WINNIPEG — Gail Asper says the chain of inspiring moments leading to her father’s idea for Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), which opens Sept. 20, started with concerns about rising anti-Semitism during the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.
Determined to educate Jewish kids about the Holocaust, Israel Asper and his daughter began taking Jewish and non-Jewish groups to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with the Asper Foundation’s Human Rights and Holocaust Studies Program.
“We focused on grade niners, because teachers said they are seeking moral clarity. Each kid signed a memorandum of personal responsibility to reinforce the message that the Holocaust was allowed to happen while good people stood by and evil was allowed to flourish.”
One day, while chatting with a group en route to view the Declaration of Independence, Gail realized that most kids didn’t know about common civil liberties stories.
“So we visited Ottawa. We realized the Holocaust had been successfully eliminated from the Canadian War Museum, [and] the Charter of Rights and the story of Canadian human rights was not covered anywhere.” Gail suggested creating a museum in Ottawa. Izzy – as the philanthropist and former CEO of Winnipeg-based CanWest Global was fondly called – preferred Winnipeg for its cultural diversity and its location in the geographic centre of North America.
Anticipating the opening of the $350-million CMHR – Canada’s first national museum outside the capital region, and built with money from private donors and all three levels of government – along with her brothers Leonard and David, Gail said, “I am happier than I could imagine. Dad’s vision, drafted in 2001, is intact today. Our first plan included an introduction of human rights and a Holocaust exhibit with repercussions of the Holocaust genocide. We fought to keep that, as… every human rights expert said you cannot have a human rights museum that does not address the Holocaust. We don’t need another memorial. So the Holocaust is told from a human rights lens, as the science of genocide and anti-Semitism, and is relevant to the world today.”
Her father, she added, wanted a “walk of shame” with Stalin, Hitler and Mao. “Instead we have ordinary exemplars that will resonate with young people. Dad wanted less stress on rights and more on responsibility. Dad believed ‘He who saves one person saves a community of people.’ If the CMHR encourages people to stop an injustice, prevent one incident of cruelty in the world or take action or write a letter that provokes our government to take action, then we did our job.
“We aim to transform bystanders to human rights heroes. Young people should know how we fought for rights, and how it was when aboriginals had no rights and no vote, and Chinese and Jews were discriminated against… Our message is one of vigilance. We may be glorious and free, but we must stand on guard for Canada.”
Describing the CMHR’s ambition to be a place for dialogue and education that ultimately promotes action, Gail said: “We hope the dividends will be a more humane and peaceful world, where we do not avert our eyes. That ties in with the message of the Holocaust: if the U.S. and Canada had taken in refugees during the war, millions of lives would have been saved. I hope that kids who visit will be our future CEOs, journalists, educators, leaders and developers of human rights policies. Imagine the impact if tens of thousands of kids could learn to take personal responsibility.”
The Asper Foundation and the museum plan to develop an educational program and a tailored student travel program, aiming to bring in 20,000 kids each year. The CMHR is also planning seminars for educators to teach human rights.
New Mexico-based architect Antoine Predock was inspired by the museum’s location near the Forks, meeting point of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in downtown Winnipeg and a place of consensus for First Nations leaders. He envisioned oppressed cultures connected to the earth, moving from darkness to light.
Ultimately, the exterior architecture evokes a mountain, clad in stone and wrapped by a glass cloud (or perhaps coddled by a silver dove of peace) whose pinnacle soars to the light.
The interior gives the sensation of climbing a mountain of human rights issues toward the lofty ideal of inspiring change. From the lowest level – where the gala space is tinged in dark, earthy, subterranean colours – visitors explore the museum via a ramp clad in sheets of glowing alabaster that eventually slopes to a light-filled atrium where a serene “Garden of Contemplation” – artfully designed with reflecting ponds fringed by basalt boulders – leads to a light-filled atrium and the Tower of Hope. Looking up at the atrium, the supporting, spiralling beams evoke humanity spiralling above evil and genocide to a hopeful, civilized world.
As the interactive and visual exhibits were not yet installed during a recent preview, exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum described the uniqueness of the museum as a collection of personal stories peppered with cultural, philosophical and political ideas – rather than artifacts – all meant to trigger a visitor’s sense of compassion and empathy for others.
Applebaum described it as a “museum of conscience,” akin to “visiting an ethical spa” for “a moral tune-up” and sensitivity training to build a better civilization.
CEO Stuart Murray predicts it will inspire people to check their moral compasses with inspiring, hopeful stories of ordinary people – “beyond Nelson Mandela” – who, say, stand up to racial taunts or schoolyard bullies and transition from being bystanders to being engaged in creating a better civil society.
The galleries will explore complex concepts and themes from multiple perspectives using films, theatre and multi-sensory stations designed to engage interaction. The provocative gallery displays will cover Aboriginal traditions, perspectives and concepts of humanity and responsibility, along with the Holocaust, Nazi techniques of genocide and Canada’s experiences with anti-Semitism. Also explored will be the roles of secrecy and denial in global atrocities, such as the Ukrainian Holodomor as well as genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Srebrenica in Bosnia. Other exhibits are designed to inspire teens and young adults with stories of Canadians who have made a difference.
Visit www.humanrights.ca for information and free tickets to the two-day RightsFest on Sept. 20 and 21.