It’s a place where stories carry emotional weight, yet moving through it can leave you inspired. It’s where a light shines on the missteps from long ago, yet forces you to recognize some of its stories are straight from today’s news.
That’s what I wrote after my first visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and it still holds true a year — and four more visits — later. Everyone, and I mean everyone, will take something away from this place. For me, the stories about women fighting for equality through all kinds of adversity resonate most. For my partner Chuck, it’s seeing the struggle of his African ancestors through times of dictators, genocides, and the slave trade. For you, it could be something completely different, but it will be there. And it will hit you. Hard.
Even after multiple visits, it still feels like the first, like I’ve just scratched the surface of the stories held within. I think it will always feel this way, as each time I leave, I take something different away with me. After this trip, I left most moved — and shaken — by two different stories that detail our country’s most shameful moments: one was The Witness Blanket, which weaves residential school memories together in a large woven installation, the other was the film featured in the “broken-glass” theatre, which examines Canada’s own experiences with anti-Semitism. Both are hard to look upon, and necessary.
Pieces with power
The Museum currently houses two larger-than-life installations, Trace and The Witness Blanket, within its impressive galleries, yet it’s when you look closer upon them you discover the story is in the details. I’ve looked up in awe at Trace before — a ceramic blanket made up of thousands of tiny hand-pressed clay beads that were crafted and strung to honour the original inhabitants of the land upon which the Museum stands — but this was my first time seeing The Witness Blanket. Inspired by a woven blanket, this large-scale art installation is made out of hundreds of items that have been reclaimed from Residential Schools, churches, government buildings and cultural structures.
The Witness Blanket is important, and the more you look upon it, the harder it is to look. This is not the Canada I know and it’s important that I recognize that these atrocities happened in my country and that it wasn’t so long ago. This piece is a compelling reminder that the enjoyment of basic human rights continues to be a struggle for many, even here at home.
The Witness Blanket is on display until June 2016.
Wandering into the Museum’s latest temporary exhibit, Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists, we were unsure of what we would see. Turns out, an amazing collection of photography that will make you pause and rethink what you think you know about how a blind person sees the world. The photographs were rich in detail, texture, composition and, most of all, emotion. It’s a bit of a sensory garden.
The coolest part of the exhibit is that you can use more than just your eyes to interact with the art. There are these 3D photographs laying on large tables just begging for you to run your hands over them, feeling around the nooks and crannies with your fingers. There’s even a little hard-to-see button that will turn on an audio voice telling you more about the photographer and the particular piece you are touching. Sight Unseen is the first museum exhibition in the world to feature these 3DPhotoWorks images.
Sight Unseen is on display until September 2016.
Engaging the elements
Dark spaces, bright sunlight, sharp angles, smooth curves, cool colours, vibrant interactivity. The elements that make up this place have been thoughtfully put together to tell its stories. Personally, I cannot get enough of those glowing alabaster (Hogwarts-looking) ramps. I love the long stroll you take on one as it connects you to the next gallery. It’s like breathing space; a short moment to have with your thoughts or to chat quietly with fellow museum-goers.
Sharing our thoughts and hopes
The Inspiring Change gallery is maybe the best place to end an introspective and challenging day here. It’s like a breath of fresh air. I love this room full of ways to make positive social changes. And the “Share your voice” cards are a simple concept, but they showcase the best of us.
Both Chuck and I filled one out, and later on, once we were at home, he shared with me why the card he chose resonated with him over the others:
“When I created my card today, I wrote ‘Inclusion is… Imagining yourself in my shoes.’ I meant I want you to feel for a moment what it means to be in my shoes. Me, as in not just me, but in another person’s shoes. Feel it. Go into their shoes and feel what they feel. Live the life they lead and see how nice, how great, how wonderful it is. Maybe you will learn a thing or two. Maybe it will make you think twice about who you are, what you do. Maybe it will affect your actions, your thoughts, your inaction. It could impact the way you live in the world. It’s amazing. That Museum is powerful. It’s inspiring.”
He couldn’t be more right. That Museum is powerful. Powerful enough to stay with you long after you leave. Case in point, Chuck wrote the following poem as a tribute to a place that is still challenging him to think what it means for all of us to be treated humanely and equally:
Our Mirror In The Sun
Like the iconic beaver that builds from rough patches,
Deliberate and uniquely amazing its architecture is,
Gifting us with engineering wonder
That carefully glides from the ground up;
Guided by solid pillars and ramped high.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR)
Tells tales of our dark moments past,
Humanity’s shame that hunts us still.
Though scars have strange power to remind that the past is real;
But forgiveness recharges and offers hope.
Why do I feel the feeling for the urgency of healing?
Oh, yes! Healing, the fruit of purity of the soul is needed.
Balms of alabaster basin, soothing of the soul,
Light to our paths, sole to the feet, and oil to the wheels.
Vine wine dine and divine
Or grapevine or graveyard?
In the dark ages when nations wrought red-hot rod against
Her inhabitants, when the travail of ages wrings earth’s system to and fro,
Canada with crooked and mute lips stood and did less
Worsting to me the hand of the perpetrators,
Credence by so given to terror and chill and triumph of evil.
Conscious or unconscious, there comes a moment for decision.
The story of the CMHR cleverly told adulteration-free
Exposes the dastardly acts of the wicked, man’s inhumanity to man,
Explores the pains of the victims, the resilience of will and spirit against all odds.
Rough and tough is the 2nd floor of the exhibit,
Deem and dark are its residents.
Galleries exhibit shackles and broken evidences of broken people.
The works of men and the words of men are worlds apart, still
There exist an opportunity to contemplate
For honest efforts to right our wrongs, accepting the truth that
All human were created equal!
Elevators embrace all to the galleries,
But real access experience is by the slope ramps
Clad with translucent alabaster banisters.
These unique banisters seem yet brighter as you progress.
Faith have I that ev’ryone is capable of good deeds
But ’til the wicked acknowledge his wrongs,
Sincerely apologize and refrain from them,
Can true healing take place. Hope is not hopeless.
The CMHR edifice is our mirror in the sun.
See yourself in it.
That’s just but the beginning!