Intangible Museum Collections and Dialogic Experience Design - by Corey Timpson
Corey Timpson on the experiential design of participatory exhibitions and collecting stories as born-digital artefacts
Image: Canadian Journeys is the largest of 11 galleries at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It includes 19 mixed-media story alcoves of varying experience design (active, passive, interactive – all immersive) and varying design style around the perimeter of the gallery, a 30m x 2.5m projection cycling through 7 animated stories, a 2-storey image grid, digital kiosks, a 30-person theatre, a share-your-story booth, and a full-body motion-tracking projection game in the centre. Image Credit: © CMHR/Ian McCausland
Visitors pass from gallery to gallery, space to space. They watch film, read texts, look at images, observe artefacts, play games, share stories, and are immersed in multi-sensory mixed-media environments. Now two years into its operation, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) has been finding its form, working through the functional scenarios of program development, service offerings, and also determining its place in the national and international museum landscape.
Understanding the potential it holds in operating with such a broad and intangible subject matter, the CMHR has found constructive challenges in determining how it can be a new kind of museum, and also operate within museological best practices. As the scenario has shifted from “opening project” to “daily operations”, museum staff have had to adapt, evolve, and change. We have now begun to understand the various practical implications of being a museum (versus planning to be one), and have had to develop a new and workable path through operational contexts, noble intentions, infinite possibilities, and practical constraints. Like any good challenge, this has created a fertile environment for innovation not only in design & production, but also in methodology.
An idea was born
The “idea museum” was first considered, questioned, and examined by Barry Lord and Gail Dexter Lord in 2002(1). This concept was at the very core of the design and development of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The CMHR was intended, and has become, a museum whose core programming explores a conceptual subject; a contemporary subject; a universal subject; a subject that is susceptible to varying interpretations; a subject that can be both difficult and uplifting; and a subject that can even contradict itself(2).
An amendment to the Canadian Museum’s Act, made by the Government of Canada in March 2008, formally established The Canadian Museum for Human Rights as a national museum. As such, the CMHR is charged with preserving and promoting the heritage of Canada and its peoples, both in Canada and abroad, and in contributing to the collective memory and sense of identity of Canada(3). The CMHR’s mandate further accentuates that it will provide special, but not exclusive reference to Canada, while enhancing the public’s understanding of human rights, promoting respect for others, and encouraging reflection and dialogue(4).
It is within this mandate, that this new idea museum, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, was born and now operates.
Methodology Seeding Design
An early initiative of the CMHR saw the establishment of a Canada-wide content development and public engagement program. A Content Advisory Committee was created, and this group, along with museum staff, visited 19 cities, inviting thousands of people into facilitated discussions in order to inform content development processes(5) at the museum. This process, initiated at such an early phase of the museum’s existence, established what would become standard practices at the CMHR – both engagement of the public in project development, and the creation and use of advisory committees. Both of these practices have now been consistently used across the museum enterprise in the design and development of museum programs and services. When dealing with a subject as broad as human rights, these practices have proved invaluable in allowing the museum to meet the expectations of the public, reflect public sentiment(s), and ensure informed decision making – in the areas of service and business channels, as well as in interpretation, design, and even curatorial practices.
Initial exhibition design saw a clear focus placed on storytelling as the primary experience design tactic. This doesn’t differ from most museum exhibitions, where storytelling is at the nexus of the experience. What is unique, on the part of the CMHR, is the manner in which stories are delivered. Rather than present an artefact, and then relay stories about the artefact to the visitor, at the CMHR the scenario is reversed. Stories are selected, collected, and curated. The artefacts are then chosen which can help express these stories. The experience design scenario doesn’t end at the presentation of artefacts. In fact, an artefact is treated like any other storytelling tool – audio, video, image, text, object, prop, lighting, scenography, and artefact. The truth of this scenario, is that the artefact at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is not the 3-dimensional object, it is not the image, it is the intangible. It is the story itself.
The museum mandate, specifically the phrase “encouraging reflection and dialogue”, along with the developing practices described, were critical to informing the CMHR’s experience design framework. In most museums, the predominant experience design scenario is: the museum informs the visitor. When considering the experience design of the CMHR a 4-layer experience design framework was created:
. the museum informs the visitor
. the visitor informs the museum
. visitors inform one another (museum as venue/facilitator)
. visitor types inform visitor types(6)
This design scenario was constructed in 2009. At that point, shared authority was barely an emerging concept within museological discourse. The implications of such a participative experience design, such as the impact on curatorial authority, are still being worked through and debated across the museum field today. This framework was in part designed to facilitate engagement - a well-proven technique among interaction designers - it is far more likely to have an engaged audience when they are co-owner of the output, and/or when the output holds personal relevance. It was thus applied to the CMHR’s experience design intentions(7). This 4-layered experience design framework, however, was not just an attempt to ensure positive and rich engagement with the museum’s audience, but most importantly was a tactic that would help ensure museum programs dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter, would always remain informed and protected from undue, uninformed, or unintended bias.
Engaging audiences in the design and development of content and programs, informing museum decisions through advisory groups, collecting and curating stories, expressing these stories through rich, mixed-media installations, and ensuring this expression is dialogic and reciprocal – this is the design approach to working with an intangible concept, with the subject of human rights, at the CMHR.
Design in Action
As technology increases in ability to perform tasks, user expectations increase in terms of demand on technology and experience. The cycle iterates and rolls forward and growth in technological capability persists. Between 2009 and 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, not yet open, was confronted with enormous opportunity in the areas of information communication technology (ICT). The maturity of semantics and standardization in technology, the global aggregation and ubiquity of information, and the general pervasiveness and fluidity of access to the internet via mobile computing and smart devices, meant a great deal to a museum whose artefacts are intangible and whose experience design scenario is participative storytelling. Collecting stories, and expressing stories, allowing for participation and discourse, could be done through dynamic and scalable means.
The CMHR exploits the latest technology in order to present interesting stories, but the greatest innovation created by the museum remains unseen by the visitor — an enterprise content management system (ECMS). The ECMS is a system that manages collections, all content, digital assets, enterprise search, and feeds all digital endpoints across the museum enterprise (exhibitions, web, mobile, reference centre, digital signage, etc). In the creation and management of this system, the museum takes advantage of the maturity in semantics and standards, and the absence of any legacy systems, to ensure that its use of technology is scalable, and therefore cost-effective for future purposes. A defining characteristic of the CMHR’s technology implementation scenario is that by keeping software and hardware integration as open and flexible, and as modular as possible, the museum is well positioned to grow along with technological advancements. This in turn means that resources can be spent on design and production instead of adaptation and reproduction. For a museum collecting and presenting stories of an evolving and contemporary nature, addressing the resource spend on production (vs reproduction) of said stories, is critical in terms of sustainability.
Careful consideration is placed on descriptive language. At the CMHR “interactive” is not a synonym for “digital”. Pushing a button on a digital interface in order to read, watch, or listen, does not constitute interactivity. These are all passive activities. Nathan Shedroff proposes “the most interactive experience you’ll have in your life, is a great conversation”.(8) This notion is fundamental. Interactivity at the CMHR demands cause and effect, reciprocity, and is dialogic(9). The museum would sell its experience design scenario short, and ultimately jeopardize fulfillment of its mandate, if it considered accessing a menu through a digital interface in order to read a text an “interactive” experience.
With over 100 hours of video, 19 mixed-media immersive environments, audio soundscapes, 4 documentary films, projection mapping into non-uniform geometric spaces, gesture-based digital installations, a 360° theatre, video games, a 24-person digital study table, tangible interfaces, environmental graphics and motion-graphics, a share-your-story booth, and powerful original artefacts, the fabric of the exhibition design is extremely heavy with digital media. That said, styles vary from documentary and photo-journalistic, to illustrative, animation, info-graphic and data visualization, to fine-art, and abstract-interpretive. The exhibition design approach is to determine the story, and then present the story in a manner that best suits the nature of the story being told. All the while, the broader design view considers all storytelling and all galleries and is focused on the 4-layered experience design, while offering a healthy mix of passive, active, interactive, and immersive experiences.
The implications of this type of exhibition design does not lessen any established burdens on staffing or project planning. While exhibition project budgets remain comparable to museums of similar scope and size, the composition of expertise on the team can be somewhat different, including software developers working alongside interpretive planners and exhibition designers. At the CMHR the demand for the mixed-media/multimedia designer may be greater than it is at other museums, but this is also a consistently growing trend across the industry as museums increasingly look to become more participative, personally relevant, and augment digital storytelling.
Presenting the subject of human rights through museum exhibition has demanded a scalable infrastructure in order to support the mixed-media (but heavily digital) environmental designs, that facilitate a rich variety of activity types (active, passive, interactive, and immersive) in achievement of a 4-layered experience design framework.
Collecting and Managing the Intangible
While the practice of collecting intangible heritage is not a new one, it is a rare proposition to build a museum collection around an intangible subject that is as contemporary as human rights are. What would the fabric of such a collection be? Again, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights focuses back on the mandate (reflection and dialogue), and with the opportunity of being a museum of its time, looks to stories as the focus of the collection. In practice, while the CMHR does collect some 3D artefacts, archival documents/paper, and other ephemera, a strategic decision was taken to focus collection activities on the born-digital. The CMHR’s Oral History program is intended to be the cornerstone of its collection, while other digitized, imaged, 3D-scanned or modelled, and digital-media based objects are sought for acquisition. Another strategic variable to this collections mandate was the intention to not be redundant, or competitive, with the other national museums and heritage institutions in Canada. These sister institutions, including the Canadian Museum of History, the Canadian War Museum, Library and Archives Canada, the Canadian Museum of Immigration, as well as several others, are all co-stewards of Canada’s collection. As such, the recently established Canadian Museum for Human Rights has an opportunity to be unique in the national landscape, to be collaborative with its peers, to fill a gap, and all the while meet both its mandate and the Museums Act.
Policy work in this area has been critical. Between 2010 and 2016 the policies and procedures in Collections have been persistently edited and adjusted as the museum reconciles intention against the demands of every day practice and finds equilibrium. It is important to note that operating a robust loan program for 3D artefacts may save long-term conservation resources, however it is a heavy burden on the curatorial and registration teams to be consistently researching, curating, and loaning new artefacts. Nevertheless, the primary advantage of this scenario is that the core exhibition program is never static. New artefacts are consistently rotated through the program, expressing the stories in evolving ways, and as such, the core exhibition program is as live and contemporary as human rights are themselves.
One of the greatest challenges with regards to the CMHR collection is that it did not proceed the design and development of the museum. The museum was not born of another, it did not originate from an existing collection, there was no organic growth. It was established via an act of Parliament, built on the bold vision of a great Canadian philanthropist and the tireless efforts of his daughter(10). This meant that inaugural content development and exhibition design happened concurrently through iterative processes. It also means that at this time the museum is slowly and carefully building the collection that satisfies the Museums Act, and is really in its infancy. There is no precedent other than what is being set at present. There is also no legacy. Presenting the curated and collected stories in exhibition creates a requirement on licensed material, beyond the loaned artefacts. The goal of the CMHR is to pursue and eventually engage in Creative Commons, OER, and other Open Knowledge opportunities(11). Yet currently, without a deep collection of its own, it relies largely on the licensing of material from other institutions. Given the CMHR has only just celebrated its two-year anniversary, acquisitions are deliberate and careful. Precedence setting happens with each acquisition, and attention to balance is just as paramount as those unique and critical original intentions.
The focus on born-digital and the intangible also requires a high digital literacy of staff within the Collections department. The Archivist is a Digital Archivist, the library has as much digital material and subscriptions as print. The standards of library science are the semantic structure of the museum’s enterprise content management system and the thesaurus for its enterprise search, and the reference centre is growing towards being a Knowledge Commons for all visitors, with access to live news and data feeds as well as specialized subscriptions and databases.
While the existence of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to date can be seen as the binary of pre-open (project) and being open (operations), the scenario is slightly more sophisticated. The museum is currently in transition. Although visitors have been enjoying the compliment of museum programming and service for 2 full years now, much of what happens at the museum is a first time experience for both visitors and staff. Setting benchmarks for evaluation, crafting and adjusting policies and processes, and planning various programs to be two to three years in advance of the present, are all tasks only just underway. Dealing with the contemporary nature of the subject and planning in advance for programs and activities are procedures and processes that are just now being understood and crafted as the CMHR applies established due diligent museum protocols and scenarios to its own context.
The CMHR launched its Temporary Exhibition Program in August of 2015. While the program, like at any museum, is intended to be a driver for repeat visitation and membership, and to vary and supplement the core offerings, it is also a challenge that museum staff are learning their way through. The breadth of the human rights subject at large ensures there are several temporary exhibitions that can be brought to the museum. However, virtually no potential exhibitions are ready-made to fit within the CMHR’s narrative structure(12). Additionally, the programmatic offerings of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights are subject to the Official Languages Act of Canada, and are thus required to be in both official languages (English, French), while the CMHR’s inclusive design and accessibility standards are extremely progressive and stringent(13). This means that every temporary exhibition brought to the CMHR requires varying degrees of curatorial and interpretive contextualization to fit the narrative, as well as design and production effort to be presented in two languages, and to meet inclusive design and accessibility standards. The challenge for museum staff isn’t so much going through these processes and tasks. The challenges actually lie in getting far enough ahead with planning, and availability of options, to ensure succinct resource spend, while also balancing the fact that the national and international discourse on human rights related subjects has proven to evolve and change pretty quickly by museum standards.
Dialogue and Equilibrium
There is a lot of work yet to be done before the Canadian Museum for Human Rights really hits its stride. The museum, only just two years old, has much self-discovery to undertake. How “human rights” as a subject matter evolves and matures will change over time, and will impact the museum’s operations, program designs, and service development. With the evolution of the human rights concept, the collections and exhibitions must be managed in such a way as to facilitate responsiveness, yet not compromise museological due diligence.
A recent meeting at the CMHR saw staff discussing how best to respond to the changing national discourse on a topic that could affect interpretation across a number of museum exhibits, as well as public and educational activities. When stepping out of the conversation itself, it was clearly apparent that this discussion epitomizes just how unique the breadth and contemporaneity of this subject matter is when applied to a museum context. The museum’s President and CEO, Dr. John Young, closed the meeting with the following sentiment: “Well, we’re a museum built on dialogue, and this is where the dialogue has taken us”(14). Simple, clear, and to the point.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has a unique opportunity to meet both the Museums Act and its mandate, by collecting stories as intangible artefacts, and presenting them through mixed-media, dialogic exhibitions. In doing so, perhaps it is only natural that this museum’s standard practice will be the need to consistently check, recheck, and reestablish its equilibrium. In this way, it’s collections will be a rich source for study, allowing future generations to tap the national and international human rights discourse at various points in Canadian history, and the exhibitions will present and represent the pluralism of evolving perspectives and ideas that comprise such a dynamic and intangible subject matter.
Vice President - Exhibition, Research, and Design
Canadian Museum for Human Rights
1. Barry Lord, Gail Dexter Lord, The Manual of Museum Exhibitions, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002
2. Reference the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 12 (privacy) vs article 19 (information), or article 19 (expression) vs article 2 or 3
3. Canada Museums Act - http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/m-13.4/page-1.html
4. Canadian Museum for Human Rights - https://humanrights.ca/about/mandate-and-museum-experience
5. Read about the public roundtables https://humanrights.ca/about/transparency/public-roundtables
6. Such as remote vs in-situ visitors, educational groups vs general visitors, etc.
7. Corey Timpson, Plenary: Placing Our Bets, Rutgers University & Liberty Science Centre, Digital Ubiquity Symposium, 2010
8. Nathan Shedroff, Experience Design, Waite Group Press, 2001
9. Corey Timpson, Placing Our Bets, Building a National Museum’s Media Strategy From Scratch, Museum-iD magazine, 2010
10. Read more about the CMHR’s origins,
11. OER/Open Education Resources, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_educational_resources
12. The CMHR Metanarrative https://humanrights.ca/about/governance-and-corporate-reports/board-profile
13. Read about the CMHR’s Inclusive Design & Accessibility at the following sources: https://humanrights.ca/visit/inclusive-design-and-accessibility ; & https://humanrights.ca/visit/inclusive-design-and-accessibility/our-commitment-universal-accessibility; & http://mw2016.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/inclusive-design-from-approach-to-execution/; and http://name-aam.org/uploads/downloadables/EXH.fall_15/7.%20EXH%20Fall%202015_Timpson.pdf
14. Internal meeting at the CMHR. Dr. John Young. November 2016.