Taking Liberties

January 4, 2009

Human rights

The British Library is currently running an exhibition charting, in its own words, “the 900-year struggle for rights and freedoms in the British Isles” and by association around the world.

What rights and freedoms? Liberty and the rule of law, the right to vote, freedom from want, freedom of speech and belief, having a say in how we are governed.

If you are in London, it is worth going just to see originals of documents like the Magna Carta (which first stated many of the principles of the rule of law), the Habeas Corpus Act (which enshrined the right to freedom from unlawful imprisonment), the King James Bible (the first sanctioned English language bible), Hobbes’s Leviathan (the social contract between the ruler protector and his people), and the Bill of Rights (the closest Britain has come to a written constitution).

Most of the exhibits are online and can be seen here. Click the ‘timeline’ link next to each section to see where they fit in.

For those of us who are members of Generation Y, it pays to remember that universal suffrage (in Britain) is as old as our grandparents and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as old as our parents. We cannot take all our freedoms for granted.

“Please enter your citizen number”

However, there is another reason to write about this: the brilliant use of interactive technology. Aside from being very, very cool, the interactive booths and online visualisations make sure this exhibition stays stuck in your head.

When you enter you are invited to take one of these:


This wristband has a barcode and “citizen number” on it which you can use to register on booths scattered around the exhibition. Each booth allows you to vote on some of the issues presented in the exhibits (“Should voting be compulsory”, “Should we all have the right to die”, “How free should the press be”, etc…). The system tracks your answers, and at the end you can see how they compared to everyone else’s. You can even enter your citizen number on the Taking Liberties interactive site, where you can get more info, watch videos and check out the visualisations in the comfort of your own home (pictured below).


My citizen number is 142423, feel free to log in and see how I did, or try it yourself.

Museums are one of the purest expressions of designing information to educate, inform and entertain at the same time. This exhibit uses three of the most important tools to get you to pay attention and remember:

  • Social proof: you want to take part and answer the questions because you can see everyone else is
  • Attention : forcing the user to answer questions on the issues engages you in the material and frames the sometimes archaic documents presented in the exhibits
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition: the best way to make a fact memorable is to repeat it, ideally in different media. With the original documents, the interactive booths, the website and the online access to your voting, Taking Liberties has it covered.

At the heart of this is the well executed technology; read on to see how it was done… Read the rest of this entry »