An emotional journey

From dark to light — galleries provoke, challenge and inspire


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The journey begins with a descent, past the Mahatma Gandhi statue and around a stone-lined entranceway at the south end of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/09/2014 (3056 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


The journey begins with a descent, past the Mahatma Gandhi statue and around a stone-lined entranceway at the south end of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The first steps are intentional: From earth, eventually, to sky. And if your feet get a little sore along the way, so be it. The ongoing battle for human rights is never about comfort, after all.

Yet the purpose of the museum’s introductory gallery is definition, titled, What Are Human Rights?, which establishes the concept across time and all cultures, dating back to 4,000 years. On the left, a timeline containing photos of human rights figures through history — from Persian prophet Zoroaster to feminist Gloria Steinem. On the right, a multimedia show where a handful of prominent Canadians speaking about their experience in their own words.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Study table in 'Breaking the Silence' gallery.

“I think if we went around and asked everybody what are human rights, I think they’d say, ‘The rights we have for being human,’ ” noted Corey Timpson, director of exhibits and new media. “That’s effectively the right answer, but as visitors go through the museum, we want them to have a common understanding of what our interpretive approach is to the subject. The goal of this gallery is to get everybody on the same page.”

The introductory gallery not only establishes the concept, but the visual emphasis on how the story of human rights will be told. There are seven theatres, an immersive multimedia experience, a 360-degree film, and two soundscapes. In all, the CMHR contains 100 hours of video, three feature films, 26 small-format films, 512 video clips, 2,500 images, 37 large-scale projections, 19 digital interactive elements and 100,000 words of original text.

The interactive dimension is the most pervasive; from an exhibit where visitors can — by answering questions — determine if they’re eligible to vote in the early 1920s, to selecting and judging a human right’s case before the Supreme Court.

“We’ve tried to use a variety of approaches,” said Jodi Giesbrecht, manager of research and curator. “Some are a bit more passive, where you’re watching a film or looking at artifacts. Some are more interactive.”

But there is another balancing act in the CMHR journey, too: presenting subject matter that, more often than not, has its roots in the worst of humanity. How do you counter the Holocaust and Holomodor? And not just photos, either, but an array of personally told accounts and documentaries.

“We always knew we needed to strike a balance between the stories of inspiration and successes,” Giesbrecht said, “and also the stories of violation and the struggles and the hardships. That balance has been on our minds from the beginning.

“Some galleries are darker than others. (But) the final gallery is about hope and inspiration so people end their journey feeling inspired to make change.”

The object, Giesbrecht said, was never to commemorate, but understand and analyze. “To get at the theme of responsibility.”

There are no shortage of lightning-rod subjects, either. The 24,000-square-foot building is brimming with them. One such controversial subject was the Holomodor, which will be a focus of intense interest.

Asked if previous criticism from the Ukrainian community about the weight of the Holomodor — and those responsible — caused museum officials to alter the exhibits, Giesbrecht replied: “We haven’t changed much from the original vision. We had always planned to include significant content on the Holodomor. We think we’ve done a fulsome job.”

The main pathway of the museum is one of the prized elements of building designer Antoine Predock — the glowing Spanish alabaster walkways described as “a literal path of light through the darkness.”

Timpson said the ramps serve as a mental palate cleanser for visitors.

“It’s a reflective time,” he said. “We’ve specifically not put any content or experience on the ramps themselves.”

The final galleries specifically lean to the inspirational and how everyday individuals performing everyday actions — using dozens and dozens of real-life examples — can change the world from any corner of the globe.

“I hope as a visitor leaves, they’re inspired,” Giesbrecht said. “They’re reflective. And that they feel human agency is really powerful and they can make a difference.”

Which is also why, after five years of painstaking planning of content and exactly how the human-rights story would be told, CMHR curators and historians have a unique anticipation for the opening.

“When a visitor is taking the physical journey, they’re also taking an emotional journey,” Timpson concluded. “I’m so looking forward to that. There’s been a lot of great milestones along the way. But the biggest milestone will actually be seeing the visitors come through; using the interactives, reading the texts, seeing the images. Just taking in the environment we’ve been creating for this long. It’s Christmas.”

Randy Turner

Randy Turner

Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.


Updated on Friday, September 19, 2014 9:17 AM CDT: Adds live blog

Updated on Friday, September 19, 2014 10:47 AM CDT: Adds slideshow of CMHR opening

Updated on Friday, September 19, 2014 4:12 PM CDT: Adds video

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