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Rights museum gets on with it

CEO looks forward after staff issues, financial hardship

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On Wednesday, journalists were supposed to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to see the installation of the last of 1,100 glass panes, completing the iconic glass "cloud" that is the building's signature design feature.

This was designed to be a good-news story, evidence that despite its recent trials and tribulations, the building is getting closer to completion. At least that was the plan. The threat of rain and wind gusts of up to 70 kilometres per hour forced museum officials to cancel the installation. They will try again today. Once again, fate had conspired to snatch delay from the jaws of progress.

It is a narrative Stuart Murray knows only too well. As CEO of the CMHR, Murray has had to face tough questions about its missteps. Why, for example, will the museum open more than a year late, and why will it cost $90 million more than budgeted? Why have more than a dozen key museum staff fled the project? Why have the museum's content plans continued to be the source of such controversy and conflict?

How successful Murray has been at managing these problems, and finding solutions, is the source of great debate in Manitoba and in Ottawa. What we do know, however, is the museum now has the money to complete construction. And perhaps most notably, Murray is still at his post, a fact many would not have thought possible a year ago.

"It's been a very tough time, no doubt," Murray said in an interview. "I never feared for my job. I feel I have the total confidence of my board and my minister. That having been said, are there days when I've wondered 'What the hell have I gotten myself into?' Absolutely."

There's little doubt Murray was thinking just that last December when, in the midst of a bitter struggle between the museum and Ottawa over additional money to complete construction, the federal Conservative government began a housecleaning. Winnipeg developer Arni Thorsteinson was forced to resign as chairman of the museum's board and was replaced by Calgary accountant Eric Hughes, a close confidant of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Sources confirmed Harper had grown weary of Thorsteinson and Gail Asper, daughter of Izzy Asper and the force behind private fundraising for the museum. With the museum delayed and the budget soaring, Harper had, the sources said, lost faith in the board and wanted new eyes on the project. Many thought Murray would be the next to go.

Several months of tense negotiation followed, with the museum corporation threatening to delay opening indefinitely if Ottawa didn't help it find an additional $40 million. There were those who believed it was a pointless exercise given the demands came at the same time Ottawa was on a cost-cutting rampage to reduce a multi-billion-dollar deficit. Against these odds, a deal was finally done in July.

Murray said for the first time in probably more than two years, he is planning for a firm opening date in early 2014. That is not to say the challenges are over.

Murray is still rebuilding the museum's staff after two years of high-profile departures. He has had some success bringing in top museum people to replace those who left. And the museum will be naming its chief operating officer, a position that has been vacant since February 2011.

The departures were due to a combination of factors: conflict among senior staff; uncertainty over the museum's opening date; and personal circumstances that had nothing to do with the museum's troubles. However, Murray acknowledged that as CEO, he wears responsibility for all of them. "The fact is, sometimes you make bad hires. I made the best efforts to find the best people. That doesn't mean I always made the right decisions."

Even though it has been trapped in construction limbo, the museum has still had its successes, although they have been mostly overshadowed by its controversies. Private fundraising continues to grow. And while Ukrainian lobby groups continue to protest the museum's plans for a Holocaust exhibit, few know the CMHR has a memorandum of understanding with a Ukrainian museum to display never-before-seen Holodomor artifacts in Canada. Setting aside the pointless disputes over whose atrocity will get more square footage, the CMHR is making a sincere effort to address the central focus of the controversy -- that the world does not know enough about the Holodomor. That is progress.

As for the future, sources confirmed the new money from Ottawa, a no-interest repayable loan, came with a warning: Don't ask for more, and don't create intractable disputes over content. Murray now has zero room for error.

If he's worried about that scenario, he's not letting on. "I've always known that our critics will focus more on what we didn't or couldn't do, than what we actually do. But we're prepared for that. We're ready to get on with this."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2012 B1

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