what’s missing from the museum
A recent trip to Winnipeg led us to a visit of the new and impressive Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). This long-awaited museum is a stunning landmark for Winnipeg. Entering between the “roots” of the building, one starts at the bottom, appropriately with an introduction to our mixed record of dealing with human rights here in Canada. Surprisingly, the Bentwood Box, a central symbol from the recently completed Truth and Reconciliation Commission was already on display. There has been appropriate criticism that the museum underplays the severity of Canadian history with Indigenous Peoples, but there are plans for an increased focus in response to the TRC.
Winding our way through seven levels, we journeyed through some of the darkest sides of human history, but by the upper levels, the focus has shifted to past, present and future efforts at change. The final stage is a glass elevator ride to the Tower of Hope, providing impressive views of the prairie city and The Forks, a historic meeting place near which the museum is built.
I’d heard from friends and family that I should be prepared to be emotionally impacted, perhaps depressed, by the visit, but I think I’ve been too long jaded by familiarity with our human history to be overly affected. And the clear intent of the museum is to counteract the potential of depression or despair by pointing toward hope and change. I thought it was a very good museum experience, but something was missing.
On the same visit to Winnipeg, I’d been reading Bruce Cockburn’s memoir, Rumours of Glory, and on the plane trip home, I was immersed in the period of his life when he travelled several times to Central and South America to bear witness to what was happening. Here was a very different take on human rights. Whereas the CMHR provides the kind of moderated introduction to human atrocities that one expects from governments and schools, reading Cockburn’s account – peppered with music and lyrics which have shaped my experience for decades – helped clarify what was missing from the museum: outrage.
Outrage is the appropriate human response to so much of our history and our present. The genocide of Mayan people in Guatemala, for example, earned an obscure reference in the museum, but Cockburn’s firsthand account led to his gut-wrenching song, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” This song, with its final lines:
Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse in every gate…
If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die.
breaks through our self-protective denial and tendency to minimize. Cockburn is not advocating violence as the solution, but his lament is what our God-given humanity often needs to feel in response to an honest facing of the extremity of the horrors. Somehow, the CMHR mutes this anguish with its curated detachment and its insistence that we not linger too long through despair and anger.
There is a second key difference between the museum’s response to human rights and that of Cockburn. The museum is very shy about alluding to causes; I guess it’s too political to point fingers. Cockburn doesn’t share this hesitation. Part of the outrage is that the worst atrocities are not usually related to anything even remotely justifiable like revenge or self-defense; they are usually based on manufactured fears generated to protect and expand the wealth and power of corporate interests and government oligarchies – usually both in collusion. This is pathetic and outrageous, and we are all implicated.
Naming these causes and expressing the resulting outrage is what is missing from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. The museum was a good experience, and I recommend it to anyone visiting Winnipeg, but thank God that there are artists like Bruce Cockburn who will take us a step further.