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Great idea long overdue, but about that first show...

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The human rights activist David Matas was on CBC Radio Friday morning, expressing his "disgust" over the news that the MTS Centre is importing that touring Bodies exhibition to Winnipeg.

His problem? The show's U.S.-based owner acknowledges that it buys the cadavers it displays from China, a country known to sell the corpses of executed prisoners (like persecuted members of the Falun Gong movement, maybe?) for organ harvesting.

With a closed society like China, Matas argued, there is no way to confirm the provenance of the exhibition's materials.

And given his award-winning research into the Chinese Falun Gong issue, he thinks the Seattle city council did the right thing last month when it voted to bar Bodies from returning to the city, where, admittedly, it had visited twice before.

Matas makes a valid point, and it's an ethical question Winnipeggers will have to ask themselves before they opt to attend what has been lauded elsewhere as a fascinating and informative display.

After all, we might want to be sensitive to human rights, given that fancy new museum currently rising at The Forks.

That said, the splash surrounding Bodies, slated to open here Sept. 17, reminds us that Winnipeg has largely missed the boat on a whole class of entertainment spectacle.

The reason is that we have not had the right venue to house these things. At least until now.

The MTS Centre's owner, True North, has leased the empty A&B Sound building across from the arena at the corner of Portage and Donald and is renovating it as a spiffy new "exhibition hall."

The location is an ideal fit with development agency CentreVenture's plans to hype the downtown district as a entertainment locus.

And with two open floors of 11,000 square feet each, it is spacious enough to house the kind of exhibits that can't squeeze into, say, the 4,000 square feet of the Manitoba Museum's Alloway Hall.

At the Bodies news conference earlier this week, True North CEO Jim Ludlow emphasized the exhibition hall was an "interim" step for the A&B building, vacant for six years already.

There may, in fact, be a better use for the building, but the idea of a permanent mainstream exhibition hall is tempting indeed.

Until the Manitoba Museum can find the millions needed to build a stand-alone science centre, where else can we house the huge dinosaur, Darwin and Einstein shows that can regularly visit cities no bigger than ours?

Yes, the museum has recently played host to a modest dinosaur touring show and also one about robots.

But its current space is just not adequate. One worries about public support of our flagship museum when the Canadian Museum for Human Rights dwarfs it.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery has 10,000 square feet in its combined third-floor space of galleries 7-9. But the WAG should not become a science centre nor a panderer to mass taste. Mind you, it does maintain the climate control and security standards necessary to house valuable artifacts, as all these facilities must.

WAG curators are planning to mount a major exhibit of Norman Rockwell paintings, American Chronicles, in March 2012, as part of their 100th anniversary celebrations. And that should satisfy their populist appetite.

True North did say there could be a second exhibit in their temporary exhibition hall after Bodies closes. One wonders if it will be Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, offered by the same U.S. company. It's opening in Calgary in late January and it, too, is available in multiple versions.

Other sexy exhibits on the road these days include shows on Princess Diana, Harry Potter, Star Trek, mummies of the world, Da Vinci and sharks.

The list is long, and these shows regularly tour to mid-size American and Canadian cities, which all have permanent facilities better than ours.

From ethical and PR perspectives, the MTS Centre may have got the ball rolling with the wrong show, but the idea itself is long overdue.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 14, 2010 c9

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