Human Rights

Canadian Museum of Human Rights: setting a global standard for accessibility

By Adrian Murphy

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg, Manitoba was established by an Act of Parliament in 2008 and opened in September 2014 as one of the world’s most accessible museums

The mandate for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights states that it is the first and only museum in the world solely devoted to human rights awareness and education and “it stands as a beacon for visitors from around the globe”. And it is this philosophy that led the museum to design a cultural experience that would be inclusive to all and therefore champion the human right to education for all those with disabilities. During the development stage the museum set up an Inclusive Design Advisory Council (IDAC) comprised of nine experts, advisors and activists in the field of disability rights.

As well as working with members of the museum staff they collaborated with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CDD), which set up consultations with disability organisations. Then, through a partnership with the Inclusive Design Research Centre at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), they were able to gain access to evidence based research and usability testing data. The museum also employed specialist contractors, Prime Access and Design for All, known for their work with accessibility and inclusive design to implement its findings in the physical structure.

The $351m (£175m) museum project was the brainchild of the late Israel Asper and is a private-public collaboration with the private sector contributing $150m (£75m) and is the first national museum in Canada built outside the capital. “Once the funding model was in place the project could really begin,” says Corey Timpson the museum’s Director of Exhibitions and Digital Media. “We started with the schematic and early designs stages for exhibitions and in 2010 we presented them to the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, which included a number of disability activists who were really appreciated what we were doing but were extremely critical.”

This would be the start of a painstaking process of testing and consultation of products by disabled people over four years. “We were early enough in the design to take on board what they were saying and set up the IDAC to work with the CCD with a panel of nine multilingual experts, which would meet once every quarter. The whole purpose was for the council to make improved decisions. At the same time we decided to include inclusive design methodology – rather than design and adapt, we designed with all accessibility included.”

The museum’s success has come from the fact we were prototyping with real people

Corey Timpson

The result is an in-gallery experience that champions accessibility and usability as parallel experiences. Exceptional features include 120 Universal Access Points (UAP), which have Braille, tactile numbers and “cane-stop” floor strips to alert visitors that information is available on key exhibit highlights. There is inclusive video and audio, a mobile app and innovations such as an Interactive Universal Keypad (IUK) for those who cannot use a Touch Screen Interface (TSI).

The museum has embedded inclusive design features into more than 100 hours of video with American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ) and descriptive audio, which describes what’s happening in a scene as well as reading text that appears on the screen. The keypad, designed by Timpson and tested at OCAD, are located at each TSI interface and have accessible tactile controls, with few buttons for extra simplicity. The voice instructions also work in conjunction with the strict semantic structure of the TSI interface’s content.

The museum has also developed a CMHR mobile app with Acoustiguide, which they say is the first of its kind for any museum in the world. The CMHR App contains a fully accessible self-guided tour (using ASL/LSQ, audio, images, text and video), interactive map, mood meter, online ticketing and information to help plan a visit. The audio guide includes the voices of museum staff who describe each gallery and provide highlights of exhibits and architecture. Text-based transcripts can also be viewed with image galleries and video creating a rich, interactive experience.

Some of the app’s top features are a “Near Me” mode that connects the visitor’s device through low-frequency “iBeacons” to the Universal Access Points located throughout the Museum. Designed to assist visitors who are blind or have low vision, this feature provides an opportunity for all visitors to experience key exhibit highlights. This is, according to the museum, the first use of iBeacon technology in a Canadian cultural institution, and the largest such use in the world.

There are useful features such as an interactive map of the museum’s public spaces, which helps visitors find their way by telling them where they are, show floorplans, or guide them to their destination with text-based directions. For visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing, the app can be viewed in ASL or LSQ and includes additional sign-language content for several exhibits.

Throughout the design process the museum was able to develop its own standards, which are apparent throughout its 11 galleries and seven theatres. All of the seating in the theatres and exhibits offer a choice of bench seating and seating with backs and arms. As well as this, all of the exhibits adhere to strict graphic standards to ensure content is as accessible as possible. The exhibit fonts were chosen for typographic elements, such as anatomy and letter proportions, which contribute to legibility and clarity. Type sizes and placement were carefully measured and chosen based on probable viewing distances and line of sight for visitors of any physical ability.

Even the finer details such as paragraph alignment and specific line-lengths were studied to help reduce reader fatigue and make the content easier to read. Colour contrast and Light Reflectance Value contrasts were designed to ensure sufficient contrast between the text and background to make text easier to read with different lighting conditions or visual impairments.

As part of its development stage the museum became familiar with the leading accessibility standards at the Smithsonian Institution, the Science Museum in London and Musée De La Civilisation in Québec. It is testament to the attention to detail the CMHR has pursued that last month a delegation from the Smithsonian paid a visit to see what it could learn from these latest developments in museum accessibility.

“These museums we researched [such as the Smithsonian] stood out but we found that their standards went so far and then stopped,” says Timpson. “For example with typography, we thought we had solved our problem by making it work for low vision and colour blindness, but we realised it wouldn’t work for someone with dyslexia. It is the reason that some standards only go to a certain level of detail.” Timpson says that the museum’s success has come from the fact that it was prototyping with real people, and although a lot of time was spent validating, they were lucky to have time to respond to the testing.

The museum says that through is multi-layered approach it has ensured that its offer is adaptable, is scalable and is also able to evolve and this evolution has been built in to the business plan. “I think what we have been able to do is put a practice in place to instantly and constantly evolve and we haven’t finished yet,” says Timpson. “We have a working group that meets once a month on various issues, whether it is policy or exhibitions and we are always trying to provide solutions that exceed the expectations of the visitor. It’s like a conversation where people are using the museum and feeding back comments. We take this as an opportunity to learn and improve our offer.”

The museum staff believe that one of the enduring successes, from a museum professional point of view, is that accessibility has become a business practice that is ingrained in the day-to-day running of the museum.

Since its establishment the CMHR has won a number of awards including a Jodi Award for accessibility and two awards for its app – gold award at the International Design and Communications Awards and gold at the MUSE awards of the American Alliance of Museums. But as Timpson says, the museum is not finished yet and its development in accessibility and usability will keep evolving and continue to exceed its visitor’s expectations.