People were talking about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights long before it opened last year to equal amounts of fanfare and criticism. After all, it was hard not to talk about the Antoine Predock-designed structure, which has variously been described as a “bulky gyre of glass, limestone, steel and concrete,” an “impressive oddity of a building,” “the Mirabel Airport of Canadian museums,” a “prairie campfire” and, in a reference to the glass panels that cover much of its exterior, “a Darth Vaderesque cape wrapped around a Gumby-headed sasquatch.”
Here, Christina Stokes, a senior program interpreter with the museum who runs a tour of the building’s architectural features, explains some of the elements and symbolism of Canada’s newest national museum.
I usually start the tour with what the meaning of the building is. It’s quite abstract, and you don’t know exactly what it’s supposed to look like right away. The panes of glass on the outside are meant to symbolize the wings of a dove, the international symbol for peace. From the outside, a lot of people think it looks like a German [army] helmet. Some people think it looks like hands wrapped together. Kids usually say it looks like water. Before I knew what it was meant to symbolize, I thought it looked like a globe.
There are four parts to the museum, all of which are meant to be connected to the Canadian landscape. We start in “the roots,” [the blocks that help form the museum’s base] which look like a claw sticking out of the ground, and are very dark. Predock’s vision was that you’d start your journey in darkness and move to light. The roots are meant to symbolize the tall prairie grasses. Then we have “the cloud” [the panes of glass], which is meant to resemble glaciers. Then we move on to “the mountain,” [clad in Manitoba Tyndall limestone] which contains and “protects” all seven levels of the gallery spaces and is meant to bring to mind the Rocky Mountains. Finally, there’s the Tower of Hope, which is meant to evoke structures such as the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, but when it’s lit up at night, it’s also meant to look like a beacon of light in the prairie landscape.
It was a very difficult project. They had to use 3D design and modelling to make sure all the pieces from all over the world — glass from Germany, steel and limestone from Canada, alabaster from Spain, basalt from Mongolia — all fit together when the building was constructed. The best place to see the intersection of all these pieces is in the Garden of Contemplation. A garden isn’t something you expect to see in a museum, in the middle of the gallery spaces, but it’s a space for people to discuss what they’ve seen.
Another main feature is the alabaster ramps, which have more than 900 metres of LED lights running through them. The ramps are there for accessibility, of course, but there’s symbolism in them, too. Alabaster was used in healing containers in ancient Greece, and the ramps give people a break as they walk from gallery to gallery and learn about some of the positive and less positive stories the museum tells. The ramps are also meant to look like a ribbon of light, so again, that idea of taking you from darkness to light.