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Winnipeg Free Press | 20121201 | Bartley Kives

Canadian Museum for Human Rights staff exodus tied to content change

Ex-workers blame decision on 'positive stories'

One-third of the employees hired by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights have left the institution since it was formed three years ago.

The first national museum located in Winnipeg is suffering from high turnover with the departure or dismissal of at least 34 of the staff members it has hired since 2009. The institution's current staffing level is pegged at 68 people.

Museum administrators say 20 permanent employees either left, were fired or were declared redundant, while another 14 term positions ended.

The CMHR attributes part of the high turnover to the short-term nature of the work required to open the $351-million museum in 2014.

Some employees were only hired for terms due to the specific nature of programming tasks that needed to be accomplished to prepare for touchscreens and objects on display in 47,000 square feet of gallery space, acting communications manager Maureen Fitzhenry said.

There was also unease among the staff during the period before Ottawa committed $22 million in annual operating funding for the museum, said Stuart Murray, the CMHR's president and CEO.

"If you look back two years ago, when our retention rate was not as good as it should be, that was explained by the uncertainty," Murray said.

"There's a lot of time when people looked at this and weren't sure where they wanted to be. Some had issues with the vision, some had better opportunities."

Former staff peg the total number of departed employees to date at 40.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, they say the museum's board asked them to tell more "positive Canadian stories," such as the nation's record as a safe haven for immigrants.

"It really went from being a world museum to having more of a focus on Canada and our accomplishments in human rights," said one former high-level employee.

Former staff members said the exodus of employees intensified in September and October, following the communication of this new direction to museum staff.

Murray denied the board issued any directive to lighten up the museum's content. He said the board merely wants to ensure there will be a balance of positive and negative material on display at the museum.

"Some people might interpret that as a directive. I don't. I determine that as a vision that management needs to be following," said Murray, insisting the museum's board makes no actual decisions about content.

Academics do not always agree with lay people about what constitutes appropriate content for a museum, Fitzhenry added.

"We ultimately have to be aware not everyone is going to like our choices of subject matter," she said.

Former staff also said they left for reasons that had nothing to do with the proposed content, citing a variety of complaints about autonomy, morale and resources.

"There may have been a lot of micro reasons for people to leave, but at the macro level, people don't want to be set up to fail," said one former staffer. "These people can't succeed. They feel very defeated."

The museum plans to hire 25 more people by March 31, 2013 and 27 new people every quarter as it ramps up toward the 2014 opening.

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CMHR staffing levels (fiscal years ending March 31):

2008-09: 6

2009-10: 35

2010-11: 52

2011-12: 65

2012-13: 68

CMHR staff departures since 2009:

Permanent positions: 20

Term positions: 14

-- source: Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 A5