As Canadian Museum for Human Rights celebrates 5th year, CEO highlights 3 of its most powerful exhibits

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg is celebrating five years, and to mark the occasion, the museum's CEO has written a guide book reflecting on the galleries and displays that have had an impact on visitors.

New guide book offers director's tour of Winnipeg museum from CEO and president John Young

John Young, president and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, talks about the new guide book he authored about the galleries at the national museum. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg is marking a milestone anniversary by offering a tour of the national museum — courtesy of its president and CEO.

The museum — which became the first national museum in Canada outside of the nation's capital region when it opened in September 2014 — is celebrating its fifth year.

John Young, who has been the president and CEO of the museum for four of those years, doesn't usually give tours.

When he does, it's because a notable dignitary or celebrity is visiting the museum. One such occasion was when former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was in Winnipeg in 2017.

It's that experience that helped him write the new "director's tour" guide book for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

"This is an opportunity for me to just share the experience that I have on a regular basis as ambassadors, government officials, visitors, old friends come to the museum," said Young, who was approached by Scala Publishers to write the CMHR guide as part of their series of director's tour books.

Young says the guide book is intended to serve as a reminder for visitors of the many stories depicted in the galleries after they leave the museum. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"I was able to write it down and share pictures and thoughts and experiences that we've had over the last four and a half years at the museum."

Young shares his perspective on the museum, and while it doesn't cover all the CMHR has to offer, it does touch on the exhibits Young says resonate with visitors.

"Some of the exhibits or stories that are embedded in the museum connect with my own personal experiences," said Young.

"I like to share stories that reflect our mission and mandate, which is to explore dialogue and reflection on human rights themes."

While Young says there are thousands of stories within the museum, here are three displays he says have made an impact on him and visitors:

Trace in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery

Young describes Trace, by artist Rebecca Belmore, as "a phenomenal piece." The display by the Anishnaabe artist features thousands of hand-formed clay beads strung together to create a giant hanging blanket.

"This is one of the most meaningful ones that we do have," said Young. "I love to share this with visitors and highlight what it represents or means."

Belmore used clay from the Red River to create the piece, and invited thousands of people to leave impressions of their fingerprints on the beads.

Indigenous Perspectives at CMHR

3 years ago
Duration 0:57
Artist Rebecca Belmore created the art piece "Trace" from thousands of beads made from Red River clay.

The story of Viola Desmond

Young says the museum's display dedicated to Viola Desmond is one of his favourites. Desmond, featured on the new $10 bill, is the Black Nova Scotian who fought racial segregation when she sat in the section of a New Glasgow theatre reserved for white people in 1946.

Young says he was surprised how many people weren't familiar with Desmond's story, and that helped him realize the importance of the CMHR's exhibit in helping Canadians learn about our history.

"I was with a Grade 8 class visiting, and just about 20 metres away, a young woman saw this exhibit," said Young. "She turned to me with excitement in her voice and said, 'Is that Rosa Parks?'"

Parks is an American activist best known for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. 

Young explained that Desmond's stand against segregation happened years earlier than that.

Viola Desmond: Fighting racial segregation

3 years ago
Duration 0:31
Nova Scotia woman who took a stand against racial segregation featured on Canada's new $10 bill.

The new $10 bill featuring Desmond was unveiled at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The museum is featured on the back of the bill.

'Examining The Holocaust' through the eyes of a boxer

The museum's fourth floor is dedicated to one of history's most horrific human rights atrocities. The "Examining The Holocaust" exhibit takes a closer look at how Germany's Nazi government deprived people of their rights.

In particular, Young talks about the story of Johann "Rukeli" Trollmann, a German boxing champion who was of Sinti Romani heritage. He was arrested and interred in concentration camps, where he died at age 35.

Young says Trollmann's story is one of those in the gallery that gives an account of the human rights violations during the Holocaust.

"It's a small story that a lot of people don't know," says Young.  "It's a fundamental human rights story and connects a variety of different experiences. A story that needs to be known."

Johann Trollmann: Stories from the Holocaust

3 years ago
Duration 1:04
German boxer's story gives an account of the human rights violations during the Holocaust.

Young says the new guide book is intended to be a reminder to people about the importance of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and to give those who have visited a chance to reflect on the stories in it when they return home.

The museum has new exhibitions on the horizon, Young said, and is looking forward to the next five years and beyond.

"We've only scratched the surface of all the stories that need to be told. So we will always have new stories to share."

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights Director's Tour book is available through the museum's store and on its website.


Marjorie Dowhos is the host of CBC Manitoba's Radio Noon. She is an RTNDA award-winning reporter. Marjorie joined CBC Manitoba in 2010. Prior to that, she was an anchor, reporter and video journalist in Thunder Bay, Ont., Medicine Hat, Alta., Fort McMurray, Alta., and Fort St. John, B.C. Marjorie is also the host of the CBC podcast Jets Stream.


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