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National Post | 19Sep2013 | Jonathan Kay

Human rights on the menu

Apparently, nothing arouses the taste for “fresh, locally sourced food” quite like a few hours spent learning about history’s greatest genocides. Or so one might surmise from an odd press release circulated this week by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg.

“Visitors with an appetite for human rights will also get a taste of Manitoba, in the world’s most stunning new travel destination,” enthused CMHR president and CEO Stuart Murray. “The restaurant will be a new offering for Winnipeggers and an enticement to visitors.”

In the past, I’ve expressed some skepticism about the massively expensive, government-subsidized CMHR project: The museum’s scale makes sense only if it attracts many hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. But Winnipeg is not yet an internationally recognized destination for high-concept attractions. Moreover, it remains an open question whether even Canadian visitors will get on a plane to see exhibits that are by turns earnest (the Canadian Charter of Rights) and horribly depressing (the Rwandan genocide).

But even if these problems can be surmounted, the tenor of this week’s press release gives a taste of the awkwardness that attends the museum’s marketing efforts. On one hand, given the subject matter and the respect owed to the victims of the acts of slaughter described in the museum, a trip to the CMHR is expected to be an occasion drenched in solemnity. Yet at the same time, local Manitoba officials seem eager to capitalize on the CMHR as an attraction that can help burnish the local brand -- like a music festival or sports team.

Indeed, anyone who reads the chipper press release can be forgiven for wondering whether the menu will feature crimes-against-humanity-themed entrées and appetizers.

Human rights is a hard sell as a museum theme. And if it is to succeed at all, the project’s marketing must reflect the spirit of the project. Otherwise, there seems little chance that Canadian taxpayers are going to get any sort of return on their Winnipeg investment.

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Delphicore: 19Sep2013
As magnificent as this new structure may be and as poignant as is the message that it seeks to convey the concept is almost certain to collapse in failure. As Kay fairly points out, the problem is not just that Winnipeg is off the beaten path but that the subject matter of its exhibits is something most people - mindful of their digestion - would rather not see. Which is not to say that Winnipeg is not a deserving city and human rights not a deserving subject, but if the government is intent upon spending 100s of millions of dollars - precious taxpayers' dollars - one must always hope they will do it in a way that will garner the biggest bang for the buck. The sad truth is that after an initial honeymoon flush this museum will have empty corridors which, without the obligatory school visits, will be a virtual morgue. The money should not have been spent. Oddly the project was approved not by the former Liberal government as a favour to museum's founder - the old Liberal war horse Izzy Asper - but rather by Stephen Harper who surely must have got away with it only because it did have a Liberal sponsor. By contrast, Harper, try as he might, was not able to spring any money loose for Canada's greatest pastime when public opprobrium forced him to abandon gifting any money towards Quebec city's new "NHL" sports arena. Maybe things are getting better after all.