Designing Interactive Experiences at the Museum for Human Rights

Interactive experience firm Gagarin (Reykjavik) created three entirely new exhibits for an entirely new kind of museum.  Accessibility, interactivity and engagement—in ways that had not been addressed before—captured the respect of the 2016 SEGD Global Design Awards jury and were the key to the project being honored with not only a 2016 Merit Award but also the 2016 Sylvia Harris Award. Jury comments recognized the project for challenging us all to see access to information as a core value of our culture.

The stunning Canadian Museum for Human Rightsis the first museum dedicated solely to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights. With an aim to creating inspiring encounters with human rights, the museum sought a firm that could create exhibits to engage all visitors in an immersive, interactive experience offering learning and awareness about the human rights of all people.

Nils Wiberg, the project's interaction designer, thinks Gagarin was selected because they had a new take on interactivity. "Interactivity," he says, describing their proposal to the museum, "would become more immersive in response to the visitor's presence. There would be a reciprocal relationship in which the visitor and the museum inform each other. This is a very exciting new development in interaction."

"Our exhibits are dynamic interactive systems telling stories about human rights and they provide a unique experience to each guest as they engage with the exhibits. The actions and opinions of visitors that the museum solicits, uses and manages through a museum-wide accessibility interface system are used to change exhibit content. Listening to their visitors in this way, the museum continuously broadcasts new stories and keeps the dialog on human rights issues current," says Asta Olga Magnusdottir, the project manager.

Gagarin's exhibits are beautiful and engaging by design and content alone: conveying diverse and compelling video stories of ground-level collective activism in a wide variety of human rights; representing the legal documents, declarations and court rulings of Canada via an impressionistic video projection tree; and engaging visitors in face-to-face dialog with eight notable Canadians about the influences and beliefs that drive them to actively fight human rights abuses.

Gagarin's innovative technology enlivens those exhibits: visitors select content in the Diptychs that provide subtitles or sign interpretations of the spoken words; the Living Tree sprouts from the ground and grows into a shimmering display of words; the faces of the Human Rights activists in the installation Diptychs are blurred when no one is near, but come into focus and increasingly engage the visitor in response to their approach and their hand gestures.

The project gave Gagarin the very rare opportunity to invent new ways for people to interact with media. Although the large scale of the project and the long time frame from conceptualization to implementation (over two years) posed distinct challenges, Wiberg and Magnusdottir credit  those factors, and the availability of the museum's major accessibility interface across the entire museum, as well as the museum's team of accessibility researchers, with making it possible. They had time and resources to envision, think through and prototype everything they did; the infrastructure allowed them to try out variations of new technology. The result was an exhibition that afforded an unprecedented near-equitable experience for visitors, regardless of their language or physical limitations (vision, hearing or mobility). "Accessibility was a big part of the project," says Wiberg. "Our technology sets a new standard for what can be achieved anywhere to make experiences like these at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights accessible to everyone."

The first phase of the design process took almost three months and involved working hand in hand with the museum's curators and researchers. "It was important for the museum to communicate human rights issues as ongoing and current stories and through that approach inspire guests to take action, be part of a global initiative in some way or another, on a personal level, on an organizational level, et cetera." says Magnusdottir. "Each of many iterations of concept required submission to an approval process board. Once there was concept approval, our team had great freedom to develop story lines and the means by which we would present them."  

Magnusdottir and Wiberg think it's important for designers to inspire their clients to take accessibility to high levels; in this project the human rights of all people to have access to the information and to be part of the dialog was inherent.  "We believe we played a role, helping the museum to be a living, ongoing place," says Magnusdottir, "the center point for an interactive conversation on a vital subject." They were themselves very much inspired by the lofty goals of the museum and, Wiberg adds, "were truly honored to have our work recognized by the 2016 SEGD Sylvia Harris Award. It is above all an indication that there is international interest in our innovative work and in interactive, accessible projects overall.  Hopefully, others will be inspired by what we have done here."


Design Firm: Gagarin

Client: Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Project Area: 300m2

Open Date: September 2014

Photo Credits: ©The Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Ian McCausland

Design Team: Kristin Eva Ólafsdóttir (graphic design and art director); Magnus Elvar Jónsson (graphic design and illustrations); Michael Tran (graphic design and content creation); Heimir Freyr Hlöðversson (film, audio and storytelling); Nils Wiberg (interaction design); Samúel H. Jónasson, Pétur Guðbergsson (programmers); Asta Olga Magnusdottir (project manager)

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