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Top exhibit designer visits CMHR

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The world's leading museum exhibit designer visited his latest masterpiece in Winnipeg, describing it as a force for good and beacon of hope in troubling times.

"That's a good feeling not to feel helpless and hopeless," Ralph Appelbaum said Tuesday outside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

"Over the years, we've worked in all kinds of museums," said Appelbaum, the head of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the world's largest museum exhibition design firm, with offices in New York City, London and Beijing.

For the Museum of World Religions in Taiwan, Appelbaum used the metaphor of life's journey to lay out the exhibits and attractions.

For the museum in Winnipeg, the metaphor is the long, hard climb to higher ground.

'It feels good to touch your sense of compassion and empathy'

-- Ralph Appelbaum (above), at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

"Here, the museum is focused on taking a collection of stories laced through a piece of adventurous and extraordinary architecture."

It's not just the visitor experience -- starting at the entrance with great roots holding the building to the land, said Appelbaum.

"It's an inspirational message just the way you move through this place." It starts with explaining human rights and shares the stories of people who've lost and found them as you rise along the path to the peak.

"It's the journey -- climbing a mountain to an extraordinary vantage point where you can see a beautiful city and landscape."

Appelbaum remembers the idea for the museum, which is set to open Sept. 20, when it was first pitched to him.

"I got involved a little over 10 years ago with a phone call -- it was Moe Levy calling me on behalf of Izzy Asper asking me to get involved in a museum project unlike any other, transforming how people thought of their relationship to others," he said.

"We knew it was a bigger mission on behalf of Canada to create an extraordinary school for bearing witness to the events people live through as they try to discover how to engage with one another but one that would draw people to the centre of Canada with an inspirational, aspirational message: 'Until we have human rights we won't have peace,' " he said, citing Canadian lawyer John Humphrey who helped create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the UN in 1948.

"It seemed to be an extraordinary mission -- it's what all great religions (have preached) but what nations have struggled to do," said Appelbaum.

"This is part of Canada's story and an almost voluntary responsibility to be the voice for the oppressed... That it's a country that cares and takes responsibility for things it has done poorly... It has rules and codes to correct its past mistakes and it looks to be good, to be truthful," said Appelbaum, who was to address international travel writers at the Go Media 2014 conference Tuesday night.

"People go to places to see amazing architecture," said Appelbaum.

"This is an extraordinary building unlike anything that's ever been built, telling a story unlike anything ever told in one place." The museum shares stories of human rights heard around Canadian kitchen tables that are a powerful force for change, said Appelbaum.

"When you encounter those shared experiences you realize we are closer together than far apart. It feels good to touch your sense of compassion and empathy. That's a good feeling not to feel helpless and hopeless and inspiring the spirit," said Appelbaum. "At a time when listening to the nightly news one can feel rather hopeless, what better kind of institution is there than to provide that in the 21st century?"

The museum is developing programs so it's not just a visitor experience, said Appelbaum. "Social media and digital outreach, it will be an international voice for us all to be sensitive to people's aspirations and to their future," he said.

"We can help visitors become our ambassadors, our educators our activists so that at the end they can understand one can make change at all kinds of levels," said Appelbaum. "That's as important for change as people who devote their lives to far off places."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2014 B1

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Updated on Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 6:50 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline

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