The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) opened its doors to the world in the autumn of 2014.Since that time, visitors have journeyed through 11 galleriesof core exhibitions – watching films, playing games, reading texts, observing artefacts, being immersed in mixed-media environments, engaging in discussion with hosts and other visitors, participating in public programs, and contributing their stories, perspectives, and impressions to the museum and its other visitors. Over that period, the museum staff have been undergoing the transition from project to operations, understanding the practical implications of noble ambitions and museological due diligence, and evolving their day-to-day practices.
The CMHR is a nationalmuseum charged with preserving Canadian heritage, under Canada’s Museums Act. Its mandate is to explore the subject of human rights, with 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. Preserving and exhibiting an intangible, globally relevant,and contemporary subject matter, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has many opportunities to be innovative in bothmuseum practice and presentation, and to thereby affect meaningful engagement of its audience, now and in the future.
An early initiative of the CMHR saw the creation of a Canada-wide public engagement program. Visiting 19 cities across the country to engage in facilitated conversations as to what the people of Canada expected of a national human rights museum, set the museum on a methodological path that persists today. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is not a museum that simply presents its subject to the audience. It is a museum that engages its audience in dialogue. Rather than the museum simply informing the visitor, here the museum informs the visitor, the visitor informs the museum, and the visitors inform one another using the museum as a venue. This is a simple, yet fundamental premise of the museum’s experience design that sets course for not only exhibition and program development, but for collection and preservation as well.
Across the 4700 square meters of core exhibition space, the museum presents approximately 300 3D artefacts. This is a relatively low number compared to most museums of similar size. That is because the CMHR’s definition of“artefact” is specifically narrow. Many museums collect artefacts and then deliver stories as to their significance. At the CMHR, the opposite is in practice. The artefacts here are the stories themselves. They are intangible and in most cases have been born digitally. Rather than collect a 3D artefact and deliver stories about it, the museum collects the story and exhibits it through a variety of design tactics and devices – digital, physical, artefact, facsimile, game, environmental design, scenography, etc. The experience design is also mixed – passive, active, immersive, and interactive – to vary the experience and ensure a balance in cognitive and physical spends on the part of the visitor.
When it comes to exhibition design, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has been internationally recognized for its digital innovation and its inclusive design methodology. In practice, the museum has leveraged its modular and scalable infrastructure to be as changeable and adaptable as possible. This has provided the canvass upon which the museum teams can explore storytelling and ensure a high potential for personal relevance amongst visitors. The CMHR’s approach to storytelling is transmedial and inclusive. For example, withthe exhibition “Weaving a Better Future”, it is not the 3D artefact and label that deliver the story. It is the artefact and label, in concert with the documentary photo and text, the built scenography and environmental design, the touchable, tactile recreation of the artefact, and the immersive, 360° virtual reality, 1st-person storytelling (complete with captions, described tracks, and text-to-speech) that creates the completely accessible, and rich presentation of the story. The storytelling, delivered transmedia, provides not only a variety of entry points to the content, but various interpretive opportunities for engagement, extends the storytelling beyond the run of the physical exhibition, and is accessible to audiences of varying abilities both in-situ and online. The dialogue that is encouraged is wide, broad, and not restricted by traditional constraints of geographic location,nor narrow, individual access preferences or needs. The resulting dialogue is all the richer, due to the dynamic and varied perspectives that have been stimulated.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is not the first museum to collect intangible heritage, however its opportunity to construct a collection built upon an Oral History program is one that can serve future generations by capturing the dialogue of this contemporary, and often difficult subject matter, as it happens. Exhibiting this content through dialogic and participatory exhibition design, and through facilitated public programming, then ensures it provokes further contemplation and response, ever rolling the scenario of informed museum, and informed visitor perspective, forward.
These approaches have not been without their challenges. Crafting, editing, updating, and re-approving of the Collections Policy has been an ongoing endeavor in an effort to achieve balance and fit. Storytelling through digital media and emerging technologies provides not only opportunity for engagement, but requires strict attention on appropriateness of the medium in congruency with the story being told. These challenges and more are reflective of the ambition upon which the museum was established. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a museum built on dialogue, whose exhibitions and programs encourage dialogue, and that ventures to collect and preserve dialogue. Dialogue is dynamic, reciprocal, and relative to the context in which is it being expressed. The challenges and opportunities faced and embraced by the CMHR are just as rich and complex as the subject of human rights itself.Receiving the Soft Power Destinations Award is a recognition of this practice put in place. The social and economic impacts of a museum built on dialogue, for dialogue, have resonated immediately. As the museum continues to find its operational equilibrium, the expectation is that those impacts will only grow in perpetuity.
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