On October 22, 2015, my good friend Diana Merritt Turner took me — on behalf of the Teachers of English as an Additional Languages (TEAL) Manitoba Conference Committee — to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) located in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
I was invited to speak at the TEAL Manitoba Conference and the trip to CMHR was a gift of the committee to me. It was indeed a very treasured gift. Diana and I were planning to go there earlier, but got busy in the morning meeting some amazing people at the Manitoba Department of Education. By the time we got to the CMHR, we had about 3 hours to spend there. It wasn’t nearly enough time, but sufficient to feel overwhelmed by the grief of humanity.
I have been thinking how to best reflect on this experience, whether to recount it floor by floor, like we experienced it, or just share my highlights. I decided to go with the latter. The highlights shared below do not follow any linear order. The purpose for this blog is process my experience.
Highlight 1: The Architecture Helps You Cope with Grief
How does one approach a task of coming up with an idea for a building that would hold human rights abuses? What is the role of the architecture in helping visitors process the atrocities? At first glance, there was nothing special about the building in that sense. It is an unusual construction with long-winded ramps to walk on and unusually stretched out walls. The reason the architecture made it to the top of my highlights is because I have never experienced a building whose design was so intentional and purposeful: the entire building helps you cope with what you are experiencing. After we walked on the first floor, I felt like I absorbed the grief of humanity and was overwhelmed by it. To cope with that, the architect put had a garden area on your way to the next level which was there to process and not to rush through it.
As you go through the next levels and take in more and more sadness, you have a choice to ascend the tower of hope. It’s the spear that sticks out from the main body of the building. The Tower of Hope is made of glass and metal beams and when you ascend it, you can see the city around you: the blue sunny skies, people walking, traffic moving, life in full swing. You find hope in that. It gives you a reason to move on.
But… the most significant design feature that I reflected on for many many days after the visit was the wings of a dove that embrace the human grief. Look at the building again:
The Tower of Hope is on top. The wings are embracing humanity. I did read that the architect Antoine Predock from New Mexico who won the international competition with his idea for this building had originally suggested that the wings of a dove symbolize peace.
I see these wings as God Himself embracing the grief of humanity, just like it says in Psalm 91:4.
“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge, his faithfulness will be your shield.” Psalm 91:4
Highlight 2: Honoring Languages
Upon entrance, I was greeted by the museum staff first and then to I immediately was drawn to the video that shows human silhouettes writing on the wall WELCOME in about 100 languages. I couldn’t upload the video from my phone, and figured out a way to tweet it first and then embed the tweet. Enjoy. It’s much better than a still photograph.
I just stood there, mesmerized, watching this very realistic, authentic, and human-centered video. The staff kept asking me questions about where I was visiting from, but I couldn’t really engage with them because my attention was captivated by the writing. I couldn’t understand greetings in languages I never studied, but was validated when I saw Ласкаво просимо! – Welcome in Ukrainian. The purpose of the video can be interpreted as “people of all languages are welcome here” or “humans have the right to their languages and we will use them in this museum of HUMAN RIGHTS to show that we honor that basic human right to be greeted in their languages. We honor people’s languages in this museum.
Highlight 3: Recognition of Ukraine’s suffering
This was the first museum outside of Ukraine that dedicated so much attention and recognition to the suffering of Ukrainian people. I recently learned in the book about the museum “Miracle at the Forks” that the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) insisted that the “museum should not “elevate” one group’s suffering above others'” (p. 43) in response to the concern that this museum was going to be “another Holocaust museum”. The Ukrainian Canadian Congress carried forward what UCCLA had started by opposing the main presence of the Holocaust and insisted that Holodomor as well as the internment of Ukrainians in Canada during the First World War “would be presented…. “very clearly, distinctly and permanently.” (In Ukrainian, Holodomor literally means “death by famine”). It was an artificially engineered famine in which 6 to 8 million people starved to death in one year: 1932-33. But the purpose of doing so was to wipe out the Ukrainian people, which is, by definition, an ethnic cleansing, a genocide. For more on this genocide, and how the truth was suppressed by the New York Times, here is a very brief video
Holodomor is recognized in two different places in the museum. First, on the first floor where the majority of the museum’s content is displayed. There are “ribbons” of various atrocities committed against humanity, and one of those ribbons caught my attention said,
“Soviet Union causes Holodomor – genocide by famine – in Ukraine.”
Then, on the fourth floor, there is a permanent exhibit to commemorate the
Holodomor along with other genocides: Armenian, Rwandan, Holocaust, Srebrenica. The Holodomor exhibit includes a screening of a documentary, a replica of a girl clenching two stalks of wheat in her hands. The original is located at Holodomor Memorial Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine.
For once in my life, I felt that the suffering of my people was recognized and commemorated with dignity.
Just like in the video above, the truth about the Holodomor genocide didn’t get out and was suppressed for many years, we should be compelled to break the silence about human rights abuses regardless of their size or scale. I will leave you with these words I saw at the museum:
“Breaking the Silence: Words are powerful. When people dare to break the silence about mass atrocities, they promote the human rights of everyone.”
Dr. Ruslana Westerlund @ellbillofrights is passionate about the human rights that students have, the basic right to an equitable education, especially those that are marginalized and are not given a full opportunity to learn. She blogs to promote justice for those students. You can subscribe to this blog to join her in this pursuit.