The coolest building in Canada – Canadian Museum for Human Rights


DSC_0793Story and photos by Dorothy Dobbie

Rising beside the Red River like smoke from a prairie campfire is the iconic Museum for Human Rights, an ode to hope for tomorrow’s humanity. The building itself is beautiful and inspiring both inside and out, physically designed to illustrate the idea that all of humanity is connected to Mother Earth and therefore all equally deserving of human rights. It can also be interpreted as showing us how human thought and action can be raised from the baseness of our everyday instincts, as symbolically rooted in the earth, to the aspirations that set us apart as a species and have made it possible to rise above, in this case, transcendentally into the clouds.

The building consists of the treelike roots extending in four directions on the ground floor. Above this is the mythic mountain of stone that houses the exhibits, the glass cloud designed to resemble the encircling wings of a dove, and the lofty “Tower of Hope” rising 100 metres above the earth, lifting us toward a better world.

“This is a concept museum, a museum of ideas, not a collection of artefacts commemorating atrocities,” says Maureen Fitzhenry, manager of media relations at the Museum. It is designed to “tell powerful stories that bring human rights ideas to life.” To illustrate this, Mireille Lamontagne, the manager of education programs and special projects, outlines some of the exciting interactive galleries that are in the works. “We want to show that you don’t have to be Gandhi to count,” she says, noting, “We can all make a difference.”

This is the message in the Museum’s offerings for children and young people, teaching them what happens when human rights are denied and how to deal with and prevent such denials. They point to lessons of bullying and LGBT rights, and encompass concepts such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One gallery uses digitally created light ribbons to demonstrate inclusion and interconnectedness. It is a way to show that human rights are not exclusive, in the sense that no right is absolute, but that every right must interlock with the rights of another – a three-dimensional hexagon of ideas where, like a honeycomb, the sides of each provide strength to the others.

In another gallery, images of people will lock eyes with visitors, becoming animated as you approach and telling their story, a compelling way to make a lasting point. In all, seven galleries use high tech methods to illustrate and intrigue visitors. There is a gallery containing a circular theatre where an immersive 360-degree film demonstrates how First Nations people interpret human rights and how this evolved over their history. Around this gallery there are 13 spirit panels which “are absolutely stunning,” says Mireille. They were designed through the inspiration of Aboriginal youth, captured by Indigenous artists who worked with them during workshops held in every Canadian province and territory last fall.

Another gallery features a debate circle where visitors can watch videos of court cases and take part in voting for one decision or another, then compare the truths they discovered with those of the professionals.

Researcher Dr. Margaret Kierylo is working with lead historian Dr. Isabelle Masson on stories highlighting achievements and how they impact human rights. One example is an exhibit of everyday objects, which demonstrates how the use of a product or a consumer’s choice of products – say corn or a cell phone – impacts on others.

As you travel through the museum, you cannot help but be visually awed by the majesty of the building and the implications of what it represents. From the rough-hewn Tyndall stone contrasted with black Mongolian basalt of the lower levels to the glowing alabaster ramps that lead upward past the contemplative garden filled with water and plants and into the clouds, your eyes are ever roaming to take in the incredible angles and textures and dizzying use of natural light.

“The staff of the Museum moved into the building in early January of this year and every day is one of wonder and delight,” says Stuart Murray, soft spoken president and CEO of the Museum. “This is the coolest building in Canada,” he says. Stuart quotes the master exhibit designer, who said he hoped that “the exhibits will dance with the building.” The physical space inspires everyone who works here, including himself. “In the winter I would be captivated by the snow and the way it would hang in patterns on the glass and now I see the same thing with rain. The views are always shifting and changing. You can’t help but be inspired by the building even before you begin your journey.” The corporate offices have been deliberately set on three levels beside the glass walls readily visible by the public to show how people are working on human rights every day.

Stuart, himself, is constantly learning from both the work on exhibits and the building. He views the Museum as a “game changer,” not just for international understanding but for his city and his province. “We have had many speakers from around the world,” he says, “and they all had the same message: ‘I hope you realize what you have here.’ ” He sees the intrinsic opportunities for Manitoba to once again take a lead role in Canada on a topic that has immense possibilities for the future. Nor does he shy away from controversy, saying that this is okay because controversy promotes understanding. “This is a world

of fragile freedoms,” he says, to illustrate his empathy with those who want their stories told. He hopes the stories we tell here will help heal old wounds and lend new hope for a better world, one less filled with conflict and fear.

Stuart cautions that the opening of the Museum on Sept. 20 is just the beginning. “Never say you’ve achieved something great,” he concludes. “Say, what’s the next chapter?” He is filled with hope and optimism and excitement about tomorrow – and that’s an inspiration in itself.


Just the Facts

Voted 2014 Global Best Project Award by ‘Engineering New Record’

Site: The Forks, First Nations Treaty One land, Winnipeg

Design architect: Antoine Predock

Executive architects: Smith Carter

Concept: Four stone “roots” represent all humans as children of the Earth, from which rises the Tower of Hope wrapped in the wings of a dove.

Cost: $351 million

Builders: PCL Construction

Building materials: 1,300 pieces of glazing; 35,000 tonnes of concrete; Spanish alabaster; local Manitoba Tyndall stone; basalt rock

Height: 100 metres (23 stories) to the top of the Tower of Hope

First and Only: Only national museum built outside national Capital Region in Ottawa. Only Canadian National museum to be one-third funded by private donations: private sector, $142 million – so far; Government of Canada, $100 million; Province of Manitoba $40 million; City of Winnipeg, $23.6 million. Access cost: Adults $15 (tax included); youth aged seven to 17 pay $8 (under seven is free); students and seniors $12. A family of up to six can enter for $42.