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Into the light

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is a mind-boggling proposition: soaring in its ambition, beautiful in its mission, stumbling in its execution.

Opening last fall in Winnipeg, the first national museum located outside the capital region, the $350-million CMHR is comprised of 11 galleries that thematically address topics as diverse as the Holocaust, missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

My visit earlier this year coincided with Maclean’s cover story detailing Winnipeg’s virulent racism toward Aboriginals and the appalling levels of poverty and violence afflicting the Aboriginal community (and others) in the city’s North End. So front of mind for me was the question: Does this gleaming, towering testament to human rights speak to the most critical human rights crisis facing the country today, a crisis located quite literally on the museum’s doorstep?

Aboriginal history and perspectives are woven throughout the museum’s offerings (just as lesbian and gay history and perspectives are). The respect is palpable. But does that respect translate into effective and accessible education and advocacy? In other words: Does the museum deliver on its content?

Here, the results are much more murky. The content is great, the delivery not so.

Content delivery comes in a variety of guises: There are seven theatres, countless monitors and interactive screens, reams of wall text and images, numerous multimedia installations and 300 objects. The true heart of the collection is more than 100 hours of video: individual profiles, testimonials, short features, mini documentaries and news segments, of varying strengths but well-made overall.

If you make the effort to watch.

The breadth and volume of content are exhaustive and exhausting. Information overload is a constant problem.

Curators have placed great hope in interactive technology: monitors with different types of touch-screen interface.

While there is some appeal to “playing” with the technology, the blinking lights and whooshing sound effects soon lose their novelty. It’s a tough slog to really dig into the material.

Technological tricks are not enough.

Over and over, the museum missed opportunities to provide an experience more powerful than watching and reading the same material on a computer at home (in a setting more conducive to in-depth research). The whole thing could be a website.

All too rarely did the physical exhibits give something extra. I wanted installations to make me feel in my gut what all the monitors and information boards were telling my head.

The little section on residential schools in the Canadian Journeys gallery is an exception that proves my point, an example of content and installation reinforcing each other to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The main content is a short documentary that is very strong, in part because of incredible source material, moving video depositions given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The installation features a large photo on the back wall of the exhibit depicting a clean and orderly classroom. Rows of young students sit at their desks, looking directly at the camera, many with smiling, hopeful faces. A stern nun presides in the background. Placed in front of the photo are two video monitors mounted in the tops of real desks that look exactly like the desks in the photo. As I watched the monitor/desks, learning that day’s awful lesson of systemic abuse, I kept glancing up at the faces of the students staring straight at me, guileless, innocent. The scale of betrayal and the need to act to protect those kids (or their grandkids) overwhelmed me. It’s a deceptively simple and effective installation married to a powerful documentary.

That is CMHR at its best.

There aren’t enough of those moments.

Of course, the building itself adds a critical dimension. U.S. architect Antoine Predock has designed an impressive carbuncle of a building—an instant, controversial landmark. The galleries are connected by a kilometre of glowing alabaster ramps that zigzag up through a seven-storey atrium, a truly awe-inspiring space with its ever-changing vertiginous views. But other than the simple and austere welcoming chamber, none of the galleries approach the atrium’s drama and grandeur. Plus there’s a nagging sense that the building itself may have sucked up resources and creative oxygen much needed elsewhere.

But the museum is still a work in progress. Who can say what its impact will be a generation from now after countless schoolkids are dragged through it year after year, while countless others are exposed to the museum’s substantial education materials? The schools component looks exceptional.

And organizers are talking a great game about future programming and using the museum as a venue for important gatherings on human rights. Such programming and outreach are critical question marks that will determine whether the museum is a beacon for change or a towering Babel of good intentions.

There’s an incredible dynamism in this city, my hometown, equal to the despair and outrage outlined in the Maclean’s article. That dichotomy is best experienced through art.

If you find yourself in Winnipeg and want to see other creative responses to the city’s ongoing human rights crisis, head to the Urban Shaman Gallery (urbanshaman.org), a vital showcase for Aboriginal artists. A forthcoming book about gallery artist Lita Fontaine features an essay by textile artist Albert Mcleod, a tireless activist and educator around sexuality and AIDS in Aboriginal communities. He also runs Two-Spirited People of Manitoba (twospiritmanitoba.ca), supporting some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

Even the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (rwb.org) commissioned a new work that tackled the residential school system. Going Home Star, by Mark Godden with libretto by Joseph Boyden, premiered last fall to mark the RWB’s 75th anniversary. A making-of doc and tour are in the works.

Or simply catch an Aboriginal drag queen performing at Club 200 (club200.ca), one of Winnipeg’s two gay bars. It’s a scrappy, happy place and incredibly diverse. Young and old, men and women, white, immigrant and Aboriginal, lesbian, gay, straight and trans…everyone’s here and they have each other’s back.