The Smart Museum

Telling passionate stories in a digital age

T&C Eye Candy / Lights of Inclusion / Photo by Aaron Cohen courtesy Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Editor’s note: This post is the final instalment in a three-part mini-series created as part of an arms length collaboration with Travel Manitoba. Part One features our personal experience at the internationally acclaimed institution. In Part Two, award-winning writer Margo Pfeiff zeroes in on what takes shape when an architect embeds his vision for human rights into something concrete. And here, in Part Three, we share a conversation with Corey Timpson, vice-president of exhibitions, research and design, about the “smart” museum’s leading role in digital innovation.


T&C:  In the museum world and in the context of digital technology, where does the Canadian Museum for Human Rights stand?

Timpson:  I recently went to Digifest in Toronto. All of these cutting-edge tech companies were there, but we were the only cultural institution at the conference. So I would say we are forward thinking when it comes to technology. When we opened our doors to the public in 2014, I didn’t want us to open the “newest” old museum in the world. I wanted us to take advantage of an opportunity. While I see other museums struggling because they don’t have the infrastructure for technology, we were able to build a very scalable new museum — scalable in perpetuity in terms of our infrastructure. This is important because technology is always evolving. It’s transient. We have to be able to adapt. What’s more, we need to meet visitor expectations. People are technologically savvy these days and human rights is an impassioned subject matter. Visitors expect to participate.

T&C:  Not all visitors, particularly older generations, are plugged into technologies like apps and interactive media. How do you, as a museum, meet the needs of the diverse populations that walk through your door?

Timpson:  We have a transmedia storytelling approach. So the experience here can be looked at like an onion. Visitors can peel the experience back to whatever depth they want. The artifacts. The photos. The text. It’s all about providing different entry points to a story. It doesn’t have to be that a visitor comes in and sees a device and automatically knows how to use it. But if they do want to use our technology, it is very learnable. To be honest, some of our most prized interactivity is when people on the floor are simply engaging in conversation with each other.

T&C:  For some people, the idea of digital technology in a museum setting suggests an experience that risks being less than human. Can you give us an example of work you do that suggests otherwise?

Timpson:  For our Weaving a Better Future exhibition, I sent three of my team to Guatemala. An art director, a videographer with a 360-degree video camera, and a curator. They captured first person testimonies from women who operate weaving collectives to “make a living, preserve their culture and heal from human rights violations.” We produced a version of this project in Spanish and gave it to the women so they now own a mini-documentary about their cooperative. It was important that we build a relationship with these women, that we didn’t just steal their stories but that we gave them something valuable in return, a tool to use so they can tell their own stories. Today, the public can download an app from iTunes that we designed, and be virtually transported to Guatemala to see what these women are all about. An app like this has two benefits. We’re bringing an in-gallery experience to remote audiences, and we’re keeping the exhibition alive well beyond the run of the show here at the museum. Technology, or at least the way we use it, prioritizes human relationships and facilitates dialogue.

T&C:  Tell us about a challenge you might face when it comes to using technology in a human rights museum.

Timpson:  When you think of mobile phone technology, you think all of these amazing opportunities that come from it, like citizen journalism. But technology is complicated. The use of mobile phones has influenced what citizen journalism looks like today. Yet all smart phones contain coltan which is mined, often under difficult circumstances, in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of course, these challenges aren’t just inherent to the work we do. But given what we stand for, we have a responsibility to acknowledge that technology itself can be a human rights story that needs to be told.

T&C:  Give us another example of one of your digital success stories. In fact, please speak directly to the “Lights of Inclusion” pictured above in this post. We saw them and they were pretty cool. Kids and adults seemed to enjoy them equally.

Timpson:  This is a great example of sensor technology. The sensors detect a visitor’s presence within a set space, and projectors project a halo of light around people as they move. As individuals come into close proximity of one another, their colours mix. The intention is to demonstrate that anyone’s presence within a space affects those around them. This is a light, fun and atmospheric installation at the centre of the gallery which perfectly juxtaposes some of the more didactic installations around the perimeter.

T&C:  Finally, what are you most proud of when it comes to your role as digital innovator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights?

Timpson:  I’m most proud of the context in which we use technology — taking advantage of it to better engage the audience. We’re still really new, and the potential is limitless. There is a culture that has been created at this museum which is to perpetually enhance what we’re doing. For example, I work with an inclusive design methodology. We’re now one of the five most accessible buildings in Canada. What I’m saying is that we’ve developed a culture where we constantly strive to do better. This dynamic culture is infectious and it has become characteristic of our corporate culture. We never rest on our laurels.



*If you’re interested in downloading the Canadian Museum for Human Rights app, which contains a fully accessible self-guided tour, you can find it here on iTunes. Meanwhile, many thanks to our partners in tourism for supporting this arms-length mini-series on one of Canada’s newest national institutions.

Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is a blog about Canadian travel culture.

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