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National Post | 21Dec2011 | Jonathan Kay

Three reasons why Winnipeg’s Human Rights Museum is doomed to failure

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has become the great naked emperor of public life in this country. Most intelligent people know that the project is a bad idea. Yet no one wants to be seen as opposing “human rights” -- let alone remembrance of the Holocaust. So the construction crews are still working, funded in part by $100-million in government money. They are building the Mirabel Airport of Canadian museums -- a white elephant that will do nothing to further human rights or honor Israel Asper and the other well-intentioned worthies who put this project in motion.

There are three reasons the museum is doomed.

The first is that people go to museums to learn about things and events -- slavery, the U.S. Civil War, the Holocaust, pre-contact aboriginal civilizations -- not abstract concepts like “human rights.” Just as people won’t go to a “museum of due process,” or a “museum of checks and balances,” or “a museum of rule of law,” or a “museum of civil liberties,” or a “museum of universal health care,” they won’t go to a museum of human rights.

Secondly, there is the political question: Either the collection in the museum will be an authoritative reflection of the human-rights abuses known to humanity, or it will not be. If it is not to be regarded as authoritative, then why build the thing? But if it is regarded as authoritative, as the organizers presumably hope, then why would anyone be surprised to see Canada’s Ukrainians and other groups campaign aggressively to get more floor space for their own suffering -- picking ugly fights with other, more well-represented groups in the process?

This embarrassing ethnic war in miniature was the most predictable thing imaginable. Yet the museum’s organizers seemed genuinely surprised by it, apparently on the belief that the rest of Canada’s minority groups would be fine with a museum of human rights that separated the world’s genocides into the categories of “The Jewish Holocaust” and “Other.”

Canadian minority groups routinely joust with one another over who is the most victimized: Tamils, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, Ukrainians, Greeks, Macedonians, gays, women -- you name it. I see it every day as a newspaper editor. We live in a victim-ocracy. It’s part of the politically correct era. Then someone announces they are going to build a museum that officially tallies up the radical extremes of human victimhood -- but in so doing will focus primarily on the suffering of one group as a sort of model for all other forms of suffering. Sound like a good idea?

Third issue: Quality and scale. There are two world-class Holocaust museums in existence. One is at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The other is in Washington, D.C. These museums have been great successes because they focus narrowly on one historical event, and don’t pretend to be a clearinghouse for every massacre the world has seen -- from Hutus butchering Tutsis, to Turks starving Armenians. But just as importantly, they are located in two of the greatest museum cities in the world -- both cities that, unlike Winnipeg, annually attract literally millions of knowledge-hungry tourists from around the world.

Since it opened in 1993, the United States Holocaust Museum has averaged about 1.5-million visitors per year. I’d be surprised if Winnipeg’s museum could attract a 10th that number. Manitoba is a great place to visit. But most international visitors are more interested in hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits than dragging their children to “interactive” museum exhibits about the Chinese Massacre of 1871 or Canada’s own Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This week, the Museum for Human Rights got a new interim chair, following the abrupt resignation of the incumbent. The museum’s opening date has been pushed back from 2013, and construction tenders are being suspended because cost overruns have pushed the project over-budget. It now looks like the thing will cost something like a third of a billion dollars to build, with another $20-million-plus per year to operate. To its credit, the Canadian government has said it won’t be kicking in any more money, so there is a real possibility that much of the museum will sit in half-constructed limbo while Ukrainians and Jews continue their bickering for years on end.

Somewhere down the line, taxpayers will have to clean up this mess. The only blessing is that Israel Asper -- bless his fine intentions -- won’t be around to see his dream turned into a convention center and casino a few years after it opens.

National Post
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Selected Comments:

Earl from Winnipeg:
Semperveritas, here's some clarification.

Izzy Asper's original concept was a Holocaust-only museum, funded with private and Federal money.  Groups, such as such as the Canadians for a Genocide Museum appeared that were outraged by this self-serving concept funded with public money and demanded that other genocides be included.  Izzy Asper decided to save face by changing his mind and promoted the concept of a Human Rights Museum, which many still see is just a thinly-veiled Holocaust museum.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights got off the track the moment Mr. Asper and his collaborators confused human rights with human wrongs, and decided to put the Holocaust in the centre of a museum supposedly devoted to human rights. An authentic Human Rights museum would be unique for there is no other like it in the world and I think would draw tourists and educators. There is no reason why such a museum could not celebrate human beings' achievements in respecting each other, as attested by legal codes, from antiquity to the present. Leave the story genocides and mass atrocities to other museums. Mr. Asper may have had noble intentions about teaching human rights, but he certainly did not go the right way about it. Unless the present administration of the CMHR completely changes the project, focused on the story of human rights and not human wrongs, the museum does not deserve Canadian public's support, moral or financial.

The separation in this museum between 'The Holocaust' and 'Other' is appalling. I've never understood why The Holocaust--a common noun that describes any case of genocide but that now has been oddly restricted to refer only to the genocide of Jews in WW2-- is focused on more than numerous other genocides. Or at least, I've never understood why we focus mainly on the plight of the Jewish people in this disgraceful era, rather than also the Romas and Slavs, which the Germans reportedly despised even more. 

The fact that this separation is reflected in the very floor plan of this museum is a complete joke. The Holocaust isn't special. None of them are. Terrible things aren't special. They're terrible. Holodomor, the Holocaust, you name it. They're all terrible.

Building a Museum to Human Rights is an impossible dream. The government can build it, as they can build just about anything they want in Canada, but Canadians will not come. Ironically, the sites around the world that have momuments to Human Abuse, such as the former concentration camps in Poland, the Vatican, the Towers of Power in the states, and the entire land mass of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan,Iran , North Korea and Cuba, these places with their activities scream out a message of the need for Human Rights in the world.
   No doubt the politicians wll push and shove and get it built; 90 % of the internal space will be taken up with officies of the special few doing 'projects' which they will pass from office to office in an eternal paper dance of trivia. Many of the offices will be empty most of the year as the chosen few are off doing research in Australia during the Canadian winter months and Europe during the gentle days of Spring ( no doubt conferencing at The Ritz with our former GG and her Dear Hubby).

   The idea is hideous, the place is a boondoggle ; the...

O.S. Dog Pound:
Jonathan Kay:
Re:  "Three reasons why Winnipeg's Human Rights Museum is doomed to failure," National Post, 21 December 2011.

The 10 November 1988 New York Times carried an article to mark the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht ("Time 'Too Painful' to Remember," Ari L. Goldman). It included this painful recollection by Morris Hubert, a onetime Buchenwald inmate:

"In the camp there was a cage with a bear and an eagle," he said. "Every day, they would throw a Jew in there. The bear would tear him apart and the eagle would pick at his bones."
"But that's unbelievable," whispered a visitor.
"It is unbelievable," said Mr. Hubert, "but it happened."

And here again we see it: The incorrigible skeptic doubting the fact the Nazis had installed a cage at Buchenwald, containing a bear and an eagle working in tandem to serially murder Jews.

If only there was a pill that could be administered to cure such vile doubt, to quash this recalcitrance to admit to material historical truths. Not yet, alas!

Which is why, we should all look forward to the opening of Winnipeg’s human rights museum a.s.a.p., to checkmate the doubters and to disarm them with truth.

P.S. Might you, perchance, know of the whereabouts of the cage alluded to in Mr Hubert’s recollections of Buchenwald?
Such a grisly historical relic would surely be deemed worthy of inclusion as a telltale exhibit, among other such items, in Winnipeg’s h.r. museum.