That’s what we Winnipeggers call the Museum of Human Rights, that giant monument to the vanity of the Aspers. Some people call it the Museum of Tolerance, after the old South Park episode.

It might be a little cruel, but Manitobans are cynical people. It’s the winters, I think. Survive a Manitoba winter, the slush, the snow, the fifty degrees below zero freezes, the endless promise of warmer weather just around the corner, to be replaced by the next big freeze or snowfall… well, after that, you just stop believing in anyone or anything.

Still, I am a Maritimer by birth, and for all the innate ferocity, cruelty and enthusiastic brutality beneath our welcoming smiles, there is a tiny shred of moral decency beneath it all. So I feel just a little bit bad about what I’m about to write.

But not that bad.

I visited the Museum of Human Rights today. I was very impressed by their inclusion of Buffy St. Marie’s picture in their gallery of indigenous people, the inclusion of her music in the same gallery. It gladdens my heart to see that the Museum affirms the importance of that much overlooked indigenous group, the Pretendians, to the cause of human rights. Apparently there is no greater testament to cultural integrity than the theft of it.

Oh well, that’s the Museum of Human Rights for you. Honestly, it’s none of my business. The status of Buffy St. Marie to the indigenous community is a matter for the indigenous community to decide, not for me. I just accept their consensus. If the Museum has its own views on the matter, that’s a conversation between them and the indigenous community.

And I’ll say no more about it.

I might buy some popcorn though.

I’ve been to the Museum of Human Rights a few times though. My honest impression?

Do you remember when you were young, and you had a hamster? Or at least you’d see them in pet stores. Hamsters were kind of unique as pets, in that they had accessories. Hamster wheels, hamster balls, hamster water dispensers, feeders, houses. It was kind of amazing. Hamsters were just like Barbie, except that they were live, round and furry, instead of cold, plastic and statuesque, and hamsters could fit incredible volumes in their mouths and bulging cheeks.

Now that I think of it, I realize that the combination of Barbie and Hamsters completely screwed up my generation’s sexual development. I mean hell, I think I just explained Madonna.

But, I digress: Anyway, there was this thing called Hamster Habitrails. These were little transparent, gold tinted, plastic tubes that you could buy and attach to each other, to create a maze inside the cage that the hamster could crawl around in – apparently because hamsters like to crawl through plastic mazes in their natural habitat. They were transparent, because let’s face it, when they weren’t stuffing prodigious amounts of nuts in their bulging cheeks and deforming all our adolescent sexualities, hamsters were dead boring. Habitrails were a desperate hope that they might do something interesting.

This is the Museum of Human Rights. It is the world’s largest, most expensive, human-sized hamster habitrails on Earth. Seriously. It’s just this huge empty space, filled with endless cris- crossing open ramps going up and up and up for seven stories. The ramps are gorgeous, lined with fifteen thousand thin, translucent plates, polished absolutely smooth, with golden interior lighting. I think it’s the golden lighting that puts me in mind of the Habitrail, that and the fact that it’s ramp, after ramp, after ramp. You look up, and all you see above your head is ramps on top of ramps, going this way and that, but always up. There’s something relentless and demented about it, a relentless persistence that makes you think the whole thing was designed with giant human-sized hamsters in mind.

There’s more to the Museum obviously. There are galleries in between the ramps as you go up. Some of them are quite impressive, features devoted to the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the complex pathways in which humans have fought and struggled for affirmation and respect.

Some of them are just weirdly inscrutable. You will learn, for instance, that Uganda is a world leader in human rights with 35% of its representative assembly being women, compared to the United States’ paltry 17% (What about Canada? Who cares? Apparently not the museum).

This is indeed impressive, unless you notice that Uganda has a major problem with female genital mutilation and gays are criminalized and even executed there. I commend Uganda for its work, but they seem to have a ways to go and aren’t really the poster child for women’s rights that we might hope.

Or to be blunt. What the hell?

There’s also a display about an enterprising black woman and business owner in Halifax way back in the 1920s who got overcharged for her theatre ticket and it turned into a big deal. It’s right there in the same Museum where they’re talking about the Holocaust and Holodomor, and this is apparently what they considered an important enough example of racism to take its place alongside the fucking Holocaust.

What the hell? I sense a certain lack of perspective.

But let’s be honest, the history of human rights is a long and complex one, the subject is almost inconceivably vast. If you assigned me the job, I think I’d offer a polite deferral and run screaming into the hills. I’m pretty sure that would be the automatic and instinctive reaction of every single intelligent, thinking, moral human being.

So obviously, it got curated by whoever was left.

Which, I suppose, is how we got to the hamster habitrails. It all makes sense.

There is so much that is so bizarrely strange and wrong headed about the whole thing. The building itself is amazing. The exterior is this squat, sprawling globular structure composed of 1669 individually shaped glass panels, with a base of Manitoba limestone buttresses, piled awkwardly on top of each other like really bad Lego construction. You can tell just looking at it, that it was an incredibly expensive and meticulous undertaking, each limestone block, each individually cut and fitted pane of glass visibly curated. The whole thing inside cost 350 million dollars, and all you have to do it look at it to know they spent it, the whole thing reeks of money, literally insane amounts of money.

So why did they build it to look like a gigantic buffalo turd with a stick poking out of it. Bison? That’s very Manitoba. I appreciate that. But why the turd? Just wondering. Everyone wonders about that. I think we’re supposed to contemplate it.

I mentioned the sixteen thousand Alabaster panels, there’s also a ‘Garden of Contemplation’ which is an entire gallery filled with reflecting pools and probably hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of imported Mongolian rock, which is inspired by the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland (which has nothing to do with Mongolia, or Human Rights, for that matter). Honestly, I visualize frenzied workmen running around with wheelbarrows full of money, desperately shoveling it everywhere they could think of, during the construction.

Some things just baffle me. For instance, take the entry. This is a ramp leading down, with these sharply sloping, smooth concrete walls rising up on either side. The closer you get to the entrance, the narrower the ramp, the higher the sloping concrete walls. The effect is terrifying and claustrophobic. It reminds me of nothing less than the cattle killing chute at the slaughterhouse.

Is this the effect that they were going for?

Did they intend to terrify small children, inspire fear, intimidation, an escalating sense of dread and foreboding? What the hell.

Then there’s the spire – the stick poking out of the buffalo turd: You take the ramps up to the seventh level, and then you take the elevator or 180 steps up to the top for a view of downtown Winnipeg. It’s all right, there’s a wonderful view of several parking lots, sundry downtown buildings, and given that it’s the prairie, pretty much everything.

It’s called ‘The Tower of Hope.’


Seriously. ‘The Tower of Hope.’ Hope? For what? What message was that supposed to be? Hope we get more money? Did they spend months thinking up this name? Was it a ‘Eureka!’ moment? Was there a contest to find the most generic name imaginable?

I shouldn’t complain. Technically, the ‘Garden of Contemplation of Imported Mongolian Rocks’ is actually named the ‘Stuart Clark Garden of Contemplation of Imported Mongolian Rocks.’ Who was Stuart Clark? Some pioneer of human rights? Best buddy to Ghandi? Pal of MLK? I kind of suspect that Stuart was none of those things, but simply a guy who wrote a very large cheque. Because large cheques and the people who write them are vital to human rights, or such is the thinking of the people behind the museum.

Maybe I’m cynical.

Yeah, I’m definitely cynical. I’m willing to admit that the people behind this museum were genuinely sincere, or sincere-ish. That beyond the narcissism and self aggrandizement of the privileged and entitled, there was some genuine idealism. I may mock, but I’m willing to believe that the people that drove this believed in what they were doing, that they felt that they were saying and fighting for something important, that there was a vision and ideals that they wanted to bring into the world. Maybe some decisions are peculiar, I’m pretty sure they didn’t intend the entrance to come across as terrifying, for instance, although apparently once it was they decided to go with it.

But as I said – lot of history, lot of complexity, big expansive field. It’s a challenge, you can’t expect them to get everything right. Not everything can be as expressive and insightful as a gallery devoted to Rage Against the Machine’s old 70’s Chevy touring van. Yes, that’s in there. No, don’t ask me. I assume it seemed like a good idea at some point, and I’ll leave it at that.

Wait! It’s a f***ing van! They devoted a gallery to a f***ing van!

Never mind. The point is that they’re trying, and even if I’m mocking and cynical and I’m probably going to go straight to hell, I admit that they’re sincere and trying hard.

Flubs like the Buffy St. Marie thing are going to happen. Maybe they’ll get around to dealing with it. They do try. They even attempt to be topical. After all, they’ve got a gallery devoted to the current Russo-Ukrainian war. I don’t think they’ve got anything for the current murder-orgy on Gaza, but maybe that’s too controversial.

I should probably stop here and not mention the Investigation back in 2020 that found that the Museum was rife with racism, sexism and homophobia.

Or how the Investigation found that the management of the Museum was overwhelmingly white, upper class, privileged, which comes as a shock to me, a total shock. Who would have thought? Or how the Report said this coddled, privileged elite was completely out of touch with its diverse staff, how there were microaggressions, differential enforcement of dress codes, how black, indigenous or other minorities were repeatedly passed over for promotions. The report goes into practices and policies that institutionalized pervasive racism. There’s allegations of sexual harassment that weren’t dealt with. Apparently, there were a lot of complaints. A lot! From a lot of different people.

Another scandal involved LGBTQ issues. Apparently, when certain right wing groups or schools were visiting, the tours would make sure to avoid any of the LGBTQ content. I don’t know how that worked, maybe they hid it, threw a sheet over some displays or something, or just made sure that the tour groups didn’t go there. Why upset certain kinds of right wingers by exposing them to the human rights issues of people that they didn’t believe should have human rights? If gays offended them, then make them invisible – no cognitive dissonance there.

Anyway, out of all these shenanigans, they fired their Director, and the new Director promises to be much nicer. Well… okay.

I don’t know, maybe that’s just how rich privileged elites see the world. Maybe to them it’s all just performative idealism, themselves always at the top, everyone else at the bottom and not mattering, business as usual all the way down. It seems that all those hamster ramps were for the shit to run downhill.

I’d even accept that they’re sincere in their performative idealism, they’re completely for human rights, as long as they’re in charge and they don’t have to be accountable or responsible or change anything they’re doing. Human rights for them are terrific, as long as it doesn’t involve rocking the boat.

Kind of ironic that the Museum of Human Rights should turn out to be this festering little circus of elitist class privilege at the top in private offices, lording it over a staff that was deliberately inclusive and diverse on the front lines, and wallowing in racism, sexism, homophobia and the other ills and indignities that the Museum was about.

Maybe they forgot what kind of Museum they were running.

Anyway, that’s why we call it the Museum of Irony. And hey, okay, I’ve been a little mean, I admit it. But for all its faults, and they are many, and colossal (Why a turd?) there’s a core of sincerity and idealism. They didn’t call it the “Museum of Suck It You Stupid Poor Peons!” They were trying for something better.

So if you ask me, I’ll say: Go! Go for the Hamster Habitrail experience. You’ll never forget those endless glowing golden ramps piling on top of each other to infinity and beyond!