In late February, 2020, Vito Giovannetti took the stage at the genealogy conference RootsTech to pitch his startup Treasured as a platform for turning family histories into virtual museums.
Two weeks later, the world shut down. Over the coming months, Giovannetti and his team realized there was a whole other audience for their product: real museums that were physically shuttered and struggling to get online.
So the small Toronto-based tech company pivoted from family histories to local stories, and it has now started to bring some of its new projects to digital life.
Giovannetti started the company in 2017 with co-founder Nikita Varabei shortly after graduating from York University’s Schulich School of Business.
The company uses the video-game software Unity to build virtual spaces that allow visitors to walk around and view picture, audio and video pieces. Unity is a cross-platform engine that has been used to develop popular mobile games such as Angry Birds 2 or critically acclaimed independent productions such as Cuphead. Unity has also found a growing audience among architects and engineers to render 3-D models.
“We’re not trying to replace the physical beauty and experience people are getting from larger museums,” Giovannetti said. “I can’t wait to get back into a physical space. We’re a complement.”
Treasured’s most high-profile project so far is the Museum of American War Letters, which opened online on March 29, National Vietnam War Veterans Day. The inaugural exhibit is the museum’s Vietnam wing, detailing American soldiers’ views of the highly controversial conflict – from future president Bill Clinton’s note to a colonel thanking him for “saving him” from the draft, to a lonely soldier’s message to his mother, scrawled on a length of toilet paper.
Andrew Carroll, the founding director of the Center for American War Letters, said he was excited to create a space that lived only online, with no physical structure, and said he believed his was the first virtual museum that wasn’t modelled after an existing space.
“We want other [institutions] – whether they’re universities, small towns, whatever – to, instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on a physical structure that may end up being shut down during a pandemic, instead spend a fraction of that on a virtual museum,” he said.
Treasured’s most recent project is a little closer to home, a virtual exhibit for the King Heritage and Cultural Centre in the rural township north of Toronto, where Giovannetti grew up.
Erika Baird, the centre’s supervisor, said the township had been talking for some time about how to make more of an online presence. Digitizing collections has been a major movement at museums and galleries in recent years, but the centre had only two employees and limited resources to make something happen.
On Saturday, the centre opened the virtual exhibit Stories of King, which features interesting items from the area’s past that didn’t warrant their own full-blown exhibits. One panel, for, example, examines some of the town’s oldest and oddest bylaws, such as a ban on bowling in 1925 and an 1852 decree to not allow horses to copulate in public view.
Baird said the advantage of moving online is that it gives her small township centre the potential to reach many more people.
“The future of museums isn’t just brick and mortar building, it’s sharing our history with a wider audience,” she said.
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