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Connecting during COVID: How museums are rethinking engagement in a time of physical distancing

May 31, 2020
By: 
Michelle Campbell Mekarski
Science Advisor
Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ingenium
Renée-Claude Goulet
Science Advisor
Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, Ingenium
Jesse Rogerson
Science Advisor
Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Ingenium

On Friday, March 13, 2020, amidst an intense swirl of COVID-19 news, Ingenium employees received word that they should take their working files and laptops home, and prepare to work remotely. That night, our three museums — the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum — shuttered their doors to the public. The following Monday, we began to take stock of our new reality. What would these developments mean for Ingenium and its museums for the foreseeable future?

As science museums, our overarching role is to act as a bridge between science and society. Grounding ourselves in physical spaces, our institutions offer a safe and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds to identify with science, better understand its impacts, and make sense of the world around them.

The strength of museums lies in our in-person engagement. At Ingenium, we offer interactive exhibitions, programming, and outreach to provide informal learning opportunities. Suddenly, in a world changed by COVID-19, our physical spaces are now off limits. Like many other institutions, Ingenium quickly recognized that the Internet is now the main venue for engaging with our communities. So how are we adapting our approach to connecting with our audiences, and how is this driving the evolution of our role as a bridge between science and society?

Recognizing the major social challenges we are collectively facing has helped us identify three main strategic directions: 

  • Helping our audiences understand the science behind public health policy;
  • Supporting parents/guardians and teachers in the delivery of virtual science learning; and
  • Fostering a strong sense of community across Canada.

 

Demystifying the science behind policy 

Globally, museums have the responsibility and privilege of being accessible and trusted sources of information across a broad spectrum of audiences. As a result, Ingenium — and the greater informal science learning community — are well positioned to help our audiences navigate difficult topics. 

In this time of crisis, the role of museums as a conduit to information is more relevant than ever. Our audiences are inundated with public health information, some of it from official sources, some highly politicized, some completely false and damaging. It can be difficult for anyone to identify reliable and fact-based information online. In the midst of the information jungle, Ingenium has made it a priority to serve our audiences by distilling complex public health concepts — and their implications — into easy-to-understand information, presented in an engaging and empathetic format.   

Science at home 

Parents, guardians, and teachers accustomed to a structured weekday school schedule, plus visiting museums and science centres for entertainment or education, must now engage their children in full-time learning at home. Ingenium’s museums are stepping firmly into the role of educational support by providing topical and fun at-home resources. 

Museums have a wealth of programming content meant for in-person interactions. In response to the crisis, Ingenium — in collaboration with other institutions — is digitizing and reformatting these experiences into products such as videos, articles, and how-to guides, allowing us to deliver our resources to our community through websites and social media. 

As museums, we need to make educational opportunities accessible to all people living in Canada, regardless of their background and abilities. In the current global context, this goal has not changed; if anything, it has become more crucial. Now, we’re challenged to consider how we can best implement an inclusive digital strategy — to reach those without Internet connection, linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, and people in precarious economic situations. The strategies and relationships developed during this adaptation have the potential to have a lasting impact on the inclusion of these communities.

Community building and support 

A museum is more than a place to learn; it is a place of belonging. Within the walls of our museums, people find community and friendship. In the wake of COVID-19, with strong physical distancing measures in place, there is an even greater and immediate need for human connection. As a result, Ingenium’s approach to social media has expanded its focus, becoming a tool for nurturing positivity and bringing people together. Our online content also aims to empathize, to share our humanity — our joys and our frustrations — and find togetherness despite our physical distance. It’s not easy to adapt our public offerings in the context of such large-scale social change. By communicating our own challenges and solutions, we become a role model for others trying to cope.

The element of community building is also occurring within our industry. Museums, science centres, and other informal learning organizations are looking to each other for support, bringing about immense creativity and collaboration. Through new networks, our sector is sharing challenges, ideas, and approaches with the common goal of fostering belonging and inclusiveness for our audiences and peers.

Responding to evolving needs

The global pandemic of COVID-19 highlights the critical and important role museums and cultural industries play in our society. Our goals have not changed; in fact, stepping up to them has become even more crucial. What has changed is our context and delivery. 

In our shift from a primarily physical space to a primarily digital one, our initial response was to provide the necessary resources quickly. Going forward, we must work closely with our audiences to ensure our strategies are responding to their evolving needs. This means close collaboration with advisory and advocacy groups, community services, and the public is critical. In this way, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to realize our mission in novel ways.

It’s also important to recognize our own changing needs. As museum employees, we are also living through this pandemic. There are limits on our time, our tools, and our mental capacity while managing stresses, families, and various needs. While we may be limited as individuals, we have found empathy and support in our communities. 

When the doors open again, the tools and connections we have built will continue to inspire new ways of engaging with our audiences, partners, colleagues and peers. But for the moment, this is a world of trial and error, where experimentation may not have the desired results. However, this should not deter us; failure is a wonderful driver for innovation.