Tuesday, 7 October 2014

HIGH-TECH HUMAN RIGHTS?

TECHNOLOGY TUESDAYS

BY: JENNY FORD

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is not your typical museum experience. Sure you’ll see the regular text panels and artifacts, but a major component of the Winnipeg museum, which opened its doors on Sept. 20, is technology.

“We don’t just use technology as a hook, it’s about how we can best present the story that’s being told,” says Corey Timpson, director of exhibitions and digital media at the CMHR.

The 11-gallery museum has six theatre spaces, two soundscapes, a three-storey-high media projection, touch tables and interactive games, to name a few of the highlights. In the Canadian Journeys gallery alone there are 19 mix-media installations.

Visitors use touch screens in a gallery.
Visitors use touch screens in the Protecting Rights gallery.
The CMHR has been called an “ideas museum,” which leads technology to be a natural fit for allowing visitors to engage with different human rights concepts and access information in multiple ways, says Timpson.

“Human rights is a concept. If you compare other history museums or science museums or art galleries, ours is this really broad concept,” says Timpson. “Technology allows us the ability to be changeable. Changing a panel or a physical installation is expensive and changing the content digitally allows us to remain current with the domain and with the subject matter itself.”

Interactive games and touch tables are just some of the methods the museum uses. Role playing video games in the Actions Count gallery allow visitors to start their own virtual anti-bullying campaign, for example. The Breaking the Silence gallery features a giant 24-user touch table where visitors learn about different atrocities, such as the Rwandan Genocide and trans-Atlantic slave trade. A 360-degree theatre features a film about indigenous rights and responsibilities.

“Form and function and story really mesh well in this case,” describes Timpson about the 360-degree theatre. “It really does a good job of putting the visitor in a scenario to easily accept the message that’s being told.”

Visitors use an interactive floor game.
The "Lights of Inclusion" game in the Canadian Journeys gallery.
However, the most innovative technology at the CMHR is completely out of view from visitors, says Timpson. Be it a video, a touch table or website content, an enterprise content management system allows museum staff to update programs and content without having to install brand new displays or software. This is a first in museums, says Timpson.

“It means we can have a curator, researcher, or program staff sit at a computer and update that interface and publish it directly to that end point,” he says.

This not only allows the museum's content to stay fresh in a fast-changing digital world, but also allows them to update technology without starting from scratch.

“When it comes to maintenance and evolution of our technological landscape, we can actually deal with things, take a piece out and put a new piece in,” says Timpson.

Visitors look at a linear projection featuring pictures of houses.
Visitors look at one of the museum's many linear media projections.
Accessibility is another consideration incorporated in the technology. The museum’s design team developed a universal keypad so visitors with visual impairments, physical disabilities, or hearing loss can adjust volume, have images described, or interact with the touch tables.

The museum also incorporates Bluetooth technology so museumgoers with visual impairments can have text panels, images and artifacts described to them using a mobile program as they move through the museum.

“We think of the needs of everyone at the outset and that drives our design solutions,” says Timpson.

Only four of the 11 galleries are currently open to the public. The rest will see their first visitors on Nov. 11. Technology plays a crucial role in all spaces, says Timpson, and makes learning about human rights accessible to everyone.

“Technology is a facilitator of the dialogue and of meaningful experiences,” he says.

4 comments:

  1. The CMHR has been a source of both interest and contention for a while now, but I think it's important to reflect on how radical and innovative the museum is trying to be. Perhaps all the 'rights' we talk about are meaningless unless they entail the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large. If it's a human right to be radical and innovative, then let us start in our museums.

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    1. While it is clear from this post that the CMHR is trying to be innovative through technology, I am wary about your claim that the human rights being addressed are meaningless unless we are allowed to engage with them through “deeply disturbing questions” that may provocatively challenge the beliefs of our society. I’d like to draw to our attention that the CMHR, as of yet, is seemingly not going to engage with those questions that challenge our ‘Canadian’ belief systems. For instance, there was the very factual comment in a blog post for the CMHR on International Women’s Day (http://musingsmmst.blogspot.ca/2014/03/tuesday-news-day-censorship-in-canadas.html) that was subsequently censored. Also, would the museum actually engage with Harper’s loyal support for Israel, in respect to the Israeli-Palestinian apartheid and particularly the recent events in Gaza? Would there be an exhibit interrogating the increasing rate of missing and murdered of Aboriginal women? I also am aware of an instance of censorship in respect to LGBTQ politics. Therefore, do you think that the CMHR is in fact enabling this radical and innovative mode? Furthermore, I am curious about your argument to start such modes in museums. What makes museums particularly suitable to this (not that I necessarily disagree), and how, historically and permeating the present, have they been prevented from this? Is it possible within such nationalistic, identitarian cultural institutions?

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  2. Thanks for sharing this Jennifer! I am particularly interested in the ability for staff to access the CMS and update content themselves. This is an incredibly innovative solution to the many challenges of understaffed and overworked web departments.

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  3. Jenny, a very interesting account on technology and museums. I really liked how you talked about technology as a mediator between visitors and the very abstract concept of human rights. And merging curatorial practices with technology also means a new set of skills for the future tech-curator! Exciting things!

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