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Winnipeg Free Press | 06Sep2011 | Dan Lett

Measured museum debate welcome

Finally, a heroic bid to restore a bit of sanity in the debate surrounding the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Starting this week and continuing monthly until next spring, the University of Manitoba will host lectures exploring the soon-to-be-opened CMHR and broader issues of human rights.

The series -- Critical Conversations: The Idea of a Human Rights Museum -- is a responsible and measured approach to a complex issue. As such, it stands out against what has been a backdrop of wildly inflammatory, profoundly misinformed and deeply afflicted commentary on the CMHR.

Prof. Karen Busby, director of the university's Centre for Human Rights Research Initiative, said the lectures should help audiences and lecturers alike gain perspective on what the museum could be and what will threaten its mandate. It's an important series, Busby said. "Let's face it, this museum is going to be an easy target."

An easy target indeed. Since it was revealed a decade ago that Winnipeg's Asper family wanted to build a national museum for human rights, the darts have rained down on the project, its proponents and the city that has aspired to host it. Detractors have complained it is too expensive, too elaborate in its design and architecture, too ambitious in its mandate, and too remote in its location. When you stack all the whining and moaning together, it's remarkable the thing is actually being erected.

The most recent analysis from the more prudent, more elegant, more realistic and centrally located has come from Toronto academics, including J.L. Granatstein, one of Canada's most prominent historians, and Michael Marrus, a historian with special emphasis on Holocaust studies. Both have been widely quoted in the Toronto and national media criticizing the CMHR. "It's a can of worms," Granatstein told freelance journalist Ira Basen in a 4,000-word article on the CMHR recently published in the Globe and Mail. "It's the triumph of hope over reality. It's simply not thinking through the difficulties of this sort of project."

You must read through most of the 4,000 words of Basen's piece to discover exactly what Granatstein believes is encased in the can of worms. In large part, Basen and his two academics, unchallenged by anyone with enough letters behind their name to justify the same stage, believe the museum will fail because it has already been hounded by conflict. At the same time, they suggest the museum will fail because it is ill-equipped to deal with controversy. Confused? You're not alone.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Basen did not talk to any of the academics and specialists who are working on the museum's content. Have these folks sampled the CMHR Kool-Aid? Perhaps. But in a good piece of analysis, the strength of the author's argument is usually established by demonstrating superiority over a contrary argument. Ignoring a contrary argument is an unfair fight.

Marrus, for example, dislikes the national consultation undertaken to ask Canadians for their input into the mandate and to tell their personal human rights stories. He suggests this is useless because not all of these stories will be reflected in the museum. Surely Marrus knows the interviews will form an archive of stories that will, thanks to new technologies at the CMHR, become the backdrop for more intensive exhibits. Or perhaps he didn't know.

However, while the absence of balance may be bad methodology, even that does not explain the impaired logic of the article. Basen believes the museum is doomed in large part because both Jewish and Ukrainian Canadians are unhappy with the museum. A war of words between Ukrainians and Jews was sparked by news first reported in the Winnipeg Free Press that there would be a permanent gallery to discuss the evolution in international law sparked by the Holocaust, but no permanent gallery for the Holodomor, the forced starvation of Ukrainians by the Stalin regime.

Basen correctly notes that Ukrainians and European Jews have been pointing fingers at each other for the better part of the last century. The museum did not create this dispute, and while the museum has not settled the matter, surely it's not responsible for the distrust between these two peoples. And yet, Basen and his critics "despair over the divisions the museum has caused in its short life."

The CMHR is ambitious, but surely we'll know for sure if it is too ambitious sometime after we actually get to see the content. Or perhaps by hearing from the people actually constructing the content. Maybe in a future story.

This is a museum conceived by laymen, given life by Manitoba politicians and donors and located in a city that cannot be seen from the office windows at the University of Toronto. It is ambitious, but were it being built in downtown Toronto, it would be celebrated for its ambition, not attacked.

Busby said she was particularly interested in Granatstein's comment that the CMHR is a triumph of hope over reality. Ironically, the Toronto academic may have hit on the most important issue of all when it comes to understanding the CMHR.

"I saw that comment, and I thought, 'Isn't that an essential part of any great museum?' "

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