The symbolism couldn't be more appropriate.
If that doesn't sum up the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, then nothing will.
Nationwide focus groups have shown that pretty much nobody in the country intends to come to Winnipeg to see Izzy Asper's vanity project. And people who might come here anyway as tourists don't see wallowing in historical misery as a fun time.
Short of chloroform and duct tape, the museum's only hope for visitors is trucking in tens of thousands of luckless students and arm-twisting governments to force civil servants to attend.
That's what's known as a Manitoba success story.
For reasons unknown, Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to Winnipeg to participate in the phoney-baloney groundbreaking and, so, officially to turn on the money taps. There's obviously a reason for the pretence that the project has been started before Dec. 31, 2008, even though the private donors have failed to raise their required share of the funding.
Instead of asking the obvious, how the Friends of the Museum expect to fund the inevitable cost-overruns which they've pledged to cover, there's a rush to start pouring taxpayers' money into the black hole.
And what a money pit it's going to be.
Let's start with the fact nobody actually knows how much the Asper boondoggle is going to cost. Officially it's a $265 million project. That's their story and they're sticking to it.
Three years ago in Muse, the museum projects quarterly newsletter (which lasted one issue as far as we can tell), the fundraising goal was $311 million.
One year ago Gail Asper, managing director of the Asper Foundation, the private charitable organization that has led the project’s fundraising, said they had to raise all the money by April, 2008, or else.
“We have urgency because we have been given a budget and the budget will hold for a certain period of time,” Asper said. “If we have to extend our timelines extensively, then the budget will rise and that will put this building in jeopardy.”
The Winnipeg Free Press wrote this week :
"About half of the $265-million price tag is for the building itself. The rest is intended to develop the museum's exhibits and multimedia presentations." (Harper's visit brings museum closer to reality, Meghan Hurley and Mia Rabson, Winnipeg Free Press, Dec. 17, 2008.) That would translate in roughly $133 million for construction.
That's interesting. In June, 2005, Canadian Architect.com, in a story on the awarding of the design for the museum, wrote "The total cost of the project is estimated at $243 million, with construction costs estimated at $126 million."
So the cost of construction has risen a measley $7 million over the past three-and-a-half years. Now that's a Christmas miracle.
By contrast, the City of Winnipeg has been experiencing construction inflation averaging 16-18 percent this year alone. (City hopes slump cuts cost of its public works, Bartley Kives, Winnipeg Free Press, Nov. 27, 2008.)
At that rate by the time its built the only exhibits the CMHR can afford will be a couple of postcards from Nelson Mandella and a videotape of Roots, in Beta.
And by the time the rest of Canada realizes its been suckered into paying the construction, the cost overruns, and $22 million a year in operating costs, the museum's 328 foot tower will look like a giant middle finger sticking up out of the heart of the continent.
It is to weep.
Then, Thursday, came the news that Nasa is selling its fleet of Space Shuttles. Once they're decommissioned in 2010--two years before the CMHR is finished at its earliest--the three shuttles will be sold off for $35 million apiece, plus $6 million shipping and handling.
For $41 million U.S. ($50 million Canadian at today's exchange) we could own a Space Shuttle.
For less than one fifth of the claimed cost of the CMHR we could have our very own, one-of-a-kind (okay, one of three of a kind) irresistable, unbeatable, world-class, out-of-this-world class, tourist attractions.
Winnipeg gets 2.7 million tourists each year. And you can bet that each and every one of them would visit a Space Shuttle. And every single one would tell a friend or relative who couldn't wait to come to Winnipeg to see the Space Shuttle. To have a picture taken beside the Space Shuttle. To walk into the Space Shuttle. To sit in the cockpit of a Space Shuttle.
And to dream.
To dream of the future. Not dwell on the past.
A future that's leaving Winnipeg--and Canada--behind at a rapid clip.
There are many people still alive in Canada who remember being urged to finish their suppers because "there are children starving in India." Manitoba grain farmers were heroes for growing surplus crops that could be sent to India. Canadians grew up proud that we as a country could help alleviate the grinding poverty in India through our foreign aid programs.
Last month India landed a probe on the moon. It was launched from India's unmanned moon-orbiting satellite Chandrayaan-1. India joins an extremely select group of advanced nations; only the U.S., Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China have previously sent probes to the moon.
The Indian Space Research Organization plans to land an unmanned moon rover by 2012. In the third phase of their lunar program, another rover will land on the moon and return to Earth with lunar soil and stone samples in about 2017.
In between ISRO plans to launch satellites to study Mars and Venus.
Former president of India Abdul Kalam, a rocket scientist in his own right, said the landing of the moon probe -- time for the anniversary of the birth of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru -- "will kindle a dream in children".
"In 15 years I want to see an Indian on the moon," said Kalam, who conceived of the so-called moon impact probe.
Kindle a dream in children.
Isn't that what we want?
The Indian space program will do more to foster national pride and dreams of the future in home-grown scientists and engineers than all the museums in the world. There are already more students enrolled in engineering classes in India than in the US. Also there are more women engineers in India.
(With the museum, we're inspiring lawyers, social workers, sociologists, Marxist activists, and more millionaire panhandlers who dream of pet projects being financed by a bottomless public pit of money.)
But is it practical? AFP addressed that in their story on the Indian lunar mission:
"Critics say India, which has hundreds of millions of people living in deep poverty, should not be embarking on a space race with starstruck regional powers like China and Japan.
But the country has been keen to display its scientific prowess and claim a bigger slice of the global satellite business.
Not only has India "put our national flag on the lunar surface, we have also emerged as a low-cost travel agency to space," ISRO chief Madhavan Nair said, referring to the space mission's total 80-million-dollar price tag which is less than half spent on similar expeditions by other countries."
Ouch. For less than a third of what we're going to waste on the CMHR, India has positioned itself as a player in the space business world.
The Western Economic Diversification fund has been pumping $5 million a year into the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to keep them going and plans to keep doing it for another two years at least.
Obviously they think the way to wean Manitoba off its dependence on farming and fishing is to build a museum that depends on federal funding to survive.
In Manitoba, that's called economic planning.
It is to weep.