Handled with Care: The installation of the Girl of Courage exhibit

Tuesday, November 8, 2016
A member of the Collections team helps to prepare Malala's school uniform for display. Photo credit: Aaron Cohen/CMHR

As Head of Collections at the Museum, I have had the privilege of working with a number of poignant artifacts, but none as awe-inspiring for me as the objects loaned to us for the Girl of Courage exhibit. It was an honour for the Museum to be selected by the Yousafzai family to display Malala Yousafzai’s school uniform, following its presentation in the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Norway. Malala wanted to show the uniform to children and to people all around the world to share that it is her right, and the right of every child, to go to school. The news that we would be receiving Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize diploma to display alongside the uniform was also very exciting. 

Managing the careful movement of artefacts is an important role played by the Collections Department. The Collections team collaborates with other institutions and private lenders to arrange for items to be loaned to the Museum in order create engaging and relevant exhibits that will have the most impact for our visitors. The journey from exhibit concept to installation often involves a great deal of “behind the scenes” work: the negotiation of loans, arrangement of artefact shipping, and the arrival and documentation of objects prior to installing them. 

The complexities of mounting and displaying the objects for the Girl of Courage exhibit required a great deal of collaborative project planning from the beginning. The presentation of the school uniform in particular required detailed preparation. We needed to consider how it would be displayed visually. The clothing had to be mounted in a display case for the exhibit, so we had to think about the best angle for the display case, the types of materials that were safe to come into contact with the uniform, how the uniform would be attached to its display mount and how these decisions would impact the overall exhibit design and visitor experience. 

Before Malala’s uniform arrived at the Museum, we developed a preliminary plan for displaying the uniform based on images, measurements and information shared with us by the Nobel Peace Center and the Yousafzai family. Following the style of display in the Nobel Peace Center’s exhibit, we decided to lay the uniform on a flat backing board placed at an upright angle in the display case. 

After the uniform’s arrival at the Museum, Collections staff unpacked it, photographed it, examined its condition, and began to carefully evaluate our artefact mounting options. We needed to determine if there were any areas of the fabric that needed extra support or care, and where it would be safest to fasten the garment to the mount. Rather than attach the garments’ fabric directly to the backing board, we cut sheets of a special polyethylene foam to the size and shape of the pants and tunic, inserted the foam into the garments and affixed the foam inserts to the backing board with Velcro, draping the garments to hide areas of attachment. For additional support, we used twill fabric straps pinned to the backing board under the garments’ folds, and placed thin pins at discreet locations (for example at a seam).

Before final installation in the display case, we carefully raised the mounted uniform on its backing board to the vertical angle at which it would be displayed to ensure there would be no shifting or settling over time as gravity took effect. We also used this opportunity for final adjustments, ensuring the uniform was arranged as accurately as possible to how it would be worn. Thanks to the work of many hands, the uniform was ready for installation.

In the years leading up to the opening of the Museum, much work was done to inform how we would become the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. At one point in early consultations, we were advised “…not to overlook the power of the artifact.”1 The first time I saw Malala’s school uniform delicately unpacked and laid before me, it took my breath away.  Never have I been so overwhelmed by an everyday object, simple garments worn in an ordinary activity that most of us take for granted. This is a story of taking a stand and being vocal, best told through the power of the artifact. 

Malala Yousafzai’s uniform and Nobel Peace Prize diploma are on display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in the Girl of Courage exhibit until March 19, 2017.


1 Content Advisory Committee final report to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, May 27, 2010