June 16, 2017
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).”
For the museum’s audio elements, SH Acoustics developed strategies and treatments tailored to the building’s angular spaces, so as to minimize echoes and sound bleed-through. They deployed compact linear speaker arrays, focusing ceiling arrays and bookshelf speakers to help enhance the immersive effects of the museum’s theatres.
In some of these spaces, including the Examining the Holocaust and Breaking the Silence galleries, they embedded speakers into the bench seating, each of which emits sound to the row behind it, time-delayed to combine with the front speakers to localize sound effects to the screen.
Electrosonic’s service contract provides for two on-site technicians, who monitor and ensure the systems continue to operate effectively.
“You might say they live at the museum,” Laspa says. “We pull Advance Pro in only as needed, such as for repairs, exhibit pulldowns and warranty work. We also rely on their relationships with suppliers when projectors and other components need to be replaced.”
Indeed, Advance Pro has been able to source different brands of products for different purposes, including projectors from Barco, Panasonic and Christie, media players from BrightSign, speakers from Innovox Audio and James Loudspeaker, liquid crystal displays (LCDs) from Samsung and NEC, mounting systems from Chief and touch screens from MultiTaction and Elo Touch.
Touring the galleries
Visitors first encounter digital signage at the ticketing desk, where it promotes memberships, offers and specific galleries’ exhibits.
“This is followed by more functional, layered deployments of digital signage in the galleries,” says Gillam.
The first theatre asks and discusses the question, “What are human rights?” Three ceiling-mounted projectors show a video ona scrim where people share their ideas on the subject. A synchronized lighting program allows sculptures and artifacts behind the scrim to become visible at specific points in the presentation, as though to punctuate it.
In the Indigenous Perspectives gallery, a 360-degree theatre is outfitted with six projectors, plus a seventh for any special presentations as needed. A production and playback system handles edge-blending for a video about First Nations’ concepts of rights and responsibilities to each other and the land. In this case, 152-mm (6-in.) speakers were hung behind the screens, aimed down at the audience. An undulating wooden wall was fabricated to provide sound diffusion for the circular room, while compact power-pipe subwoofers were placed under the bench seating to augment the sound further.
The museum’s largest gallery, Canadian Journeys, features a single-projector theatre, embedded monitors and, most notably, a two-storey tall, 29-m (95-ft) wide ‘digital canvas’ that combines two walls of printed graphics with a third wall where images are displayed from four projectors, unifying a grid of faces in a massive presentation mode. The same grid is also rendered on four kiosks for interactive access.
Another interactive exhibit, Rights in the Courts, is featured in a gallery called Protecting Rights in Canada. A variety of court cases involving human rights are showcased on overhead video displays. Visitors get to view the evidence and vote on each case before learning about the real-life court decision.
Another gallery, Turning Points for Humanity, explores the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with four interactive stations, each of which is equipped with a pair of portrait-mode 1.4-m (55-in.) screens and gesture recognition technology.
Throughout all 12 galleries, interactive stations—many using 686-mm (27-in.) touch screens—engage visitors with deeper layers of information and additional text, images and video. For people with disabilities, Electrosonic collaborated with CMHR and the Ontario College of Art and Design University’s (OCADU’s) inclusive design research centre in Toronto to custom-develop universal keypads.
In the aforementioned Breaking the Silence gallery, multiple visitors are invited to interact with a digital table, comprising 12 ultra-thin-bezel 1.4-m touch screens. The 8.2-m (27-ft) long ‘study table’ can accommodate up to 24 users—i.e. two per screen—simultaneously, allowing them to access photos, text and graphics by touch.
“The deployment needs to make it intuitive for people to touch a screen,” says Gillam. “This is even easier when the screen is table.”
This is also an example of where the universal keypads come into play. Vision-impaired visitors, for example, can take advantage of a special bilingual text-to-speech interface to explore the table’s content.
“There are also tactile keypads for guests who are blind or have low vision,” says Laspa, “and the installation locations are set up for people in wheelchairs who cannot reach the touch screens.”
“Canadians with disabilities have advised us over time,” Gillam explains. “With the benefit of being able to build all of these components from scratch with our commitment continuing to evolve, we have become a global leader in inclusive design among cultural institutions.”
Another type of interactivity entertains younger visitors with the Lights of Inclusion game in the Canadian Journeys gallery. As they walk into a circle on the floor, it lights up with digitally projected circles of colourful light that surround each participant in the game, then merge and shift as the players approach each other.
“It’s great eye candy to keep the kids busy,” says Laspa. “There are custom-designed patterns on the floor for them to move through.”
“It helps spark conversations for young people about inclusion, co-operation and strength in working together,” says Gillam.
In 2015, the museum won four Muse awards—including two gold, one silver and one bronze—from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) for innovation in digital media. The Muse jurors honoured the Lights of Inclusion floor game with a silver award, calling it “elegant and beautiful, truly teaching the benefits of working together, as opposed to separately. The interactive projection is a very effective and engaging technology.”
The AAM’s bronze award, meanwhile, recognized the Actions Count interactive table, which they felt “weaves mystery and narrative throughout the game to engage users, a great way to teach these principles. The story is very well-done.”
CMHR also won an award for innovation and excellence in the use of digital media that same year from the Jodi Mattes Trust, which promotes barrier-free access for people with disabilities to cultural collections in museums, galleries, archives, libraries and heritage sites. The trust honoured the museum’s inclusive video features and universal keypads for interactivity, with judges saying “all aspects of the museum and its exhibits were built with inclusive design and accessibility in mind. The focus on seamless integration is great and the breadth of offerings is unprecedented. They seem to have thought about a range of audiences from the outset. It’s great to see media is so integral to the experience.”
The following year, CMHR won the Society for Experiential Design’s (SEGD’s) 2016 Sylvia Harris Award and a Merit Award for three of its exhibitions that were designed and implemented by Gagarin, an ‘interactive experience’ firm based in Iceland:
Like the Jodi Mattes Trust, SEGD’s jury applauded Gagarin for making accessibility a core value of these projects’ methodologies.
Moreover, visitors to the museum have appreciated the efforts. When Quoros Consulting surveyed them, 94 per cent said they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the CMHR experience.
Developing new exhibits
Temporary exhibits like Gagarin’s are just one example of how CMHR continues to change and offer new experiences to visitors.
“We have a capital replacement program in place to upgrade our exhibits,” says Gillam, “and in addition to temporary exhibits, we will have some that travel across the country.”
Most recently—and in time to mark the country’s 150th anniversary—CMHR introduced an exhibition called Our Canada, My Story, which uses newly acquired 1.5-m (60-in.) ultra-high-definition (UHD) ‘4K’ LCDs to showcase short films about seven Canadians’ diverse experiences with human rights issues.
“We didn’t have those types of screens in stock already, so we purchased them for this particular exhibition,” says Gillam. “We also often rent systems while we’re developing a new exhibit.”
While the museum has an in-house design team and fabrication shop, the sheer size, scope and number of its exhibits call for outside assistance.
“As a federal institution, we follow the Treasury Board’s guidelines for requests for proposals (RFPs) and requests for quotes (RFQs), which lead us to a wide variety of vendors,” Gillam says. “Gagarin answered one of our RFPs, for example, after demonstrating key expertise in exhibition development. We’ve also seen combinations of soft ware developers and design firms respond to RFPs, where they enter a strategic partnership to provide a bid, as they understand their own gaps in terms of integration. Digital signage is still a young industry. It can be a challenge for one company to handle an entire project on its own.”
With files from CMHR and Electrosonic. For more information, visit www.humanrights.ca and www.electrosonic.com.
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