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In conversation with Cara Egan from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center

The Gates Discovery Center pre-pandemic

Having been closed since the onset of the pandemic back in March 2020, The Discovery Center based at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation HQ in Seattle has shifted all exhibits, programs and marketing online over the last 18 months.

As Senior Communications Officer, Cara Egan, explains, however, this hasn’t stopped the Center from delivering on its mission to educate, motivate and inspire through Covid-19. By sharing stories of communities coming together to navigate their way through the pandemic, the Center continues to engage and inform. Indeed, thanks to the team’s work online they have succeeded in reaching people further afield than ever before.

Despite being a very small team, Cara says that the Discovery Center’s secret weapon in helping them to pivot online right away came from the cohort of high school students enrolled in their youth ambassador program.

“In a typical year we have a large event in the spring that welcomes over 1,200 teens to the Center as part of our youth program. But when the pandemic hit, one of our first steps was to shift that event online within a month.

“Experimenting through our virtual youth program gave us an important insight into how we should move forward. Having youth show us what they valued from their online experiences and how they wanted technology to work for them really helped us to hone our digital content.”

From videos to polls to chats to art and music, Cara says that generating a rich mix of virtual program content has proven itself to be highly effective for the Center. And it’s not just the Discovery Center’s traditional visitor base that has engaged; a much broader, global audience has found the Center during Covid-19, exploring the virtual exhibitions and resources online.

In particular, Cara explains that she and the rest of the team at the museum found that educators demonstrated a real appetite for the Discovery Center’s virtual classroom programs as they sought to explain the nature of the pandemic to their students and bring local and global issues into their classrooms.

“Many of the topics we explored in digital format were based around Covid-19 and the science of the disease and vaccines. Educators were really hungry for curriculum that helped their students to understand the world we are living in right now.”

Speaking on the dramatic increase in reach with their virtual footprint, Cara says, “Typically we appeal to a regional audience. We do get tourists from all over coming to see us when they visit Seattle but our work with schools and our educational initiatives had been locally focused. Nothing quite like the global reach we’ve seen since moving our education programs online and making them accessible.”

Inspiring Community Stories

It has been the Discovery Center’s “Enduring COVID: Stories from our Transforming World” virtual exhibition, in particular, that has garnered much attention and praise online through the course of the Covid crisis. Asked about the inspiration for the exhibition, Cara says, “Amidst the trauma that was unfolding around the world in early 2020, we were also seeing stories of incredible efforts by heroic people  looking to spread joy and hope, fight the virus, and meet the needs of the community.

“Very quickly as a team we thought that there must be some way to capture those stories in a virtual exhibit, deliver on our mission as a museum and also document them for reference into the future. We also hoped that by sharing these stories it would inspire others to get involved and contribute to their communities in meaningful ways.

“I think what we’ve done has really resonated because the time spent on our website, on average, has doubled after we launched the virtual exhibit.”

Looking to the future

Of course, once an audience has grown and become established, the next question is: how do you maintain your ability to engage with your traditional visitor whilst keeping the attention of that broader audience. In response, Cara says that the museum is working hard at creating the right blend of on-site and virtual activity to appeal to a “two tier” following.

“I think we’ll always now be looking at how we build an online component into the programs we deliver and the exhibitions we develop. We have an audience that stretches beyond Seattle and we have to be mindful that we can deliver on our mission not just in a small geographical space but more widely, as does the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a whole.

“We had already been shifting our exhibits to a first-person story-based approach for some time but Covid has pushed us to really expand on this in the online space. We are still exploring how we will create engaging hybrid programs,  both in-person and online, but we won’t really know what will work best until the Discovery Center opens its doors again at some point in 2022.”

With a new, international flavour to the museum’s online following, Cara says that coming together with other museum professionals from around the world has never been more important from her perspective.

“I am excited to hear from so many incredible museum marketers about their experiences in reaching and retaining new audiences in creative ways. The MuseumNext community always inspires me to discover new strategies, platforms, and ways to develop creative content.

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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