All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Opening of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is the only museum of its kind. It is dedicated solely “to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights.” Everything about the museum, from the exhibits within to the site on which it stands, is unique and demonstrates CMHR’s commitment to conscientiousness.
CMHR in Winnipeg is the first national museum of Canada to be built outside of the National Capital Region (Ottawa-Gatineau). Its location holds symbolic significance in that it is at the longitudinal center of Canada. Of even more significance is the specific plot of land on which the museum was built. CMHR stands on ancestral lands at The Forks, which has been a center for travel and trade for thousands of years. Before construction of CMHR could even begin, archaeologists conducted digs with respected First Nations elders and more than 400,000 artifacts were recovered.
The physical building was designed to symbolize the human quest from darkness to light, starting at the ground and reaching to the sky. The base of the building consists of four enormous roots, deeply planted, to signify the human connection to earth. Moving upward along the exterior, the next layer is considered “the mountain”, made of limestone from the Tyndall area of Manitoba. The next layer is “the cloud”, made of massive sheets of glass, and made to symbolize the embracing wings of a dove. The final layer is the Israel Asper Tower of Hope. The 328-foot glass spire stands as a beacon of hope and enlightenment.
Just like the exterior of the building, the museum’s interior is designed to represent the positive journey toward human rights. Visitors start at ground level in Bonnie & John Buhler Hall, a space carved into the earth that is meant to be reminiscent of ancient gathering places. From Buhler Hall, visitors make their ascent along alabaster ramps that are lit from within, creating a glowing pathway between the museum’s ten galleries housed in “the mountain”. Continuing through “the cloud”, visitors then find themselves gazing upon the Stuart Clark Garden of Contemplation. At this point, visitors are encouraged to climb the spiral staircase or ride the elevator to the viewing platform within the Israel Asper Tower of Hope. With panoramic views of Winnipeg, it’s the perfect place to reflect and regain optimism.
The museum’s ten permanent galleries address issues impacting human rights in Canada as well as the rest of the world. The galleries are meant to be visited in order, starting at the lower level, again to symbolize the quest towards enlightenment and positive change. The galleries are:
- What Are Human Rights? – A multimedia introduction to human rights.
- Indigenous Perspectives – Rights and responsibilities based on beliefs of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples of Canada.
- Canadian Journeys – Reflection of Canada’s efforts to achieve human rights for all.
- Protecting Rights in Canada – Depiction of Canada’s evolving legal framework.
- Examining the Holocaust – Learning to recognize genocide and how to prevent it, as well as accounts of anti-Semitism in Canada.
- Turning Points for Humanity – Demonstration of how people working together has led to successful measures concerning human rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Breaking the Silence – Speaking out on human rights violations and examining secrecy and denial.
- Actions Count – Tribute to Canadians taking action on different levels to effect positive change in the lives of others.
- Rights Today – Timely displays to encourage visitors to think critically and make decisions towards effective action.
- Inspiring Change – Encourages visitors to do some personal reflection and determine their own roles in making the world a better place for everyone.
There are also a number of special exhibitions on display within the museum’s ten galleries. These exhibitions are temporary and focus on varied aspects of human rights. At the time of my visit, one of the special exhibitions was Girl of Courage: Malala’s Fight for Education. Malala Yousafzai is originally from Pakistan. In 2012, she defied Taliban rules not allowing girls to attend school. She was shot in the head by Taliban members, survived, and then went on to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. Today, Malala continues to speak in support of girls’ education. The exhibition included the school uniform Malala was wearing the day she was attacked by the Taliban, as well as her 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Diploma.
Guided tours are offered to visitors, at an additional cost, and can be booked at the museum’s Ticketing and Information desk at the Main Entrance. There are three different guided tours: Mikinak-Keya Spirit Tour, which presents an Indigenous perspective on rights and responsibilities; Explore The Galleries, an interpretive tour through a selection of exhibits and galleries; and Discover The Building, all about the museum’s architecture and its connection to human rights. Another option is to do a free, self-guided tour using the museum’s iOS/Android app. For those traveling without a smartphone or other mobile device, the museum lends out accessories with the app already loaded.
Visiting with children
One might think that the CMHR would not be appropriate for children, but the truth is, the museum is appropriate for everyone. CMHR welcomes children of all ages and even provides a digital Guide for Parents and Caregivers via its website. The Guide contains age-appropriate discussion topics, suggestions on what to see and do at the museum, and pre- and post-visit activities.
I recommend setting aside at least four hours to visit CMHR. Start out with one of the guided tours as an introduction to the building and the galleries. Pick out the areas and exhibitions that you’d like to explore even more, and return to those locations at the conclusion of the tour. I took part in a 90-minute Explore The Galleries group tour. Our guide was engaging and extremely passionate about the museum’s mission.
Extend your museum visit by stopping in for a drink and/or a meal at ERA Bistro on the museum’s main level. The Bistro offers a full-service menu and invites guests to relax and reflect. ERA Bistro is a gorgeous, open space and serves locally-sourced items (as much as possible). We enjoyed carrot fries with soft herb & jalapeño buttermilk dip, and a Manitoba pickerel po’ boy. I definitely recommend both dishes.
Lastly, I strongly suggest visiting the museum with an open mind and a positive outlook. You will come away feeling inspired and hopeful, despite the atrocities and injustices plaguing our world. The key then becomes maintaining that elevated level of inspiration long after your visit, and remembering that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
I was a guest of Travel Manitoba and CMHR, receiving complimentary admission to the museum, a complimentary tour, and complimentary lunch at ERA Bistro. All thoughts and opinions, as always, are my own.