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Human rights museum tour
Dec 05, 2013

 

A jig-jagging ramp rising upward between floors made of near-translucent alabaster meant to invoke a pathway of light through the darkness. A brown-coloured poured-concrete floor that mimics the muddy bottom of a river. Volcanic basalt rock stepping stones that conjure up images of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Concrete walls with angles as steep as 70 degrees that seem to defy the pull of gravity. Rough surfaces of Manitoba Tyndall stone that are exposed on walls.
For those taking a tour of the interior of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), all of these features can be  observed with a resulting admiration for the monumental design and the prowess of PCL Construction and Smith Carter Architects undertaking its construction. No exhibits have been completed, but there is still a wow-factor very much in play for the observer.
If anything can be described as a marvel of architectural design, it’s Canada’s newest national museum at The Forks, which is scheduled to officially open on September 20, 2014.
Smith Carter described the museum as being the most complicated building being built in North America. But the very complexity of its construction will make the museum visually unique among public buildings in the world.
Even before I recently toured the CMHR’s interior space, which covers an area equal to four Canadian football fields, people visiting the city had remarked with wonderment about the extraordinary exterior of the building. “This is something Winnipeggers can really be proud of,” a visitor from Ottawa told me this past summer. “My wife and I had to take some pictures to show people at home — it’s so unique.” This was from someone who had visited the museums in Ottawa-Hull, such as the grand-scale Canadian Museum of Civilization, and knew that the CMHR was the first and only national museum to date to be built outside the Capital Region. 
Among the visitors are groups and individual REALTORS® from across Canada, who have thrown their support behind the museum.
“REALTORS® understand the importance of this project for Canada,” said Kelly McArthur, the regional campaign manager for the Friends of the CMHR, “and through the support of brokerages, associations, boards and individual REALTORS® from across the country, to date more than $1.7 million has been raised with an industry goal of raising $2 million.”
The museum will cost $351 million to build. The private sector is the largest contributor with $138 million raised as of September 2013. The federal government has contributed $100 million, the province $40 million, and the city has given $23.6 million towards the capital cost of the building.
Judging by the rave reviews of its exterior from visitors, the museum is already a hit with 10 months still remaining before it’s opened to public viewing.
World-renowned American architect Antoine Predock borrowed images from the Canadian landscape, such as mountains, clouds, prairie grassland, ice and snow for the museum’s design. His design uses complex geometry and human rights symbolism, such as weaving light through darkness.
“The architect really thought through what this building is all about,” said tour guide Maureen Fitzhenry, the media relations manager for the CMHR.
“It’s an exciting time in the evolution of the CMHR,”said McArthur, “as we now start to outfit this architectural wonder with life-changing exhibits, which will facilitate dialogue about human rights and encourage visitors to take action to combat the forces of hate and oppression.”
Fitzhenry helped those taking the tour to visualize the coming exhibits. As each space intended as a gallery was entered, she explained its purpose and what it would contain, including mini-documentaries, interactive games, theatres and multi-media displays that run from floor to ceiling. Of course, all the displays and exhibits are designed around human rights themes.
The mandate announced by the Canadian government, when it reached the decision in 2008 to approve the museum, is “to explore the subject of human rights with special, but not exclusive, reference to Canada, in order to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue.”
“The wow-factor has been incorporated in every gallery to connect with people,” said Fitzhenry. “Our idea is to make them really interesting and cool.
“We’re using all kinds of ways to tell stories, even theatre and dance,” she added.
Ascending eight stories through exhibition spaces is a kilometre of ramps clad in Spanish alabaster that will glow from the use of interior lighting. The ramp certainly contributes to the “wow-factor.” As does, an enormous glass “cloud,” wrapping around the northern façade, which is designed in the image of dove wings, and floods the upper levels with natural lights.
Fitzhenry explained that the Garden of Contemplation will include greenery and water ponds surrounded by basalt rocks from Mongolia. “It’s a place for reflection,” she said. 
All the museum’s main exhibits are housed between walls of Manitoba Tyndall stone and concrete. The amount of concrete used in the construction of the CMHR is equal to 3,000 elephants.
The Tower of Hope rises 100 metres skyward, which is equivalent to a 23-storey building. 
If anyone expects the CMHR to be a typical museum filled with relics, they are wrong. “Primarily we’re an ideas museum, rather than a collections museum,” said Fitzhenry.
There will be the odd collection where required to make a point about human rights, but the museum is more of a place to connect visitors to issues, such as viewing different case studies, ranging from indigenous perspectives, legal aspects of Canadian human rights and the (United Nations) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the role of secrecy and denial in atrocities across the world, such as the Ukrainian Holodomar, the Armenia genocide, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia.
“We discuss different case studies, because things are not always black and white when it comes to human rights,” said Fitzhenry. “We aim to enhance understanding of human rights, promote respect for others, and encourage reflection and dialogue.”
The museum is essentially an educational hub. With this in mind, thousands of young Canadians and students from other nations will take part in programs to learn about human rights.
Whatever superlatives are used to describe it, the CMHR is destined to be a dominant feature of Winnipeg’s built landscape, and the city’s, provi nce’s and nation’s unique gift to the world’s understanding of human rights.