Ideology and the Public Purse: The Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Saad Omar Khan

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states at its very outset that “human rights” is a concept that is “fundamental,” suggesting that the scope and nature of these rights are valued equally by almost everyone. However, one need look no further than the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) to find proof that this assumption of universality is overstated — if not entirely untrue.

The CMHR, which describes itself as the “first museum solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration, and future of human rights,” opened in Winnipeg in September 2014 for limited guided tours in an environment electrified with public controversy. Some of this controversy focused on the lack of preparedness for the opening, with only four out of 11 planned galleries ready at the time of the museum’s unveiling. The CMHR’s $351 million price tag has also remained a point of contention, especially given its close proximity to some of Winnipeg’s poorest neighbourhoods.

The museum has also been criticized on aesthetic grounds. A twelve-storey edifice of glass and steel, the CMHR boasts other “lavish materials” — gypsum, alabaster, Tyndall stone, and Mongolian basalt among them — as part of its construction, raising questions on the appropriateness of such ostentation in a time of woebegone cultural spending from the federal government.

But ultimately, the controversy surrounding the recently-opened CMHR is rooted in ideology, and the most vociferous criticisms hurled at the museum have been political in nature. Palestine-Canadians have objected to the absence of exhibits recognizing their history; Aboriginal performers distanced themselves from the CMHR’s opening in protest of the museum’s “misrepresentation and downplay of the genocide” experienced by Canada’s Indigenous peoples; and various other groups have complained that the museum has given primacy to the Holocaust over other historical atrocities.

None of this should come as any surprise, of course. Museums are limited in space, resources, and range, and part of their artistry lies in deciding where focus should be directed given these and other constraints. By having to omit some atrocities in favour of others, and by emphasizing some national and global triumphs while omitting other national and global failings (or vice-versa), it is impossible to make a museum dedicated to human rights that is impervious to any and all fault-finding. Celebrating universal values, unfortunately, rarely makes all groups universally content.

One can imagine Izzy Asper, the late media tycoon and visionary behind the CMHR, as being taken aback by much of this hostility. Asper’s dream of creating a national museum dedicated to promoting human rights education was first unveiled in an announcement made just prior to his death in 2003. The federal government, along with the province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg, later pledged financial support for the project to meet the museum’s $200 million estimated cost. In 2008, federal legislation was passed making the CMHR a national museum years before its official opening; by 2014, its final cost had ballooned to $351 million.

Despite the significant expense and the various political criticisms meted out against the CMHR, the construction of a publicly-funded human rights museum can be justified on several grounds. As a cultural institution, investiture into the local economy may prove fruitful for Winnipeg in the long run. While time will tell whether the CMHR will result in a local “Bilbao Effect,” the museum may indeed fulfill one of Asper’s original goals to revitalize the city’s tourism sector.

Economic considerations aside, the existence of a national museum dually funded by public and private money speaks to the value that Canada places on human rights awareness. It follows the example of international museums such as Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights or Hungary’s House of Terror. These and countless other similar institutions have served as repositories of a horrible past, recapturing histories that are often challenging to grasp — yet these museums exist with an acknowledgement that to forget that history would be morally unacceptable.

While acknowledging the value of museums such as the CMHR, its supporters must also pay heed to critical voices. Article 27 of the UDHR states that all people have an inherent right to “participate in the cultural life of the community.” Part of this participation should include a right to criticize the institutions designed to reflect the cultural spirit of the public that pays for those same institutions to exist.

The struggle for human rights is a complex story of cultural and political change, a process made possible through vigorous scrutiny of our own moral deficiencies. Canadians should be certainly proud of their government’s support for democratic and humanitarian values domestically and globally. Yet there should also be room for the CMHR to acknowledge the many instances when Canada has failed to live up to those values. The museum should also look to expand its scope, highlighting the many little known human rights stories not currently on display. If the CMHR has any validity, it is that it will always acknowledge the need for growth, change, and for the acceptance of alternate points of view. Without this dynamism, it risks being a multi-million dollar artefact: something inert and with questionable cultural relevance.

Saad Omar Khan is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master degree in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. Saad has worked in the non-profit, financial, and academic sectors. His policy interests include international relations, human rights, immigration, and cultural policy.


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