Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Mandela’s Cell

Vistors view images and handwritten letters in a motion-graphics-rich film about Mandela and his family during his years of incarceration.

A centerpiece of the Mandela: Struggle for Freedon exhibit, Upswell worked with the museum content, exhibitions, and digital enablement teams to define an interactive experience within the footprint of Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. Certain constraints drove iterations on the experience design: the exhibit had to be a free-standing square, use projections and proximity sensors, allow for language switching, include replicated furniture and a handful of digital images of the original cell, and be easily transported as the exhibit travels.

To that end, Upswell prototyped a variety of interactive experiences, and as we went we realized that what was missing from the cell was a real sense of the human: a cell made for humans, by humans, people with bodies, emotions, and a history. And in this case, it was Mandela himself that we wanted to see and hear, not just the objects in his cell. Working on a short timeline (for films), we sourced moving images from public and gifted sources, and combed through thousands of pages of Stengel’s interviews with Mandela to script his stories of the trial, advocacy, resilience, family, and resistance. We also used an actor to portray Mandela, whose dim silhouette appears when the cell is inactive; as visitors approach, their presence brings the silhouette into sharp relief and randomly triggers one of five films. A language knob on the cell door smoothly transitions between English and French versions of the open-captioned films.

A window on Nelson Mandela as he lived, worked, advocated, and agonized in an 8x7-foot cell for 18 years.

A form of experimental documentary film, relying on large and bold graphic styles to fill the cell space and best utilize poor archival images.
A group of museum visitors watch a film about Mandela’s advocacy for prisoner rights during his years on Robben Island.
Silhouette of Nelson Mandela at his writing desk in the cell, as recreated by an actor.
Prototyping different types of interactions in the cell, including capacitive-touch-enabled objects.


  • Mandela: Struggle for Freedom


  • Winnipeg, Canada


  • 2018