Skip to main content

Does Stephen Harper know what he's letting out of the box? Did he intend Ottawa's support for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to help it host debates over the rights of, say, Afghan prisoners?

Only two weeks after the Prime Minister confirmed that Ottawa would give the museum $100-million in capital funds plus $22-million a year in operational funding, details about the facility suggest what a lightning rod for controversy it will be -- if it does its job.

The master exhibit plan was unveiled yesterday at a news conference in Winnipeg's Convention Centre by U.S. museum designer Ralph Appelbaum, who stood with museum campaign chair Gail Asper of the CanWest Global empire. In the museum's Eye on the World section, Mr. Appelbaum said, "we are encouraging visitors to examine real-life issues in real time. There will be a news wall of broadcast media from around the world. Remember who this museum's founders are."

Interviewed by phone before the news conference, Mr. Appelbaum was asked how a serious-issues museum located in a city known as Winterpeg could hope to lure visitors.

"People will walk out feeling inspired by the accomplishments of people whose stories they'll encounter here," he said. "This will be a living museum. Our approach takes ideas from theatre, performance art and journalism."

Luckily, the museum doesn't have to depend on attracting stray fun-seekers, although it anticipates a few thousand tourists from Minnesota and Wisconsin will come to inspect the spectacular $265-million building designed by Antoine Predock, winner of the 2006 American Institute of Architects gold medal.

Gail Lord of Toronto's Lord Cultural Resources, who developed the facility's business plan, said the projected annual attendance is a modest 255,000 (compared with the 160,000 who annually visit the Winnipeg Art Gallery). The key element will be visits by 30,000 schoolchildren in Year 1.

"For every student there's a family and a friendship group," Ms. Lord said. "After 10 years, you'll have a million people who have been touched by this museum."

The cost of flying in the students, as well as supporting training and long-distance learning programs, explains why the facility's operations budget has more than doubled from $10-million two years ago, Mr. Appelbaum said.

His current clients include the Royal Museum of Scotland and the Battlefield of Culloden, but he is best known for the acclaimed United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Such a museum in Canada was the original dream of the Asper family patriarch, Israel Asper, who worked to have a Holocaust gallery included in the expansion plans of the Canadian War Museum. That was cancelled in 1998 after war vets lobbied to have the museum focus only on military matters.

As recently as two years ago, the Canadian Jewish Congress was still seeking some form of Holocaust memorial in Ottawa. Last week, Ed Morgan, the CJC's national president, told The Globe and Mail he was confident the new Winnipeg museum would fill that role, putting the Holocaust into the context of human oppression everywhere.

Some of the new museum's critics have expressed fears it will focus too much on Hitler's victims, giving them more space than, say, survivors of Stalin's engineered famines. It's not clear what proportion of the new museum, scheduled to open in 2011, will reflect Mr. Asper's original dream.

What is clear, Mr. Appelbaum said, is that this is a museum of Canadian stories, and he cited the role Canadians played in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"This is Brand Canada," he said. "You can point with pride to what Canada wants to be known for."