By Brent Bellamy, Creative Director and Architect
It has been 4,549 days since the Winnipeg Free Press first announced media mogul Israel Asper had been secretly championing an idea to construct a national museum at The Forks, in the centre of the city. Children born on that day are now in Grade 8. This weekend, finally, the world will be given the opportunity to step through the museum's doors and into Mr. Asper's imagination.
When the concept of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was unveiled, it seemed to be an impossible dream. The average house price in Winnipeg was $98,000. The city had 80,000 fewer residents. There was no new airport, Manitoba Hydro tower or Investors Group Field. Our hockey team was a minor-league franchise playing in a 50-year-old arena. We were not used to big things yet.
The museum has travelled a long and difficult path to get to the eve of its opening. For almost six years, we have watched it grow from a gravel parking lot into a towering mountain of glass and stone. Its protracted construction time and ballooning budget have drained much of its public goodwill and given everyone in the city opportunity to formulate an opinion. Its glass tower has seemingly become a metaphorical lightning rod of negative energy.
Debate over the value of public investment in our cultural amenities is a vital discussion to maintaining a healthy community, whether it's subsidizing professional hockey, building a new football stadium or investing in museums. Through this debate, the CMHR has been supported by elected representatives from all stripes, from the federal Liberals and Conservatives to the provincial NDP. The museum's realization is a result of similar levels of government support that all national museums in Ottawa have received, but what sets the CMHR apart is the more than 8,000 private donors who have given a staggering $147 million of their own money in support of the idea.
As the museum opens, the time for debating the value of our investment is over. The past cannot be unwritten, the money cannot be unspent. The story of what happens next will be told by all of us. Together, we will decide its fate. This weekend we have an opportunity to look at the CMHR through fresh eyes. If we want it to be a success, we must leave our baggage at the door and embrace the museum's future as we walk inside. What we choose to make of it is the legacy we will leave for future generations.
As a community, we can learn from the experience of the Esplanade Riel, its pointed partner to the east. During construction, the bridge's "million-dollar toilet" was ridiculed as a waste of public money that could have been better used to fill the potholes in our roads. A year after its opening, Prime Minister Stephen Harper held a campaign stop at the foot of the bridge, using it as a symbol of government waste. By this time, Winnipeggers had forgotten the cost debate and had fallen in love with the iconic bridge. Many felt as though this outsider had come to our city to insult one of us.
On Saturday, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights becomes 'one of us.'
The CMHR faces all the same challenges the Jets did upon their return. The perception from outsiders is Winnipeg is too small, too cold, too isolated. Nobody will brave the snow and mosquitoes to come see the museum. They claim it should have been built in a larger, wealthier city.
The success of the CMHR and its ability to prove the naysayers wrong will come from the spirit of community that makes our city special. The Jets have become successful because we bonded together to support them in the same way our small city supports world-class ballet, symphony, art galleries and theatre.
The time has come to be amazed by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Descend into the ground, invited by its curving Tyndall stone roots. Enter through the doors and be inspired by the soft Prairie light washing across huge, sloping walls. Feel the weight of the massive building above as you move through the underground galleries. Rise up on illuminated alabaster ramps and feel the release of emotion upon entering the overwhelming volume of the Garden of Contemplation. Understand the strength of its architectural metaphor. Experience a sense of renewal as you look over the modern city from the Tower of Hope. The power of the museum's interior architecture conveys its message like very few others on Earth. Layer on top of this exhibits created by the world's leading museum designer, and the experience will certainly be inspiring, educational and moving.
The CMHR by its nature will be a place of controversy, protest and anger. If it is not, it will have failed. This should not be feared, but instead encouraged. It will be a place that can teach us through this debate and discussion. If we dream big and strive to fulfil its promise with the same determination it took to build the museum, the opportunity for our city is immense. Can Winnipeg redefine its image and become a leader in education and cultural tourism? Can we become an international centre for human rights in the way Geneva is known for global diplomacy or Oslo is for its Nobel Peace Prize? Can we formulate partnerships with educational institutions here and around the world to carry the museum's message abroad? Can we be a headquarters for national and international charitable organizations such as UNICEF, UNESCO and the Canadian Red Cross?
Perhaps most importantly, can we learn from the lessons taught within the walls of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to face our own significant challenges of poverty, education and social inequity and make Winnipeg a city of opportunity, justice and equality that is a model for change in the world?
If Izzy Asper were alive today, he would probably answer, why not?
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2014 B5