10 things you need to see at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The museum's galleries are connected by a half-mile of glowing, criss-crossing ramps – a literal path of light through the darknessThe museum’s galleries are connected by a half-mile of glowing, criss-crossing ramps – a literal path of light through the darkness — Photo courtesy of Dan Harper

A trip to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg should be a must-do on everyone’s list. 

The first museum in the world solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights, the stunning space is filled with fascinating exhibits that really make you think – and maybe even act.

The architecture itself makes a statement, with ramps ascending six levels in a zigzag pattern, symbolizing that the ascent to human rights ideals is not straight but requires effort and persistence. Alabaster symbolizes the healing possibilities of humanity, and exploring the twelve galleries is a powerful, sobering and often inspiring experience. 

“We bring people together to explore human rights through stories, reflection and dialogue,” said Dr. John Young, CMHR president and CEO. “We encourage visitors to learn and to enter a global conversation about our future together.”

Here are 10 must-see items whose history will stay with you long after you’ve left the museum. 

750-year-old intact footprint

Stand in the footprint of the Indigenous people who came beforeStand in the footprint of the Indigenous people who came before — Photo courtesy of Aaron Cohen

This cast of a moccasin print left in the Red River clay in the 13th century was among 400,000 artifacts uncovered in the largest block archaeological excavation conducted in Manitoba. 

It is the oldest footprint ever found at the fork of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, which served as a seasonal meeting ground for Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The museum is located on these ancestral lands, which is Treaty One territory and the heartland of the Métis Nation. (Treaty One was the first treaty signed between Indigenous people and the new Government of Canada in 1871, and the Métis people are a specific group of people with a unique culture who trace their origins to Indigenous peoples and European settlers.)

The land beneath the museum has always been, and will continue to be, home to Indigenous peoples. This rare footprint connects visitors to Indigenous ancestors who followed the waterways here for peacemaking, dialogue and trade.  

A bronze cast can be found in the welcoming hall – on the wall and recast in reverse on the floor, where visitors can literally take a step in the footprint of those who came before.

Designs for a Nazi concentration camp

These are the blueprints for the gas chambers at AuschwitzThese are the blueprints for the gas chambers at Auschwitz — Photo courtesy of Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Located in the Examining the Holocaust gallery, these stark architectural drawings of camp buildings at the Auschwitz concentration camp include the blueprints for its gas chambers, some of which were designed for killing up to 2,000 people at once. Guards disposed of their bodies by burning them in the crematorium, which is also shown in the drawings.

Part of an exhibit called Complicit in Genocide, the three reproduced drawings sit beneath a large map of Auschwitz. Beside them is a written requisition for Zyklon B gas, along with an empty gas canister and transportation documents for the movement of prisoners by rail car, as well as a strip of rusted barbed wire salvaged from a camp.

The exhibit is intended to encourage thought and conversation about the ways that many individuals in Germany, simply by going about their daily jobs, made personal choices and took actions – big and small – that helped make mass murder possible.  

Prom dress worn to the first integrated prom in Wilcox, Ga.

Maréshia Rucker and her change-inspiring prom dressMaréshia Rucker and her change-inspiring prom dress — Photo courtesy of Dan Harper

Back in 2013, black students like Mareshia Rucker were not invited to her high school’s “white prom” in Wilcox County, Georgia – not far from Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights. 

Turning her anger into action for change, she organized the first racially integrated prom at her school, sparking national media attention to the ongoing practice of segregation in America. Her red satin prom dress became a powerful symbol that now hangs in the Inspiring Change gallery, alongside the tuxedo worn by her date. 

Masks created by former child soldiers and captive girls in Uganda

These masks were created by girls liberated after years of captivityThese masks were created by girls liberated after years of captivity — Photo courtesy of Canadian Museum for Human Rights

At least 300,000 children are involved in armed conflicts worldwide, forced to become soldiers, and often sexually abused. A Canadian group called Children/Youth as Peacebuilders tries to protect children inside conflict zones and help them promote peace and human rights. 

In 2012, the group began working with girls liberated after years of captivity under the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. The girls created masks to wear while describing their traumatic experiences. The entire group of 85 participants involved in this initiative later created their own organization called Waty K-Gen (We Have Hope). 

“The black represents the bad memories that we still hold in our minds and hearts. The yellow is for the sun,” said one survivor. “We see that we have freedom now and can use our voices to speak for our children.”

These masks hang in an exhibit called Empowering War-Affected Children, located in the Inspiring Change gallery.

The world’s largest Métis beaded artwork by Métis artist Jennine Krauchi

Métis artist Jennine Krauchi with her breathtaking workMétis artist Jennine Krauchi with her breathtaking work — Photo courtesy of John Woods

Worn tucked under the fold of a waist sash, an “octopus bag” – also known as a “fire bag” – was an essential part of a Métis man’s wardrobe, holding tobacco, tinder for fire, and pipe materials. This giant octopus bag is covered in a traditional Métis floral beadwork pattern, using thousands of antique fur-trade era beads from the mid-1800s.

The finished work stands 18 feet high and weighs over 60 pounds. It is displayed in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery as part of an exhibit about the displacement of Métis people who lived in communities on government road allowances.  

Krauchi’s original rough pattern, drawn on a sheet of paper, included nine large flowers, which aligned with the nine former Métis road allowance communities listed in the center of the work. According to Krauchi, “The biggest flower, the rose, symbolizes our survival as Métis people.”

Lights of Inclusion

Lights of Inclusion show the importance of human connectionLights of Inclusion show the importance of human connection — Photo courtesy of Dan Harper

This exploratory activity invites visitors of all ages to interact with each other and think about the power of inclusivity, cooperation and diversity. Through motion-tracking technology, colorful bubbles of light are projected on each visitor as they step onto a circular floor area in the Canadian Journeys gallery. 

When players draw close to each other, their separate and differently colored light bubbles merge and change. Ribbons of white light flow between them, as the outside edges shimmer and shift. If five or more people join together, the light fills the entire circle as a unified shape.

Even after participants break apart, their individual light bubbles remain energized with white ribbons of light, as if changed by the experience of coming together with others. It is a reminder that connections between people are necessary to build a strong society.

Tree yarn-bombed by grandmothers

Canadian grandmothers yarn-bomb a tree in support of African grandmothersCanadian grandmothers yarn-bomb a tree in support of African grandmothers — Photo courtesy of Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Grandmothers in many parts of Africa are caring for millions of children orphaned by AIDS. On World AIDS Day in 2012, grandmothers in South Africa knit brightly colored squares to commemorate those who had died from AIDS and used them to “yarn-bomb” a tree.

To help their cause, a Canadian foundation initiated the Grandmothers-to-Grandmothers Campaign, whereby grandmothers across Canada support the grandmothers in South Africa. For this installation in the Inspiring Change gallery, grandmothers in Winnipeg yarn-bombed a stylized tree with squares knitted by the grandmothers in South Africa to draw attention to the plight of AIDS orphans.

The REDress Project

The REDress Project raises awareness of Canada's missing Indigenous womenThe REDress Project raises awareness of Canada’s missing Indigenous women — Photo courtesy of Ian McCausland

The centerpiece of an exhibit called From Sorrow to Strength in the Canadian Journeys gallery, this art installation by Winnipeg artist Jaime Black brings to light the sexist and racist nature of violent crimes against Indigenous women. 

Black’s haunting installation, consisting of empty, blood-red dresses hanging in front of a woodland background, was a response to the overwhelming number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.  

Indigenous women and girls go missing with disturbing frequency, yet their disappearances tend to receive little mainstream attention. First Nations, Inuit and Métis women are three times more likely to experience violence than other women in Canada.

Although they are over-represented as homicide victims, many of their murders remain unsolved. Their fundamental rights to safety and justice are at stake. Black’s REDress Project is a statement about racism, sexism and marginalization in Canada.

Everyday objects

Items we use every day may have consequencesItems we use every day may have consequences — Photo courtesy of Aaron Cohen

Suspended from the ceiling, this display of everyday objects including mobile phones, bottles of water and sneakers sparks conversations about advances and setbacks in human rights. It reminds us to think about the potential human rights implications of the consumer choices we make – just as we consider the environmental implications of what we buy.   

For example, cell phones allow us to communicate and quickly disseminate messages that encourage action for human rights. Remember how social media inspired a pro-democracy uprising in the Middle East during the Arab Spring of 2011? At the same time, though, some components used in the manufacture of mobile phones are mined using child labor in Africa.

Turning Points for Humanity

These interactive "books" teach visitors about human rightsThese interactive “books” teach visitors about human rights — Photo courtesy of Steve Chronic

These large, standing video “books” are activated when visitors stand in a pool of light and point at the screen. A narrator then appears to introduce a human rights theme – which range from women’s rights to religious freedoms. Visitors can point again to watch short videos about people all around the world who are taking action to promote human rights, turning the written articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into real-world outcomes.

This exhibit is one of several that take advantage of gesture-based, digital technology to connect a new generation of museum-goers with its stories.

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