First Impressions of the CMHR

There is a ramp that wanders up through the galleries of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a zig-zag path framed by plates of Spanish alabaster lit from the inside. Nice ramp, I thought, but I was wrong. “It’s a ribbon of light leading us to a better understanding of human rights,” our tour guide said, in a sunny sort of way.

That’s the thing about the CMHR: its cleverness gets in its own way.

Or so it felt to me on the afternoon of opening day, trudging a carefully planned route through the building so beautiful and strange. Every detail is intended to be meaningful, every angle and architectural feature born of messaging and metaphor. In a museum dedicated to raising the most pressing questions of our existence, the building makes the loudest statement. The building swallowed us whole.

Maybe things will be different when the rest of the galleries are finished in November.

As of now, though, the whole place feels off balance. It’s the way the building careens around you, so dramatic and self-conscious. Light, it’s all about the play of light, starting with the way the sunlight can barely penetrate the steel and concrete of the ground-floor entrance hall. “So if you feel darkness and heaviness, then you’re getting it,” the tour guide explained, but added a helpful disclaimer. “If you don’t, that’s okay too.”

You rise up into light, into the galleries. The ones that are open feel unfinished, or else deliberately spare: some dramatic projections, some interactive stations, some artifacts under glass whispering their significance but (for now) presented without any written explanation. Who made that turtle carving? Are those the chains once worn by slaves? You want to honour these things, but again, the building gets in the way.

Notice all the terraces. (“We’ve already had a wedding!”) Notice the glass cloud that wraps around the building, no two of its 1,335 panes are the same shape. (“Just like human experiences are all different, and none can stand without the other!”) A great circular theatre in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery is made from sleek wooden slats, “representing the multitude of Canadian Aboriginal traditions.” The ramp. The Tower of Hope. The floors shine, the walls leer, the bubbling brook in the Garden of Contemplation hints of change and tears, columns of volanic rock in a nod to change-fire.

I remember these things, the scale of the place, the way the metaphors pressed down around the head. But I don’t remember almost any of the exhibits they were designed to contain. There was a quote from Taiaiake Alfred, there was a spectacular clay sculpture from a local artist whose name, I regret, I didn’t write down. There was a ballot box used in the South African election that carried Nelson Mandela to the presidency. There were projection panels. There were words. “It really is all about the building,” my dad said, and we weren’t even on the architecture tour.

These are first impressions only, formed on a partial basis against the unseen swaths of unfinished galleries. But know this: I cam to CMHR on opening day ready to fall in love. Truth be told, I always believed in the concept, I knew and admired their inspirations. And they meant well, mean well, everything in the structure means so very well. But it’s hard to fall in love with a place that is already so deeply enamored with itself, and so proudly self-involved.

Human rights were never won by looking to the self that way. And that’s what felt off-balance to me, on this opening day.