Emotionally Charged Spaces: Why You Should Create Immersive Tours With Sensitive Subject Matter (Case Study: Canadian Museum of Human Rights)

Julia Kennedy - Marketing & Aud Dev Associate

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The Canadian Museum of Human Rights, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is a unique institution as “the first museum solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights,” accruing international praise in the process.

Their mission is to create lasting global change in the field of human rights, shining a spotlight on some of the most egregious violations of human rights around the world, and to inspire activism.

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights | Media Kit

So, with a subject as emotionally charged as human rights, traditional storytelling methods need to be tweaked to accommodate the heavy content. For museums that largely contain collections centered on this type of content, the goal is for visitors to be educated, informed, and inspired to make change – not simply to leave depressed.

Storytelling In Emotionally Sensitive Spaces

Even though we‘ve worked with a number of institutions featuring sensitive subject matter – like The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library and National Park Services’ Arlington House; even writing how we use scaffolding to build a tour at the The National Civil Rights Museum, each of these institutions bring a unique set of challenges.

It can be a difficult task to create programming and tell stories that would acknowledge the gravity and seriousness of the issues while still engaging the audience without alienating or overwhelming them.

Part of Museum Hack’s tour approach involves our guides sharing their own personal connections to further humanize what the visitor is interacting with. This is a great technique to use in difficult spaces.

Museum Hack facilitator Harry Einhorn shared his own story with CMHR about the tefillin, a sacred object used for prayer in Judaism. Harry’s story helped to immediately demonstrate the humanity of the tefillin and help relate it to those who do not have a personal connection to Judaism or the Holocaust.

This idea can be extrapolated in larger ways beyond a guided tour. Visitors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Permanent Exhibition receive ID cards chronicling the experiences of people who lived in Europe during the Holocaust. These cards are designed to help personalize the historical events of the time.

Storytelling is only one component. To further enhance the visitor experience, we incorporated another one of our best practices: scaffolding. Scaffolding is a way to strategically maximize visitor engagement over the course of a tour, which is crucial for making sensitive environments less overwhelming and prevent museum fatigue.

Even though the process of redesigning tours for emotionally charged museum spaces is difficult, the payoff is enormous – not only as a new way for museum staff to dive into their collection further but it helps visitors digest the content better and in a more meaningful way for the maximum amount of impact.

From the Canadian Museum of Human Rights’ Media Kit

Why is it important?

Feeling a need to dive deeper into the grey areas isn’t a new concept – it comes from the idea that a museum stands to serve its visitors, not its collection. In its newfound civic duty, museums have re-examined how their collection is presented, understanding that there is much to be learned not only about ‘difficult’ histories, but from them.

We see this shift as more sessions at conferences and articles in journals discuss dealing with difficult subject matter. The conversation, however, is mostly based in a curatorial and exhibition context. Programming is often left by the wayside.

Programming often gets shoehorned into existing only in two extremes: family friendly fun or a lecture series. This could be why we tend to shy away from programming involving difficult subject matter. For museums with only a partial collection dedicated to a difficult subject, it could easily take a program-avoidance route but that’s not sustainable for museums that are entirely devoted to human tragedies.

It’s counterintuitive, but the “heaviness” of sensitive subject matter does not limit audience engagement in museum spaces – in fact, it may even be a catalyst for stronger and more meaningful personal connections among your audience, guides, and institution.

What the Canadian Museum of Human Rights Said About Working With Museum Hack

How did it work out? Here’s what the Canadian Museum of Human Rights had to say right after our workshop:

“The sessions exceeded my expectations and were well tailored for our reality.  I have participants emailing to thank us for this training – and that is from people who admit that they normally don’t like training.”

Want help maximizing audience engagement at your institution? Find out more about our audience development offerings here.

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