Carmen Gloria Quintana was 18 years old when was doused with gasoline and burned alive for attending a protest against the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1986. This was the story that unfolded before me as I held a tablet up to an arpillera, a Chilean piece of patchwork historically used for personal testimony and storytelling. Triggering augmented reality, the tablet displays points of significance against the images of the arpillera, revealing more than may have been initially understood from simply looking at the piece.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is an unconventional museum; not so much known for its artifacts, but the ability to move visitors through means of storytelling. This effect is at least, partly due, to the incredible technological advances that the museum made from its inception. Starting from the ground up, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights had the unique opportunity to become a trailblazer in the realm of technology. That effort culminated in three key area; Immersive storytelling, inclusion and accessibility and meaningful interaction.

3 reasons why the technology at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is ahead of its class

Immersive storytelling

Technology at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Can the tradition of oral history, storytelling and technology mix? Absolutely. In a museum based around a single idea, technology serves as a tool for storytelling, providing depth to each area of human rights, even in the absence of artifacts.

Wandering through the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and reading simply what is before you is only skimming the surface. On your next visit, I challenge you to delve deeper into the technology available in each gallery. The digital aspects placed in the museum hold a breadth of information that simply wouldn’t be able to fit on a plaque or wall display. The physicality of a gallery or exhibit (example; a display or artifact) is intended to draw a visitor in, peak curiosity and compel them to discover more via technology. The technological applications found throughout the museum are simply another means of presenting the content, especially when the topic at hand (human rights) is constantly evolving. Technology makes it easier for curators to adapt and change the museum’s content when required.

The Examining the Holocaust gallery is only one example of many that uses technology to create an impact through storytelling, with screens playing oral histories and personal testimonies of survivors and witnesses. The video content in this gallery is, first and foremost, a valuable primary source to be preserved, while also serving as a particularly poignant means of communicating and teaching.

Many other galleries in the museum mirror this effect – with multilayered video, photos and audio that bring the subjects of the stories told to life.

Inclusion and accessibility

Often times, it is only those who need it or look for it who notice accessible design. This was certainly the case for me as I embarked on a tour through the museum to find out why the CMHR was truly a pioneer for accessible museum design – a topic I had not previously considered, but quickly had my eyes opened to. With the goal of allowing all visitors to have a universally rich and meaningful experience, the CMHR was designed with inclusion in mind – not exactly an easy feat, especially considering how inclusion is not a catch-all game. Making something accessible for one person, may in fact make it less accessible for another.

Still, the CMHR has made great bounds in making its space accessible by creating and consulting with the Inclusive Design Advisory Council (made up of diverse representatives from the diability community across the country) and ensuring its recommendations were put into action. Today, there are around 150 “iBeacons” throughout the museum, which happens to be the most in any museum in the world, marked by small plates with Braille and a raised number so that people who are blind or vision-impaired can locate it, and put the number into their device to receive the same information that one would get from reading the text from the exhibit, as well as a physical descriptions of the space.

The touchpad screens found throughout the Canadian Museum for Human Rights are equipped with universal keypad tactile markers that instruct on how to navigate the screen with descriptive audio and a plugin for headphones. People who are Deaf or heard of hearing can enjoy the same information shown in video format throughout the museum with the assistance of on-screen ASL and LSQ sign language interpreters, as well as bilingual subtitles.

Meaningful interaction

Technology is particularly important when it comes to identifying entry points in order to draw different types of visitors in, and then keep them engaged. With society increasingly glued to video and digital content, it’s no surprise that such mediums are used so heavily throughout the museum. This visit was my first time using and getting to know the CMHR mobile app, which allows for a completely self-guided tour, as well as unique interactive augmented reality applications that give the user information on what they are looking at around them. Try it at the top of the Tower of Hope for some tidbits on the area surrounding the museum. At the end of each section of the guided tour, the user is invited to share their mood and view how others felt about that particular gallery – a neat and simple way to express ones self, especially when perusing the museum solo.

While initially intended for a younger audience, the interactive displays and games that are scattered through the museum have proven to be popular with all crowds. The Protecting Rights in Canada gallery features an interactive surveying activity that examines pivotal court cases and asks the audience to vote on their own verdict. At the end, the screens display the percentage of who voted for what, and reveals the actual court case decision.

Interactive game at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Kids are particularly drawn to the digital game table in the Actions Count gallery, which reacts to shadow movement and takes players through the challenge of starting a Gay-Straight Alliance in their virtual school. And like all interactive elements in the museum – the intention is twofold; to spark interest and get participants thinking about how they can start taking action in their own communities.

In the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, examples of using technology as a means to engage are seemingly endless, from the movement tracking in the Turning Points for Humanity gallery to the light tables in the Breaking the Silence gallery to the musical tracks in the Inspiring Change gallery. We are so used to being engrossed in technology in day to day life, that it is easy to pass through the museum with little appreciation for the impact that technology can have on enriching the learning experience; something that all museums strive to attain. It’s no wonder that those who pass through its doors, exit with an entirely different perspective on the past, present and future of human rights.