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Museum for Human Rights


by Lionel Steiman, October 16, 2011

The following is the complete text  written by Prof. Lionel Steiman, for the  OUTLOOK Brunch, that took place on Fort Garry Hotel, October 16, 2011.


Lloyd Axworthy once said that the most important thing Izzy Asper did for Winnipeg was to stay here. Asper’s most important legacy will undoubtedly be the Canadian Museum for Human Rights He wanted to put Winnipeg on the world’s map, and give it an architectural icon like the Eiffel Tower. Asper had introduced a Bill of Rights in the Manitoba legislature in 1971, and ten years later promoted Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The catalyst that made him champion human rights was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1993.   Four years later, the Asper Foundation began its Human Rights and Holocaust Studies Program, combining lectures at home with a tour of the Holocaust museum in Washington. The program proved transformative for students and teachers alike, and this gave Asper the idea of providing a similar experience in Canada so students wouldn’t have to go to Washington. Thus he conceived a centre with a human rights focus, and a travel program that would bring students from around the world to Winnipeg.   In July, 2000 he discussed the idea with the Executive Director of the Asper Foundation; three years later, in April 2003, plans for a national human rights museum in Winnipeg were unveiled at the Forks. Six months later, Izzy Asper died. Two weeks after his funeral, the architectural design competition for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was launched, marked by a ceremonial sod turning at the Forks. Fundraising resumed under the energetic leadership of his daughter.
The building now rising above the Forks is an architectural marvel. It promises visitors an experience of enlightenment, growth, and transformation. Architect Antoine Predock designed it as leading the visitor from darkness to light. Starting in the Museum’s “roots”, the path ascends from grounds where Aboriginal peoples came to resolve conflict and live together in peace; it continues to a series of bridges, leading visitors to the Tower of Hope, a 20-storey glass structure overlooking the horizon. Along the way they encounter stories of human rights and the heroes who championed the cause of those rights. Continuing on their journey towards light, visitors pass through twelve zones or galleries, each of which is designed to enable them to experience successive chapters in human rights history, through personal stories and interactive exhibits. The journey is designed so that visitors will experience the past primarily as it relates to Canada’s development as a multi-cultural national community.  
 The Master Exhibit Designer for CMHR, is Ralph Appelbaum, who had earlier designed the Holocaust Museum in Washington. His role is to ensure the overall coherence of individual galleries with the museum’s human rights vision, with its Canadian perspective on human rights, and with its commitment to our national community. Under this governing vision, the actual work of designing exhibits and displays for the twelve zones is being done by a team of bright young researchers and designers in Winnipeg. They are of various research backgrounds, and with varying experience in current human rights issues. Design proposals are subject to final approval by the museum’s Board of Trustees.
 Almost as soon as the CMHR project was announced, a multicultural coalition raised alarm bells that a museum seeking federal tax dollars should not be exclusively devoted to the Holocaust, and insisted that it should give equal representation to the suffering of other groups. Let us be clear: Asper did not embrace the cause of human rights in order to promote a museum primarily of Jewish interest. But it is equally clear that memory of the Holocaust weighed on him so heavily that Holocaust awareness and human rights awareness became one. Holocaust museums everywhere—in the U.S., the U.K., Europe, South America, in Japan— are institutions that promote human rights. In any case, protests alleging CMHR’s privileging of the Holocaust were met by repeated insistence that this was not a museum of genocides, but of human rights; the emphasis would be positive, the focus would be Canadian, and the museum would be a “catalyst for change.” 
Some critics see it as a fundamental flaw that the museum’s planners never set forth a clear definition of its subject or of the concept “human rights” that would guide its development. Nor are these critics disarmed by the following statement in a recent brochure: “The Canadian Museum for Human Rights does not define human rights—it invites people from all walks of life into a dynamic discussion.” In a recent talk at the University of Manitoba, museum CEO Stuart Murray stated that there is no single definition of human rights, which he called an “umbrella term” for a whole range of rights of individuals and groups. Murray emphasized the museum’s inclusivity and that it invited open-ended critical dialogue and debate on the part of visitors. Implicit throughout his talk was that educating about human rights was about respecting individual differences and differences based on group identities, and getting people not simply to tolerate differences in others but to respect and to value those differences. 
 When Ralph Appelbaum was asked why so many young people visited the Washington museum, he replied simply: “Moral clarity.” The Washington museum proved that you reach the young not just by offering moral principles, but by enabling them to identify with individual exemplars of those principles. Thus when CMHR officers speak of “moral transformation”, they are not suggesting that visitors will experience a spiritual epiphany, but that illustration by storytelling, for example, would “personalize” moral principles and thereby promote the personal identification with heroic acts of self-sacrifice as well as with the suffering of defenseless victims. This was the idea behind the Washington museum’s issuing visitors with “identity cards with the name and basic biography of an individual Jew in Nazi occupied Europe. Visitors would have their cards up-dated at various stations in the museum and would discover their “fate” only at the end of the tour. The experience would not only be morally engaging, but “morally transformative”.
 Do we really need “manufactured intimacy” to teach basic
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