The other-worldly structure housing the Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg is reason enough to spend time there. Walking up from level to level on the “ramps” allows you to appreciate the enormous open space, suggestive to me of the global significance of all of us on earth being interdependently inhabitants of the same space, in space . . . this fragile earth. The panorama of Winnipeg city from the Eighth floor encourages visitors to think about their (our) place in the human story; the cities, towns, villages in which we all live are where we are rooted, where the human rights to food, shelter and safety are extended to us . . . or not.
I've had people tell me that they don't like talking about our relationships to one another in terms of rights, that rights smacks of selfishness, of a me-centered world view. My counter to this has always been that demanded rights might well have that feel, but that in a world where two thirds are in need and one third are in surplus, it's probably a good way to measure what goods, services and living space would be necessary before we could say that fairness had crowded out inequity. If quality acute health care is expected in Rosthern, does it follow that persons in rural Zambia ought to enjoy a similar level of care? If I can drink from a tap in my kitchen without having to haul or boil the water, and if I have a right to complain when that's not the case, do persons in rural Sierra Leone have the same right to complain?
The museum traces the development of cultural/social rights that are often taken for granted. Women's suffrage, freedom from discrimination in the workplace, access to education, etc. are all covered briefly in booths that must become almost inaccessible on busier days than the one on which we visited. Much of what is displayed can't be appreciated without attending to audio-visual displays that have a beginning and an ending, and being able to do that requires that visitors take time to sit and wait, observe and contemplate.
The museum must be treated as a series of experiences, not as a window shopping for neat information. Time must be taken; repeat visits are necessary; there is simply too much to be absorbed in one four-hour visit.
There are critics of course. It's something very new: I can't find anything in my experience with which to compare the architect's vision, for instance. The subject of human rights doesn't immediately spring to mind as a topic for a museum. It's not a big surprise to hear the words “ugly” and “magnificent” in the same dialogue about the place. When the engineers and the builders first examined the architectural drawings, they must certainly have scratched their heads: it's that revolutionary.
And some have complained that their cultural history is not given adequate attention. You'd expect this given Canada's multi-cultural composition. Even a space this size has limits, as does human imagination.
I've always appreciated the concept of human rights as a starting point for protecting and enhancing the health, freedom and dignity of all people and so have donated considerable time and money to Amnesty International, an organization working from the premise that humans are born with inalienable rights. The UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights passed in 1948 lays out the fundamentals of inalienable human rights and equivalent documents exist in the constitution of many states. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became the law of the land in 1982, broadening the scope and jurisdiction of the 1960 Bill of Rights. Bills of Rights probably owe their beginnings and content to a considerable degree to the development of the Magna Carta, begun in 1215 and amended in subsequent years.
Rights of the individuals and communities of the world can be written on paper, but they remain words only until accepted, adopted, incorporated into the fabric of national and international relations. The problem of enforcement looms large; the UN can lodge a complaint against Canada for its human rights record in relation to its aboriginal population, but causing the Canadian government to act on that complaint is another thing. In other countries, the provisions of even the basics in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights are simply ignored. Economic and political interests have been known time and again to render individual rights dispensable when doing so advances their hold on power.
But the struggle goes on and on one floor of the Human Rights Museum, visitors are encouraged to write and post notes based on their hopes and dreams for a future where all humans can feel the freedom and dignity that we enjoy daily.
Do visit it when you can, and do set aside enough time to absorb its message.