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Still plenty of time left to pass judgment

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Winnipeg's downtown skyline with the CMHR in the foreground.

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Winnipeg's downtown skyline with the CMHR in the foreground.

Only 319 more sleeps until the Canadian Museum for Human Rights ends one of the longest-running melodramas in this country's history and opens its doors to the broader public.

That's just 10 more months for pissy potshots, inflammatory allegations and premature verdicts of failure. Come Sept. 20, 2014, we're going to find out how many of the criticisms levelled at the museum are legitimate.

In many ways, it would be difficult to live up to the rantings of those who have vilified the museum and the city in which it is located.

The museum certainly brought some of the criticism on itself. Both the final cost and opening date have been elusive. The increase in total cost alone — now $351 million, significantly more than preliminary estimates — has been enough to spark broad disdain.

However, there are a host of other criticisms that have led some to conclude the CMHR is a failure even before it has opened. These include:

  • A concern the subject matter is not compelling enough to draw visitors;
  • Concerns the museum is located in a city that, prior to the return of the Winnipeg Jets, could not draw flies. (Mosquitoes, yes. Flies, on the other hand, had better things to do.)
  • Concerns that, rather than unifying, the CMHR created conflict among religious and ethnic groups.

In the absence of an open, fully functioning museum, most of these criticisms are little more than extrapolations. And in many cases, not particularly informed extrapolations.

Will people visit the museum in numbers sufficient to justify its existence? Will people find it a good use of taxpayer money? It's not going to take long after the official opening next September to get a handle on both questions, although the debate on the latter — something that can hardly be established in empirical terms — should go on for years.

As for conflict, it should be fairly obvious the CMHR has not "created" any divisiveness, especially between those groups that have been fighting each other for generations.

This silly allegation does provoke a serious question: Is it the CMHR's job to settle long-standing conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, or Jews and Ukrainians, or aboriginal peoples and non-aboriginals?

Hardly. The museum's principal job is to make sure visitors understand all sides of each conflict. The museum needs to ensure all the historical and current background and context are available so we can say, above all else, we are informed.

Can we judge the museum's performance on those tasks before it opens in 10 months? Unfortunately, especially for those with no appreciation of delayed gratification, we cannot.

However, even now we can test the logic of the criticisms.

Surely, we are not judging the value or success of this one museum on whether it produces consensus? It's a noble pursuit, but so are efforts to inform and educate. Even in the absence of complete agreement, those are the building blocks of peace and understanding.

There should most definitely be critical analysis of museum content and bias. We can already see many of the questions that need to be posed.

Will the museum be fair in its representation of human rights atrocities and debates? Will all sides to conflicts get the opportunity to air grievances and allegations, even those who are not friends of the federal government and against those who are? Will there be criticism of our own human rights policies and practices, past and present?

It's important to note no high-concept museum is fully objective.

For example, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., does not feature many details about Americans who were Nazi collaborators or sympathizers. The ugly truth is there, but it is tucked behind displays of shoes from gas-chamber victims and films of Allied troops unearthing death camps.

One could argue any U.S.-based Holocaust museum should have, as a central feature, content on the role Americans played in that atrocity. Of course, that analysis is in and of itself biased. Other visitors may be satisfied there is any information about American sympathizers and collaborators.

The value of a museum of any kind is not whether it is a definitive representation of one thing or subject. It is whether the facility fairly educates, genuinely inspires and deliberately furthers enlightenment. In other words, it must inspire debate, even if that debate is about the museum content itself.

For now, those who are quick to judge, but slow to test the logic of their arguments, will continue to drive the debate about the CMHR.

The good news is, in just 319 more sleeps, the debate will become entirely more informed.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 5, 2013 B1

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