The boldest idea of all: The Canadian Museum for Human Rights

By Dorothy Dobbie

The voice on the other end of the line was agitated and concerned. The caller wanted to know if I had read the November issue of The Walrus.
I hadn’t – the magazine is a little too pretentious for me, claiming as it does that it is “Fearless. Witty. Thoughtful. Canadian.” Especially because it is not that “Canadian,” unless we describe Canada as Toronto.
“You must read it,” he told me, “and write something to refute it. The Walrus writer is so negative about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.”
He said that the article bad-mouthed everything from the architecture to the concept to the funding, and from what he said, it did it in a particularly supercilious and dismissive way.
I am not surprised.
One of Winnipeg’s boldest ideas yet is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It’s so bold and new that it is setting the Canadian (read: Toronto) media into a frenzy of confusion and self-doubt, fueled, perhaps, by simple jealousy.
It seems the writers don’t understand the unusual architecture so they don’t have the language to deal with it. Uncomfortable and wordless, they rely on well-oiled phrases to describe this indescribable building, and since there is nothing like it, they end up with negative phrases.
This is the same group that goes “oooh” and “ahhh” when they see a blank canvas and are told it means something by some over-touted art critic.
So don’t let it get you down, folks.
Like all art, architecture is a matter of subjective opinion. You are going to love it or hate it. I love it; to me, it looks like a prairie campfire and fits beautifully on the banks of the Red River. One thing I know for sure, the museum will now replace its neighbouring bridge as an iconic symbol for Winnipeg.
The building is bold and beautiful, stunning in conception, design and construction. As one architect from Victoria told me last week, “You Winnipeggers should be very proud of your trades community – that is a very complex building and its construction has been very well-executed.” He sees a lot of work coming our way because of it.
Another mantra of the eastern media is that “taxpayers’ money” could be better spent. I don’t know how, in view of the incredible job done by Gail Asper in raising almost $150 million to complete the job (the federal government put up just $100 million, with the province and the city anteing up the rest).
And remember that this is the first national museum ever to be funded with any private donations. It is also the first national museum ever to be located outside of Ottawa, which like the virology lab being here, is a thorn in the side of the over-privileged Ontarians.
Much has been written about the museum’s offices being exposed to the public as well as occupying the glass side of the interior. I am told by the people who work there that this is a most inspiring place to work.
CEO Stuart Murray says every day is a different discovery in how the light strikes the building; how the rain looks when it falls, what happens to snow.
Does this matter? Yes, it does; this is a museum of ideas, not artifacts. Inspiration will be key to its success in moving the human rights agenda ahead, because one thing the critics are correct about – telling the human story is complex and fraught with emotion, confusion and insecurities.
That is okay. The controversy over whose story should be told and its hierarchy is a natural part of the human journey toward understanding, acceptance and peace. Every human right has been hard-won amidst debate and disagreement, sometimes even bloodshed. Why would the telling of these stories be any different?
So the uncertainty about content is understandable and it can be expected to continue. To Winnipeggers who feel a little brutalized by the eastern media, I say let it go. Laugh off their resentments. Get behind the museum and help it get on with the job of bringing ideas to light and giving permission to speak of the unspoken.
Over time, the museum will mellow and the interior will warm up with the heat of hope and optimism. There will be more stories presented in novel ways.
There will also be tangible galleries to satisfy, for those who need to, the experience of being near an actual artifact that speaks to their past.
As time goes on, those who feel most concerned about their story being told will see that it does have a place on the agenda, perhaps not just once but many times over the years as we learn from the past how to shape a better future.
This is a museum, a gallery if you will, about moving from darkness to light, just as architect Antoine Predock presented as a physical entity with his building design.
We are still in the stages of darkness, but never doubt that we will rise toward the light.
To put it in terms that The Walrus might understand, this museum is about “Concepts. Ideas. Hope. Canada.”
It is also about the boldness of Winnipeg, which should feel buoyed up by the jealous arrows sent our way by media whose thinking is stuck in the past.

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