If the word “museum” makes you think of dusty displays, brass plaques and droning tour guides, you’ve never visited the heart-stopping, mind-expanding places on our list. All are guaranteed to shake, awaken and maybe even bring you to tears. But don’t just take our word for it.


Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Canadian Museum for Human RightsCanadian Museum for Human Rights

The world’s first museum dedicated to human rights, this bold geometric building with its roof of waving prairie grass dominates the Winnipeg cityscape. Its central features are the Tower of Hope, which forms a beacon for better days ahead and the Glass Cloud, comprised of 1,335 custom-cut pieces of glass, with no two exactly alike – a metaphor for the thousands of unique stories of human tragedy and triumph housed inside.

Twelve galleries of exhibits and social commentary on world issues pose the question: what are our human rights and why must we defend them? While all exhibits are fascinating, perhaps the most poignant for Canadian visitors addresses residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In the words of a Canadian traveller: 

“Even though some of the stories are depressing, it’s not a sad place – in fact, I left feeling hopeful. I love the architecture, inside and out, and appreciate that Indigenous peoples were consulted about the building. The most impressive aspects are the massive oral history recordings accessible not just to scholars but also to the average Joe. The wall art is hugely impressive but what I’ll always remember are the stories of the residential schools and their legacy, and of course, the Tower of Hope.”

- Cathy Senecal, Winnipeg

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration

Montgomery, Alabama

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass IncarcerationEqual Justice InstituteThe Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass IncarcerationEqual Justice Institute

Built on the site of a former slave warehouse, this 1,022-square-metre “narrative museum” uses a wide variety of videography, exhibits, sculptures and powerful interactive media to bring to life the sounds, sights and emotions of everything from the Jim Crow South to centuries of domestic slavery to the world’s largest prison system. Founded on the belief that, “The United States has done very little to acknowledge the legacy of slavery, lynching and racial segregation,” The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration challenges visitors to acknowledge, remember and find better ways to move forward.

In the words of a Canadian traveller: 

“The entire museum is well done, but a few sections I found particularly moving. Phone booths virtually connect you to prisoners telling the story of how they ended up incarcerated. It’s a really powerful way to understand some of the systemic discrimination that makes some paths to prison more likely for certain people, while humanizing them as well. I also thought the display that shows bottles of dirt from places where African-Americans were lynched but their bodies were never recovered was incredibly powerful. And of course, the lynching memorial, where the further you walk into the memorial the more you feel you’re bearing witness to the hanging bodies above you. It’s heartbreaking. My son Cameron was 13 when we went. His response essentially boiled down to "'How could anyone treat anyone this way?'"

- Heather Greenwood Davis, Toronto

National Gallery of Canada

Ottawa, Ontario

National Gallery of CanadaNational Gallery of Canada

It’s challenging to showcase not only the greatest Canadian art, but also a representative sampling from the best of the rest of the world. The National Gallery of Canada does a superb job. Home to a significant collection of both historical and contemporary Canadian works, it also offers a stunning collection of 14th- to 21st-century European art. Whether your taste runs to American, Asian or Indigenous art, you’ll discover it here.

In the words of a Canadian traveller: 

“The National Gallery’s forté is its collection of Canadian Art, especially Tom Thomson, Group of Seven (Canada’s national wallpaper) and post-modern. In 2017, the Gallery rehung its whole collection so that Indigenous art is integrated with Western influenced art and it’s fascinating to see a beautiful hand-carved canoe in the middle of a gallery of Group of Seven paintings. It’s so appropriate because those artists often travelled to their plein air painting sites by canoe. The sophistication of contemporary Indigenous works, by artists such as Brian Jungen, Kent Monkman and Alex Javier, is breath-taking.”

- Charlotte Gray and George Anderson, Ottawa

9/11 Memorial & Museum

New York City, NY

9/11 Memorial & Museum

A memorial to those who lost their lives on 9/11 as well as in its aftermath, this museum is divided into three sections featuring photos and exhibits that explore the events of 9/11 itself, and the days before and after. Visitors absorb the tragic stories of the terrorist attacks in New York City, at the Pentagon, on Flight 93, as well as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. 

In the words of a Canadian traveller: 

“I think, for me, the individual stories were the most moving; reading about lives disrupted. The people, whether business professionals or first responders, who got up that morning and just went to work and lost their lives - and the ripple effect that had on their families and ultimately, their city. The museum also evoked a sense of deja vu, of being back in that time and place. I wasn't in NYC on 9/11, but it took me back to that moment." 

- Tim Johnson Peterborough, ON

Canadian War Museum

Ottawa, Ontario

Canadian War MuseumCanadian War Museum

War, ultimately, is about the people touched by it. The Canadian War Museum’s outstanding collection of exhibition galleries is a moving exploration of all those involved, from the front lines to the home front. The Canadian Experience Galleries use multi-media tools to introduce visitors to some of the world’s finest military relics including artillery, rare medals, personal memoires, photographs, vehicles and more – over three million individual specimens. What is most moving, however, are the sounds and visual recordings that provide echoes of a war-torn past and remind us of the need for peace in the future.

In the words of a Canadian traveller: 

"As a little girl, I knew that my father had been a medical officer in the Second World War, but it wasn’t until I visited the Canadian War Museum that I understood the horror, loss, tragedy and yet profound pride that combined to form his, and our country’s, experience of war. It’s a moving reminder to stand in the museum’s Memorial Hall where the headstone of Canada’s Unknown Soldier has been carefully positioned by architect Raymond Moriyama to capture the light at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.” 

-Liz Fleming, St. Catharines

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington, D.C.

National Museum of African American History and CultureAlan Karchmer

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest Smithsonian museum, opened in September 2016. A clever concentric circular design offers an experiential introduction to the culture of African-Americans and those originally brought to the United States against their will. From the lives of slaves to the election of the first black U.S. president, to soul, jazz and hip-hop, to the “Black is Beautiful” movement and #BlackLivesMatter, this museum is an immersion in the changing realities of black life in America.

In the words of a Canadian traveller: 

“The thing that's stayed with me is the exhibit on the bottom floor. One curatorial note mentioned the psychological effect of being kidnapped on West Africans. As soon as I read that, I realized every other exhibit I'd seen on slavery treated it as a phenomenon, a piece of history, an era. Not one had considered the people before they were slaves. The fact is, before being kidnapped - and that’s what it was, kidnapping - they were people, individuals, who would react to such outrages the way anyone would.”

- Bert Archer, Toronto