenous Perspectives, Examining the Holocaust, and Rights Today.
Unlike most other museums, the CMHR has a focus on telling stories rather than displaying artifacts, with a few exceptions such as a small piece of the Berlin Wall and a mural painted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring in Egypt. A statue of an emaciated girl in the section on the Ukrainian famine are also effective in showing visitors the impact that human rights violations can have on the most vulnerable segments of society.
Electronic storytelling is a large part of the museum’s strategy, from the short videos relating to issues like slavery to the special presentations on topics such as conscientious objectors during the various wars that Canadians have fought. This online format is often quite effective, since it allows exhibitors to tell stories that would be difficult to understand through artifacts alone. It also provides visitors with the most current information available.
Besides telling stories, the museum’s exhibits help to draw visitors into the stories they are hearing by calling for people to remember that human rights are everyone’s responsibility. The exhibits are more than just academic portrayals of past events; they are calls to action.
One of the most unique sections of the museum is the Garden of Contemplation, where, as the name implies, visitors can sit and think about what they have seen. The dimly-lit area with rock-like structures scattered randomly around the space is a perfect place for people to consider the stories that the museum tells or even just to rest weary legs and sore backs before continuing on to another section of the museum.
Since its official opening, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has expanded and changed, with new galleries being added over the fist months of the museum’s existence. As human rights stories continue to emerge, the museum will likely change to reflect these new issues.
If the museum does its work well and tells the stories of people who have made a difference, it will help to inspire a new generation of advocates who are willing and ready to stand up for human rights at home and around the globe.
All photos by Susan Huebert (except where indicated)