Canadian Museum for Human Rights Nears Opening After Difficult Decade

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (photograph by Robert Lindsell, via Flickr)
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (photo by Robert Lindsell/Flickr)

After years of planning and controversy, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is officially opening on September 20 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. With a $351 million design of glass and bending lines by Antoine Predock, crowned by a 23-story “Tower of Hope,” its 47,000 square feet of gallery space are the elaborate setting for an ambitious mission.

It’s been quite a decade of a journey for the CMHR, with its initial planner Izzy Asper suddenly dying in 2003, groundbreaking in 2008, debate over what should be the focus on the museum, and controversy with indigenous groups in Canada over the content not portraying their culture’s destruction as genocide, and then the museum land itself being packed with thousands of indigenous artifacts. (Global News has a more thorough timeline here.)

Aerial view of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (courtesy the museum)
Aerial view of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (courtesy the museum)

Now out of the muck of development, and the museum will have to prove it was all worth it. Last month, CMHR revealed its core galleries to the media, including exhibitions on “What are Human Rights?,” “Indigenous Perspectives,” human rights violations, and the Holocaust (a concentration which sparked protests by centering on one atrocity while relegating others to shared gallery space). Along the way are artifacts like a ballot box from Nelson Mandela’s election in South Africa and individual stories of people such as Ali Saeed, who was imprisoned and tortured during Ethiopia’s Red Terror for advocating free speech. Exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum described the space as an “ideas museum,” while the sweeping promo videos proclaim it “a forum for new dialogue.”

Detail of the new CMHR stamp issued by Canada Post (via
Detail of the new CMHR stamp issued by Canada Post (via

The first temporary exhibition will be Peace, a broad topic that hopefully doesn’t hint at a lack of focus in the museum’s future. There’s no argument places for contextualizing human rights are essential, particularly in Canada with the First Nations and their limitation of rights by things like the Indian Act, but it is a complicated issue to boil down into a museum space. The fanfare around the opening is, however, powered by much more optimism than the museum has had in much of its long journey, and it’s even already on a stamp issued by Canada Post last month.

The architecture of the building by Predock, whose Tacoma Art Museum and Nelson Fine Arts Center at Arizona State University have already taken structural risks in organic forms, also promises to be an formidable experience. As described on Predock’s site, after visitors “enter the museum between the Roots, protective stone arms suggestive of an ancient geological event,” they progress up through the 11 galleries to the “Tower of Hope” with “panoramic views of sky, city, and the natural realm.” Like visitors to the museum coming up out of the dark to this spire of light, maybe the CMHR is finally getting out of the shadows of its tumultuous construction.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (85 Israel Asper Way, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) opens September 20.

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