An exploration into the digital realm: how museums are coping with the pandemic


Photo courtesy of Pacific Museum of the Earth

On the cusp of World Museum Day on May 18, museums are navigating digital space to find new ways of reaching the public during a pandemic.

While many museums have had to close their doors due to the COVID-19 crisis, it does not mean that their services have stopped. Instead, many museums are continuing to support public outreach by offering virtual tours as well as online self-directed activities and workshops.

“The whole face-to-face economy is in new territory, people really want to unite,” says Museum of Vancouver (MOV) chief executive officer Mauro Vescera. “People are really craving the connection, and with that knowledge we thought, how we can use technology to help connect people’s stories with what is happening, and add some value and interest?”

A new frontier

The MOV is capturing this historic time through the creation of an online project called Isolating Together. “It is a Facebook page, it is a hashtag, it’s on our website. We have people share their experience of isolating together in Vancouver in a digital archive,” explains Vescera. “People are sending us pictures of their artwork, videos of them playing the saxophone at 8 a.m., or visuals of the Burrard Street Bridge and how it’s isolated.”

Mauro says the museum’s mission is to use technology and the mission of the museum, to give people an opportunity to tell their stories and to create a digital memory of this time.

“At the end of this we will have a bit of a record of experience, which is what a museum does, it collects stories. That is going to be the gem at the end of it. Hopefully when this all passes, a year from now, we might do a little exhibition that recounts this time,” he adds.

That is not all the MOV is doing to utilize this new digital frontier. It is providing virtual tours to showcase its exhibits, access to its database of 85,000 artifacts, and video workshops for aspiring collectors. It is also working with teachers to support K–12 education. “We have about 2,000 teachers and students that come to us in a normal year, a lot of those relationships called up our educational director and asked if there was anything the museum could provide,” says Vescera. “So we are providing some First Nations art, colouring activities, and quizzes on our website.”

The Pacific Museum of Earth (PME) is also turning to the online sector to supplement educational curriculum. “What we want to do is generate self-guided activities to go along with educational content, which would be analogous to the facilitated activities that a school group would have if they came to visit us,” explains Francis Jones, acting director for the PME at the University of British Columbia Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences. “If there is a puzzle for example that is related to plate tectonics, we want to try and convert it into a digital format.”

This is not the only digital foray the PME is undertaking; their 10,200-piece mineral collection is now viewable online for the first time ever. A searchable table allows them to continue supporting students in the Earth and Ocean Science department at UBC while they are off campus. And they are utilizing 3D Matterport models to provide virtual tours, which allow students to view exhibit cases in the main gallery.

This pandemic has also given the museum the opportunity to test out a new medium and teaching method, according to Jones. “The curator is putting together a series of podcasts to support women in science and female paleontologists. We have three different people lined up: one in Manitoba who used to work at the PME, a professor who teaches in the earth and ocean science department, and a volunteer paleontologist.”

Main gallery of the Pacific Museum of the Earth. | Photo courtesy of Pacific Museum of the Earth.

The unexpected outcome

The need to transform traditional museum delivery has resulted in some unintended benefits. “The great thing about technology is it actually facilitates public access to our collection,” says Vescera. “We have an exhibit called Haida Now which has about 450 different artifacts in it, but a lot of those artifacts sat in our vault for 15 years. Museums have these incredible collections, but they don’t have the space to show it all. Technology creates that opportunity for people to not just research but to learn about that past.”

Jones agrees with this sentiment. “We have accessibility issues in Canada, being spread far and wide, and we have rooms full of specimens that no one ever sees,” he says. “Using the digital space is making it easier to see the work of researchers that have been out in the field. A museum at UBC has the job of archiving human culture and knowledge, and making it accessible is a component of that. Without the pandemic coming along, I probably wouldn’t have got the mineral collection online so quickly.”

Supporting World Museum Day at a distance

Although World Museum Day will have to be celebrated remotely, the public can continue to support museums by understanding their importance in society. “We want to enable a visitor to come away from a visit with a better understanding of the role we play,” says Jones. “Nobody quite does what a museum can do, which is supporting research, curating and archiving collections and public outreach.”

Vescera feels that after this period of social distancing museums will play an important role in how people come together again.

“We’re hoping that Museums Day is about building a relationship to the museum, to the collections that belong to the people, and the stories of our past, present, and future,” he says.

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