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If you visited a museum this past year, chances are you didn’t spend it wandering galleries in person. That visit probably took place entirely on your screen in the comfort of your own home. Shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic, museums in Ontario and beyond have been pouring energy, time and plenty of creativity into their online and digital offerings to keep visitors engaged. Think virtual field trips and classroom activities, webinars, podcasts, 3-D video games, online art classes, social media storytelling and immersive online tours that almost make you feel like you’re interacting with ancient artifacts, great art or zippy science displays.

“I’m not going to say that digital is the same as going to a museum in person because it’s never going to be,” says Erin Canning, a museum technologist in Toronto and member of the Museum Computer Network board. “But different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. It’s just a different kind of engagement.”

But these days, in-person and digital experiences have more in common than ever as museums stop treating the digital world as a simple add-on to their bricks-and-mortar offerings, says Ryan Dodge, chief digital officer at Ingenium, which operates three Ottawa museums: the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

“We’re seeing museums all over the place getting really creative with different types of technology,” he says, explaining that the tech should never overshadow the storytelling, but rather, enhance it. “I think for a long time, it was about the shiny object—the new thing, the VR goggles or Google Glass. But now, museums are really putting experience first, not technology first.”

For example, Ingenium has recently partnered with Algonquin College and its game development program to create a digital choose-your-own adventure game using a 3-D scan of the inside of a Governor General’s train car. After scanning it, the students worked with the curatorial team to build the story. The game will likely launch this summer.

Other large or iconic Ontario museums have also been busy creating innovative digital experiences. Aga Khan Museum’s homepage proudly displays the tag #MuseumWithoutWalls and offers everything from YouTube talks to a new arts and culture podcast called This Being Human. Meanwhile, the Art Gallery of Ontario has a plethora of free online school programs with guest presenters, conversations with artists, film screenings and more.

And while the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., had to close during lockdown, online visitors can take virtual guided tours with a docent or paint along with artists online in evening classes. Then there’s the Doors Open Ontario experience that takes you behind the doors and onto the trails of heritage sites across the province - virtually. Even smaller museums and galleries are serving up digital experiences. The Peel Art Gallery, Museum + Archives in Brampton, Ont., has online children’s activities and programs for adults, including a virtual book club that explores the arts. Or head north (figuratively) to the Art Gallery of Algoma to check out its impressive art collection.

Paul Kortenaar became the Ontario Science Centre’s CEO just days after the Toronto museum was forced to shut its doors during the first lockdown in 2020. But despite taking the reins at such a challenging time, he knew the museum - an agency of the Government of Ontario - had to stick with its mission and mandate: to help kids and families across the province learn about science in a fun and engaging way.

Between March 2020 and 2021, the staff hosted, among other things, 35 “Ask a Scientist” livestream events, delivered virtual programs to more than 600 classes, and garnered over 88,000 views of its home science videos.

No one likes to talk about pandemic silver linings, but Mr. Kortenaar does explain the abrupt push to all-digital content has had an unexpected impact on the museum’s reach. Suddenly, schools that are hours away from Toronto can take virtual field trips to the museum. Viewers around the world are tuning in and finding out what the Ontario Science Centre does. And that’s precisely why the virtual programming won’t be going away after the masks come off in the future, he says.

“If a school in Windsor or Kingston has just discovered they can engage with us in a way they couldn’t before,” he says, “we’re not going to abandon them after COVID is over.”

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