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Using Technology to Change How We Talk About Museums

What does a museum mean to a city? Who feels represented, included or inspired by these civic institutions? These are big questions, with no easy answers, but as much as technology is at work inside museums, it can also be used to engage people about museums. This was the opportunity in the city of Hamilton, Canada as municipal officials started thinking about a new strategy for the 7 institutions under their jurisdiction.

Hamilton, Canada

Hamilton is a mid-sized Canadian city with a population of around 500,000. The community has a rich industrial history, often compared to Pittsburgh or Birmingham. The city’s geographic location at the western tip of Lake Ontario positioned it as an important locale for Indigenous communities. Its historic location was pivotal in the development of modern Canada, as important events took place throughout the city during the war of 1812 with the Americans, as well as producing several prominent national political leaders. Contemporary Hamilton has grown more diverse and it has become clear the while the civic museums collectively tell a story about the city, they don’t tell the whole story. Additionally, the way in which they tell stories has not kept pace with modern times.

This was the setting when the Reimagine Our Museums project was launched with a mission to engage with the broader community to gauge what opportunities and priorities should drive future planning.

A Diversity of Museums

Hamilton has 7 museums under its stewardship ranging from stately homes and rustic cabins to sunken ships and the City’s first steam-powered pumphouse. Each tells part of a story of the city. Collectively, they represent a particular slice of European-based history for the area. Probably, the most famous and well visited museum is Dundurn Castle, a 40-room Italianate-style villa built in the 1830’s on the bluffs overlooking Hamilton Harbour. The location is the former site of a fortified military encampment established by the British in 1813. Once home to Sir Allan Napier MacNab, railway magnate, lawyer and Premier of the United Canadas (1854-1856) and his family, today Dundurn Castle tells the story of the family who lived above stairs and the servants who lived and worked below stairs to support their affluent lifestyle.

A Community Dialogue

Informing the creation of a new museums strategy were major questions around the future of these museums. Chief among them were how relevant were these museums to the community and how can they become more economically sustainable? A changing community, expanding entertainment options, tight municipal budgets, competition for funding, all contributed to an environment of having to balance interests, needs, and capabilities.

Reimagine Our Museums

In order to get a better sense of the role of the civic museums in the life of Hamilton residents and visitors, the Reimagine Our Museums project was undertaken to engage the broader community. The project involved several key activities, both in person and online, that were deployed over a six-month period. These were designed to reach a more diverse number of Hamilton residents and visitors. In total, over 200 groups, organizations and stakeholders were directly contacted about the project at various points in time. These 200 groups comprised 17 different categories of community representation. Further, over the six-month period, more than 1,700 residents and visitors participated in various ways as part of the Reimagine Our Museums project.

Technology

Woven throughout the project was the use of technology to enhance outreach, engagement and data collection. More specifically, technology was used to help address two important challenges:

1.    Many participants had never set foot in a civic museum or had not gone to one in many years. This meant that the familiarity with the space was low, as was the understanding of the quality of the spaces.

2.    Many participants felt that they did not see themselves represented in the civic museums and therefore had a hard time providing comment on the process.

Virtual Reality

To tackle the first challenge, virtual reality was used. If some participants were unfamiliar with the civic museums, the team would bring the museums to them, virtually. Portable VR headsets were used at community events, giving people the ability to take a stroll inside some of the major landmarks. Additionally, the experience was gamified to see if they could guess more obscure locations.

After touring the museums through virtual reality, participants were better able to take part in suggesting what they would like to see in the museums moving forward. In this sense, the VR experience “broke the ice” allowing those who might find attending a museum intimidating, to take part in the project.

Also, the VR experience attracted the attention of a younger demographic, people in their teens and early 20s, to the Reimagine Our Museums project. This was a key demographic as visitor research showed that museums were losing out on a generation of potential patrons. At the very least, through VR engagement, awareness of the civic museums increased through the project.

Building the Story of the Community – Online Interactive Timeline

As representation, or lack thereof, in the civic museums, was a major topic of discussion, a tool to collect missing narratives was designed using an online interactive timeline.

The tool was designed to give people a proactive way to talk about museum context and representation. Specifically, people were asked to help build the story of Hamilton by contributing stories they would like people to know about the city. This seems straight forward enough, but the tool was designed to appeal to more than the history buffs with a working knowledge of facts and dates of important events. Instead, it was designed to connect with people via their personal histories and timelines.

Participants were asked to think of a timescale everyone could relate to – their lifetime. Three time periods were identified:

1.    Before Your Lifetime

2.    During Your Lifetime

3.    After Your Lifetime

By dividing the timescale into these periods, a number of engagement goals were accomplished. Immediately, the tool is accessible to everyone, not only those with good grasp of history and dates. Secondly, in the minds of participants, it puts the idea of the civic museums in the more relevant present, not just the past. Finally, by asking participants to think about the future, it turns a conversation of civic museums into one of civic aspirations moving forward.

Importantly, the online interactive timeline allowed participants to submit stories, and then it would display those stories for others to see. In this sense, a community conversation developed and given that it was online, participants could contribute from anywhere, not just at a pre-determined time or place.

Community Engagement in an Age of COVID

Another unexpected outcome of the Reimagine Our Museums project, and it’s use of technology, is how these lessons can apply to community engagement in an age of COVID. The pandemic has upended many areas of our lives, especially those that previously relied on in-person community connections. Civic engagement is certainly one area where physical distancing has shuttered traditional practices, such as community meetings. While public events may have been cancelled and postponed, the work they support – the work of hearing from the public to make sure public institutions are relevant and responsive – continues. While the pandemic and physical distancing requirements may have limited these traditional models of public engagement, it has also exposed how, in many ways, these methods are no longer the best and only ways to effectively engage residents in shaping the future of their communities. Reimagine Our Museums used technology to give more people, more opportunities to contribute to a discussion on the future of their civic museums. It was also successful in appealing to those who would have otherwise tuned out or found traditional approaches inaccessible.

About the author – Paul Shaker

Paul Shaker is a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a registered professional planner in Ontario. He is co-founder and principal of Civicplan, a community planning and public engagement firm. Civicplan designed and implemented the Reimagine Our Museums project.

 

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