By Peter Saunders
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), which opened in Winnipeg in 2014, is not only the country’s first new national museum to be built since 1967, but also the only one anywhere in the world dedicated to exploring and celebrating the universal concept of human rights, from its history to its future. With a special emphasis on Canada, CMHR presents an ambitious variety of exhibits that integrate digital signage, interactivity, projections and other multimedia technologies.
Collecting digital assets
With the development of a new museum comes the rare opportunity to use digital technologies from the outset. Also, as CMHR was to be more a museum of ideas than a collection of physical artifacts, it presented a suitable environment for communications-rich exhibits.
“We looked at how the museum could reflect the contemporary nature of human rights,” says Scott Gillam, manager of digital platforms, who joined CMHR’s staff in 2011, three years before the facility opened to the public. “Our mandate focuses on dialogue and reflection. And digital signage is, by its nature, an ongoing conversation.”
In addition to place-based screens, Gillam is responsible for CMHR’s online and mobile communications, which share the same ‘repository’ for enterprise content management.
“A curator can log in to the system and choose assets, such as video and audio clips, for any new exhibit or space,” he explains. “We don’t have a large staff, so we leverage technology to be efficient and strategic. By being able to ‘store once and reference often’ with our digital assets, we can continue to tell rich stories.”
Building the backbone
System integrator Electrosonic was contracted to design audiovisual (AV) systems for the museum’s 11 permanent galleries, which themselves were designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA).
“The process began with our in-house design department coming up with ‘paths’ for the AV systems,” says Dan Laspa, project manager with Electrosonic, who grew up in Winnipeg himself. “Eventually, the project came back as a bid, which we won.”
The original designs changed somewhat by the time Electrosonic determined the equipment specifications, in part because more advanced technologies had come to market in the interim. It was important for CMHR to have a robust AV infrastructure in place, to support both creativity in exhibit design and other, outward-looking humanitarian efforts.
“The museum design is heavy in information technology (IT), to which we had to add AV systems and ways to maintain them,” Laspa says. “We also provided software to manage everything, such as on-screen content triggers.”
Electrosonic directed the installation work with a local partner, Winnipeg-based Advance Pro. The buildout, which also involved 11 media production partners, required considerable technical co-ordination. By way of example, Kubik—based in Mississauga, Ont.—worked closely with Electrosonic to integrate the AV systems into the exhibits it was fabricating for and installing in the museum.
“We ran everything through Advance Pro when we were choosing the equipment,” says Laspa. “That makes it easier to handle warranties on an ongoing basis.”
The project also posed challenges because of the building’s unique architecture, designed by Antoine Predock with very few right angles. The 5,110-m2 (55,000-sf) museum’s seven levels, interconnected by ramps and bridges, focus on a central observation tower, which is intended to represent reaching from darkness to light.
“It’s certainly a unique building, with lots of ramps, and it would be hard to run cables from one end to the other,” Laspa explains. “Due to the cable length restrictions, the museum opted for a series of localized AV and IT rooms, rather than a large, central electrical equipment room (EER).”