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Creating successful virtual programmes for a Museum

If the past few years have taught museums anything, it’s that a swift pivot to digital delivery forced many organisations to assess the impact of digitisation on their audiences reactively.

For the team at the Canadian War Museum, the collection of three million artefacts has been the subject of over 100 virtual programmes for public and school audiences over the past two years. The breadth and style of digital content produced by the Museum presented the team with an opportunity to reflect more widely on the ingredients needed to make engaging virtual experiences for the benefit of the wider sector.

As Ashlee Beattie, Sandra O’Quinn and Jessica Shaw explained at the MuseumNext Digital Summit in June 2022, the museum employed an evidence-based approach to analyse the success of their digital output. They outlined how a combination of participant surveys and critical self-evaluation helped them arrive at what they believe to be the formula for successful engagement with local and national audiences in digital formats.

Here’s an overview of their presentation on creating successful virtual programmes for a Museum.

A Simple Formula to Digital Engagement

Know Your Audience: What are their needs, interests or barriers to participation?  Understanding your audience means you will make informed decisions about the duration, format and content of your programme

What Do You Want to Accomplish?: Is everyone in agreement on the desired outcome? Learning objectives can differ from education-based programmes to webinars

How Will You Define Success?: Choose your success criteria wisely – are you trying to reach new audiences or increase participant numbers?

With an understanding of the formula needed to guide the creation, delivery and evaluation of a virtual programme, the Canadian War Museum also identified a number of additional elements that helped make their digital content successful.  Or as they put it, the ingredients to the secret sauce:

  1. Articulate your vision – get buy-in from stakeholders
  2. Establish a structure – script and scenario are critical
  3. Be prepared – it takes time to create good content
  4. Know your unique value – authenticity is key
  5. Design for engagement – empower your audience to participate
  6. Integrate feedback – solicit comments and implement them

Formula in Action – Analysing Digital Content

To illustrate how the formula works in the context of creating and evaluating a virtual programme, the Canadian War Museum drew from a range of digital examples. Their “Make, Do and Mend” programme was initially created in response to a rise in traditional skills such as baking bread, knitting and sewing becoming popular during the pandemic – skills which have clear connections to the Second World War.

The skills were already heavily covered on the likes of YouTube and so to stand out, the Canadian War Museum needed to identify a unique value proposition. In this case, it was the historical component.  The goal was to draw the audience into a workshop that turned them into history enthusiasts – an aspect which participants responded to readily.

Take for instance the knitting workshop. Vision and value were two aspects of the content that were already agreed upon but structure, particularly in the beginning, was scattered.  The team settled on using presenters to help blend together the practical aspects of the workshop with the historical segments.  This format became so successful that it was replicated across other virtual programmes thanks to the unique option for interaction amongst the presenters and the chance to revert to experts in a particular field.

Although presenters enjoying casual interactions may look easy, the team insists that this is misleading.  A virtual series is carefully planned over many months in collaboration with the research division and the presenters to establish scripts, content and clear goals for each segment.  The finished article might look straightforward but this conversational tone has another added benefit.  The live chat function for each segment was often buzzing with online conversations as a community grew around each workshop during lockdown.  It became a programme designed to elicit engagement from the audience.

In addition to “Make, Do and Mend”, the museum team identified a number of other successful virtual programmes such as “This Belongs in a Museum” and “Witness to History”. Both were shaped by data gathering and have been appraised by the team in order to refine the formula for the future. Through reflection and discussion amongst colleagues, the museum team were able to have a clear understanding of the directives that worked when creating their own successful digital content.

It was a process they are now looking to share with other institutions in the hope that it can help them design their digital output to engage with an audience more effectively and, ultimately, accomplish the desired outcomes. 

Ashlee Beattie, Sandra O’Quinn and Jessica Shaw from the Canadian War Museum spoke at the MuseumNext Digital Summit 2022 about Creating successful virtual programmes for a Museum. 


MuseumNext offer online learning for museum professionals striving for engaging, relevant and flexible professional growth content. Learn more about our virtual museum conferences here.

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