The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

The CMHR---what, exactly, as we getting for $310 million?

With attention now focused on the never-ending cost of building the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, something is being lost.

What's going to be in the building?

We know that construction is eating up almost 90 percent of the $310 million new, new, new, new budget of the CMHR. What's the other 10 percent or so buying?

Sooner or later every discussion about the museum hits a wall of competing special interests. How will the Palestinian story be told, if at all? Will the Armenian genocide have as big an exhibit as the Holocaust? What about the starved Ukrainians? The Hutus and Tutsis? Homosexuals? Trans-sexuals? Trans-sexual homosexuals?

The museum proponents know these catfights are senseless, but they've chosen to stay silent and not correct any misconceptions.

Is it because the truth might be more controversial than the baseless speculation?

To start, purge any idea of a traditonal museum from your minds. The CMHR will only have one major permanent exhibit--on the Holocaust. Canada's Indian peoples have Favoured Victim Status with the museum, which entitles them to "historical exhibits around the perimeter of the structure."

The museum backers have said repeatedly that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is an "ideas museum."

"That is, a museum based on an intangible conceptual framework - an idea." is how Patrick O'Reilly, Chief Operating Officer of the CMHR, explained it to the Canadian Museums Association in March.

And how do you tell the story of an idea? With the most modern of bells and whistles.

"We don’t have a collection as one would normally expect from a museum. We will house some artefacts (sic), and we will from time to time seek to borrow others, but our stories will be told through narrative dialogue, through first person accounts, through memory and oral history."

"That means, among other things, that our collection will be predominantly digital."

You read that right. "Our collection will be predominantly digital."

"A journey through the museum will take visitors through more than 1 km of interactive experiences." says an article on

"One display will employ a gesture-responsive wall full of factual information that will work in a fashion similar to Nintendo Wii technology; with a simple swipe of the hand in the air, visitors will be able to turn virtual pages. Upon entering the museum, visitors will be given a “human rights key” that will provide a digital recollection of their experiences that they can later take home." gushed a Canwest story.

" may mean using social networking to bring strangers (or, as they're known on Facebook, new friends!) together in dialogue and debate. We want to encourage that sort of virtual interaction, along with technology facilitated interaction in the museum, to bring about shared understanding and learning," added O'Reilly.

"We intend to be both a traditional museum in a gorgeous new building built in Winnipeg, and a virtual museum housed on the internet." said O'Reilly.

"We also need to be FUN !" he declared. (emphasis, his.)

Fun. It's the latest thing in museums.

O'Reilly told his audience the CMHR is adopting the cutting-edge ideas of Jane McGonigal, an award winning designer of reality games. At a lecture given to the the Newseum in Washington in December (which you might still see here:
), she laid out her theory that museums in the 21st century need to become more like games to attract visitors and keep them coming back.

Here's how McGonigal herself described some of her ideas in a National Public Radio panel:

Ms. MCGONIGAL: When people show up at museums, can't we give them a mission or a goal? Can we give them feedback? Are there virtual honors that you can show to your friends online afterwards depending on what exhibit you were interacting with? Is there a better community that we could provide real-time interaction with other visitors?

The American Association of Museums website summarized her ground-breaking theories better than we can:

Why Should You Watch This Lecture?

Games are astoundingly popular and pervasive in American Society, capturing market share and attention at an ever-accelerating rate. Ninety-one percent of youth under age 19 play computer games, and this participation does not drop off as they age. The average age of a gamer is 35, and one in four gamers is more than 50.

Dr. McGonigal challenges us to consider:
What makes games so compelling, even addictive?
How can museums become experiences as engaging as games?
Given the vast number of hours millions of people invest in playing complex, online games, how can museums harness this creativity to give their audiences opportunities to contribute to advancing their missions?

Museums can learn and benefit from studying popular games because:
Games are museums’ competitors—vying for people’s increasingly scarce leisure time.
Games present an opportunity for museums to engage new audiences and interact in new ways with existing audiences.
Successful games can teach museums how to create experiences that are deeply satisfying.
Games may provide new ways for museums to have a profound impact on society if they are designed, as alternate reality games are, to change people’s real world behavior.

It's an exciting idea. It also explains how the CMHR intends to get return "visits" and why they stress the importance of on-line visits in the visitor count.

But is also raises the question: are we essentially building a high-end computer video game in a $265 million shell?

What connection does the digital museum have to the glass palace with its 300-foot spire?

They knew you were going to ask that eventually.

In March 2008 Arni Thorsteinson, then-chairman of the Advisory Committee on the CMHR, wrote the government saying what a wonderful idea it was. At the time Thorsteinson, who is now chairman of the board of trustees for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, addressed the question of architecture in a roundabout fashion by summarizing what others said about it:

"Some respondents placed importance on the building design as an essential component to the museum’s overall success. A grand, attractive and iconic structure could reflect the value and importance that Canada and Canadians place on human rights, and could serve as a source of pride. Some respondents have suggested that a powerful and dramatic building design has the potential to draw tourists to Winnipeg."

"At the same time, some respondents have cautioned against sacrificing content and flexibility for an iconic yet unworkable building design. There was a perception that final decisions have been made with respect to the building design and therefore some expressed concern and criticism that having a site and potential building design already chosen was tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. Others have been critical of the budgeted cost. Bold and creative architecture can be important in attracting visitors and providing a meaningful visitor experience. Indeed, museums around the world have embraced monumental architecture as a solution to many of their operating challenges. The disadvantage in doing so, however, is an unbalanced focus on the building often at the expense of programs and services."

We all know it was a foregone conclusion. The "iconic" design was in from the beginning and is still untouchable.

They're no longer claiming, as they did in 2006, that the museum is a surefire tourist attraction which would see 400,000 visitors a year. And obviously there's no connection between the design and the theme of the museum, although they tried their hardest. Just read this hallucinogenic explanation of the design. (Warning. Barf alert.)

"Human Rights International Design Competition, 2005
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Winner of Competition:
Antoine Predock Architect, PC, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Other Finalists:
Dan Hanganu Architects & the Arcop Group of Montreal, Canada
Saucier + Perrotte Architectes, Montreal, Canada
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is rooted in humanity, making visible in the architecture the fundamental commonality of humankind-a symbolic apparition of ice, clouds and stone set in a field of sweet grass.
Carved into the earth and dissolving into the sky on the Winnipeg horizon, the abstract ephemeral wings of a white dove embrace a mythic stone mountain of 450 million year old Tyndall limestone in the creation of a unifying and timeless landmark for all nations and cultures of the world.

The Journey through the museum parallels an epic journey through life. Visitors enter the museum between the Roots, protective stone arms suggestive of an ancient geological event. Clutching the earth, the roots are calibrated to block northern and northwestern winds and celebrate the sun, with apertures marking paths of equinox and solstice. Containing the essential public interface functions of the museum, the Roots create a framework for ceremonial outdoor events with roof terraces and amphitheater seating.

The journey begins with a descent into the earth, a symbolic recognition of the earth as the spiritual center for many indigenous cultures. Arriving at the heart of the building, the Great Hall. Carved from the earth, the archaeologically rich void of the Great Hall evokes the memory of ancient gatherings at the Forks of First Nations peoples, and later, settlers and immigrants.

Like a mirage within the Museum, the Garden of Contemplation is Winnipeg’s Winter Garden. Basalt columns emerge from the top surface of the timeless granite monolith. Water and medicinal plants define space and suggest content. The First Nations sacred relationship to water is honored, as a place of healing and solace amidst reflections of earth and sky. The space of the Garden functions as a purifying “lung” reinforcing the fundamental environmental ethic, which grounds the building.

The journey culminates in an ascent of the Tower of Hope, with controlled view release to panoramic views of sky, city and the natural realm. Glacial in its timelessness, the Tower of Hope is a beacon for humanity. Symbolic of changes in the physical state of water, material and form, it speaks to the life affirming hope for positive changes in humanity. An allusion to the vaporous state of water, the Cloud, houses the functional support of the Museum. With strong overlaps to the visitor experience, the cloud is envisioned as light filled and buoyant, in marked contrast to the geologic evocation of the Roots and Stone Galleries, providing a visible reminder from the exterior, in tandem with the Tower, of the power and necessity of hope and tolerance. "

What, then, is the connection between the $265 million building and the $35 million museum?

Gail Asper.

To her this isn't just another project.

It's her idea of public service.

Millionaires don't have to concern themselves with those trifling matters that plague little people---will the overflowing garbage bins be picked up before the kids set the mattresses on fire; can my children go out to play without being victimized by gangs; will my house be peppered with bullets in the next drive-by shooting?

Millionaires get to think about big things.

Vision. World peace. Global Warming. Human Rights.

But millionaires need complete freedom for their activist endeavours. They can't be bothered with grubby politics, what with all those rules, and freedom-of-information demands, and persnicketly unschooled fools second-guessing you every minute.

So when Gail Asper sets out to change the world with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, its got to be done with panache, with the proper architectural flare that bureaucrats and wage-earning moneygrubbers can't understand. And with complete freedom.

No government interference or even influence.

No freedom-of-information requests to be filled out.
And with other peoples money.

"Technology can be dismissed as smoke and mirrors, as the flavour of the month, and it would be easy to assume that it will be mothballed as soon as the fads pass. We have to assume some risk in trying these new technologies but Museums can become valued resources for schools, in part through our leadership in implementing new technologies and using the web." said O'Reilly.

Who's taking that risk? Pardon us if we think it's the taxpayer who's paying the freight.

The CMHR, as O'Reilly says, clearly has a mission: to instill a sense of activism in children.

"We see strong links through formal education, and this is where we will engage educators in curriculum development and where we’ll tie in a student travel program that will engage students in preparatory studies at home, a trip to the museum and a contributory project in their community upon their return. "
But isn't the next obvious question, what direction will the CMHR be pointing these little human rights crusaders?

"Our goal isn’t to find the truth, nor to present “the story”; rather it involves bringing many people together, challenging all to think differently, and to consider other points of view." O'Reilly said in his speech.


What do we find in the museum's own bumpf?

In the very beginning of the 7 stages of the museum we find:

1. Aboriginal Rights (Exterior)
On the exterior of the theatre are Aboriginal sayings that express concepts of community, co-existence, respect and modes of governance.
The other side of the structure displays the titles of treaties between Aboriginal peoples and the British Crown and Canadian government.
Historical exhibits around the perimeter of the structure let visitors explore Aboriginal history and the struggle to regain rights that were lost.

That's funny. Aren't we told that the museum isn't out to present any "truths" and all sides of contentious issues will be presented fairly and evenly?

It's starting to look like the museum's promises of fairness are as credible as their budget projections.

Let's say it again: what, exactly, are we getting for $310 million?

Education or indoctrination?

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