Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Create a compelling museum experience when few physical artifacts exist.
Tell the story of human rights using stunning audiovisual displays throughout the museum.
Opened in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) explores “the subject of human rights with a special but not exclusive reference to Canada, in order to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue,” says the Canadian Act of Parliament that made the CMHR a national museum.
To say the least, it’s an ambitious goal.
“Beyond the sheer story-telling aspect of explaining the story of human rights, the CMHR is unique among museums due to the scarcity of physical artifacts related to this topic,” explains Corey Timpson, the CMHR’s Director of Exhibitions and Digital Media. “A typical museum of similar size might have about 5,000 artifacts to work with. We have about 300.”
Adding to the challenge was the fact that the innovative building has few right angles and has seven levels, interconnected by bridges and ramps that rise to a central observation tower, moving symbolically from darkness into light.
The lack of artifacts and an opportunity to use a variety of story-telling techniques convinced Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA) to populate the CMHR’s galleries and public spaces with audiovisual presentations. “Our mission was to vividly communicate the struggles and achievements of attaining human rights,” says RAA’s Josh Dudley, who served as the CMHR Project Manager. “The shortage of artifacts and the fact that we are working within an eccentric building without a single, conventional right-angled wall, convinced us that AV was the way to go.”
The Power of AV Theaters
The CMHR has to grab and hold visitors’ attention throughout its 55,000 square feet. One way it achieves this is through AV-anchored theaters located throughout the facility. The first gallery that visitors encounter at the CMHR is on open-air theater dedicated to address the question, “What are human rights?”
“This theater gets guests thinking about the complexity of human rights, using an immersive multimedia show of people sharing their ideas on the subject,” says Dan Laspa, Project Manager for integrator Electrosonic. “The video is shown on a scrim using three ceiling-mounted, edge-blended projectors. There are artifacts behind the scrim that also become visible from time to time through a synchronized lighting program, to punctuate the presentation.”
In contrast, the Indigenous Perspectives gallery focuses on Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples’ concepts of rights and responsibilities, based on their philosophies that everyone and everything are interrelated. The gallery’s presentation takes place in a circular theater of curved, wooden slats, projected on a 360-degree screen over viewers’ heads. “We use a video experience that wraps around the guests, to immerse them in what is being said by the native speakers onscreen,” Timpson says. The effect is achieved using six edge-blended projectors, with a seventh on hand for special presentations.
The Canadian Journeys gallery features another powerhouse AV experience. The largest gallery in the museum, Canadian Journeys serves as a walk-through theater in which visitors explore Canadian human rights stories, from democratic and language rights, to freedom of conscience and freedom from discrimination. “We use four video projectors and a two-story tall, 95-foot wide digital canvas that covers the gallery’s three walls to show stills and video stories,” Laspa says.
As powerful as large AV theaters can be, their visual experiences are largely passive: Visitors watch the rich, compelling content rather than take part. To augment the experience, the CMHR has numerous touch panels in its theaters, smaller “story niches” rooms and “study carrels” throughout the museum. “Touchscreens let people interact with the content and get more involved,” Timpson says. “They provide a degree of activity that keeps visitors engaged.”
The CMHR gets innovative with its interactive touchscreens, as in the case of a digital “study table” in the museum’s Breaking the Silence gallery. Composed of 12 55-inch touchscreens with ultrathin bezels, arranged to create a flat table stretching 27 feet long, the study table can support up to 24 users (two per screen) at a time. Each user can access graphics, text and photos related to human atrocities committed around the world. And the table features universal-access keypads, which allow vision-impaired guests to explore content using a bilingual text-to-speech interface. When visitors are not accessing content, the table is a touch-sensitive world map, with an event time line and animated interface.
“We have also developed in-gallery video games to explore the topic of bullying,” Timpson says. “This is a format that visitors are very comfortable with — especially kids — and it is an effective way to get them thinking about the issue.”
Sound Also Matters
Audio is a key element of an exceptional AV experience, especially in a multimedia-driven attraction like the CMHR. SH Acoustics was charged with designing the CMHR’s sound systems, which was no easy task.
“We had to work within these angular spaces, keeping echoes and sound bleed-through to a minimum,” says Steve Haas, SH Acoustics’ President and Principal Consultant.
The CMHR’s open architecture also posed challenges. “Standing on the first floor you can see exhibits on the fifth floor,” Haas explains. “In developing audio strategies and acoustic treatments, we had to keep in mind the porosity of the building.”
The layout of the various video installations also shaped SH Acoustics’ audio design. A case in point: The Indigenous Perspectives 360-degree theater created a wraparound visual experience, so Haas opted to do the same for the audio. Instead of just pumping audio from the side of the theater, he hung 6-inch speakers behind the screens and aimed them down at the audience. He also specified compact subwoofers for under the theater’s bench seating, a little extra seat-of-the-pants punch.
“I also created computer-modeled, acoustic shaping to the circular walls to avoid focusing sound when live narrators stand in the middle and become part of the program,” Haas says.
Exceptional Experiences in Action
Telling human rights stories in a compelling-yet-sensitive manner is tricky. So is the task of telling these stories with few artifacts. But the results speak for themselves: A survey of CMHR guests by Quoros Consulting found that 94 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with their experience.
“With the combination of our compelling content, our creatively-designed AV displays, and our unique architectural space, we are truly delivering exceptional experiences to our guests,” says CMHR’s Corey Timpson. “We are proof that effective story-telling, aided by effective AV, can offset a lack of physical artifacts at a museum.”
Electrosonic’s AV/IT installation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights includes audiovisual and IT systems from many different manufacturers, including but not limited to:
Atlona (HDMI/serial signal extenders)
Biamp (DSP equipment)
Brightsign (digital signage player/monitor)
Chief (monitor mounts)
Dataton (edge blenders)
Elo Touch Solutions (touchscreens)
Innovox Audio (speakers)
James Loudspeaker (subwoofers)
By James Careless, Special to InfoComm International®