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The Canadian Museum for Human Right's lightning rod

Does Murray have a great job or a great burden?

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Most mornings, Stuart Murray arrives at his office in the Federal Building on Main Street, looks out the window of his fourth floor office at the construction site of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and feels like the luckiest man in the world.

 

"It's so exciting and so incredibly important for the city, the country and the world," says Murray, who was named the first CEO of the museum 18 months ago. "I don't think people realize the impact it will have. It's going to be enormous."

There are some mornings, however, when the affable former leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party wonders what in the world he's gotten himself into.

That's because everything about the $310-million museum is complicated. Not only is it the most difficult and complex construction project in North America, the guts of the museum -- its content -- are even more daunting.

The museum will be providing an enormous amount of information in 12 distinct galleries or zones, including aboriginal issues, the Holocaust, Canadian stories, mass atrocities, recovery and reconciliation, a hall of commitment, as well as one for current issues, a sort of an eye on the world gallery. Other galleries are still being planned.

The step-by-step journey through the 24,000-square-metre museum, which will be 12 storeys tall when finished, is just 750 metres long, but it's possible that some visitors will never see it all because they will become absorbed or obsessed with an individual gallery or even a single story.

"You could spend the entire day here and not go through everything," Murray says.

Museum staff are planning for this sense of information overload by preparing options and advice for visitors on how to experience the museum in just two hours by picking and choosing among the various presentations, which will include digital, film, theatre, interactive and live performances.

The museum is so enormous -- in every sense -- that Murray asked architecture students to prepare a detailed scale model in several layers, complete with human figures, so content planners could get a better idea of how people will relate to the space around them. The museum will have rest areas and places to get coffee along the way.

Inevitably, there will be people who disagree with the museum's interpretations of various events and issues, but Murray says that's not a bad thing.

"We want to encourage dialogue and debate. That's part of our job."

A continuing problem is public confusion about the purpose of the museum. Some people wrongly believe it should serve as a repository for the sins of mankind, a sort of equal-opportunity collection of horror stories.

"We're not here to memorialize past events," Murray says. "This is about education through a human-rights lens."

The goal, Murray said, is to compel visitors to examine their own record in opposing discrimination and prejudice. The hope is that people will be motivated to make a difference in their community, as opposed to being passive bystanders. The challenges are endless, from women's rights to bullying in schools.

The museum, however, is still struggling to determine its own identity -- its voice -- as an agent of change.

It thinks it should speak out forcefully on some issues, for example, but it doesn't want to be like an editorial board whose job is to have firm opinions on the topics of the day. Nor does it want to respond to every demand for a comment on world problems, or on issues challenging the city of Winnipeg.

"This is still evolving," Murray says. "Our role is going to be scholarship and research, but obviously we will have opinions."

He also doesn't rule out the possibility that museum officials could appear before the United Nations or at some other international body on matters of human rights.

Indeed, while there might be certain moral absolutes and natural rights, there are grey areas and ambiguities on the subject of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, recognizes that "the inherent dignity and ... the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family (are) the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

But what does this mean for fetal rights, the environment, crime and punishment, and cultural practices that might be offensive to the majority? Are the living conditions of Canada's aboriginals a gross violation of their human rights?

Fortunately, the museum does not see itself as the next King Solomon, and it will not act like the holder of all wisdom, although it will emphasize certain basic rights that are defensible on a global basis.

On complex current issues, the museum will take a page from the world of journalism by identifying problems and presenting different points of view. It does not have to offer a firm position on every subject.

As part of this process, Murray said the museum is holding talks with CBC for a possible lecture series that could be similar to the Massey Lectures or even the Munk Debates, which recently featured a debate on religion between writer Christopher Hitchens and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

The museum will also include alternating galleries for special events and to address emerging and contemporary issues.

And although the Ukrainian Holodomor will not have a separate gallery like the Holocaust, Murray said there is no reason why the museum can't hold special events to mark the famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-1933.

The anger of some Ukrainian organizations over special status for the Holocaust led to concerns that the Tory government might interfere in the operation of the museum. In fact, it's a concern that will always shadow the museum because politicians can't seem to resist the temptation to quash unwelcome controversy, as happened several years ago when a historically accurate display in the Canadian War Museum was altered due to political influence.

Murray, who was appointed by the federal Conservative government, insists, however, that there has been no political interference in the museum's operation so far, although he acknowledges the risk is always there.

"The Tories respect that we are arm's length," he said.

The museum is already receiving world attention and expressions of interest from international organizations interested in holding conventions in Winnipeg, Murray said.

One couple has even inquired about holding their wedding there.

Ukraine's ambassador to Canada has visited the museum and gave it a thumb's up, while representatives from the Chinese city of Chengdu, one of Winnipeg's sister cities, also visited the site and expressed their admiration, which seems a little unusual, considering China is not a leader in the field of human rights.

The panels of German-made glass that will envelop the museum like the wings of a dove have started to arrive and are being stored in a works yard in south Winnipeg.

They are scheduled for installation in August or September, when spectators will begin to get a better grasp of the image created by New Mexico architect Antoine Predock.

As for Murray, he admits he's not a historian or a philosopher, but he does bring leadership, fundraising and administrative skills to the table, which is probably the right mix for this stage of the project.

Murray, who once worked as the road manager for the rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears, but who also has experience in business as well as politics, said "there's huge pressure on all of us right now. It's truly like working in a fish bowl."

He works 14 hours a day, six days a week, but has no regrets about taking the job.

"It's an honour to be here."

The museum is already planning for its grand opening in two years, but it undoubtedly will face more hurdles and controversies before then, particularly from the same kind of critics who attacked the pedestrian bridge over the Red River -- now a Winnipeg landmark -- and every other project that elevated the community.

It's real influence and moral weight remains to be seen, but it's based on a set of ideas -- tolerance, inclusion, charity -- that are as Canadian as maple syrup.

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2011 J12

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