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Treasured Blog: Museum Edition

How the Curators at King Heritage and Cultural Centre Created Their First Online Exhibit

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic the importance of having a digital presence has become increasingly obvious. With social distancing, restrictions on travel, and rolling lockdowns, many businesses have shifted to offering ways for their community to engage with them digitally. For museums, creating online exhibits has provided a way for the public to enjoy the museum’s collections from home. One of the museums that has embraced digital exhibits is the King Heritage and Cultural Centre (KHCC). 

KHCC is north of Toronto, just outside of King City. The site is home to the King Museum Collection, King Archival Collection, Arts Society King, and the King Township Historical Society. In the museum you’ll find a collection of over 2000 artifacts, extensive archives, four historic buildings, two exhibition galleries, and a performance hall situated on over an acre of parkland. This small community museum celebrates all things cultural, related to the region. It’s a popular spot for local families, genealogists, and travelers to visit. 

Erika Baird, Supervisor, and Liza Mallyon, Collections & Exhibit Coordinator, recently published their first digital exhibit, which they created using Treasured. While this exhibit isn’t the KHCC’s first online exhibit, it was the first time that Erika and Liza had curated one. We caught up with them to learn about what prompted the decision to create digital content for KHCC, and what the experience of curating an online exhibit was like!

Hi Erika and Liza! To begin, can you both share with me what you do at King Heritage and Cultural Centre?

Erika: Absolutely! I’m the Supervisor, Heritage & Cultural Centre at KHCC. Prior to KHCC I worked as a director and curator in various other museums in the area. I’ve now been in my role here at KHCC for 1.5 years, and I basically take care of some of everything the museum could possibly need, from strategic planning to flow of the site and visitor services. 

Liza: I am KHCC’s Collections & Exhibit Coordinator. I have over 20 years of experience in museums, including my time at the Gibson House in Toronto. Like Erika, I’ve been at KHCC for about 1.5 years, and my main focus here is exactly what my title implies: I take care of coordinating our collections and exhibits. And of course, I also assist with events, inquiries, and anything else that may come up.

Can you tell us some details about the King Heritage and Cultural Centre?

KHCC has 4 buildings on site: a schoolhouse, hall, church, and a railway station. The railway station is the oldest existing station in Ontario. KHCC has approximately two acres of property that visitors can explore. Even though we are closed right now because of the pandemic, visitors can stop by and walk around the property. 

When we are completely open, visitors can explore the exhibits, which are housed inside the schoolhouse, and they can look inside the other buildings, too. Tours are self-guided, with lots of signage to provide information along the way. KHCC also offers seasonal and special events, as well as events for schools and school programs. Genealogists and researchers often visit as well so that they can explore our archives.

What factored into the decision to bring an online element to the museum?

We started to think seriously about building an online presence in May 2020. That’s when we realized that we wouldn’t be able to open up entirely because of pandemic restrictions. We started by creating some videos and other digital content, but we really wanted to be able to create full online exhibits. It felt like that was out of reach because neither of us are particularly tech savvy, and we also found that platforms for creating online exhibits are expensive, and so they didn’t fit into our budget. 

Eventually you decided to use Treasured to create a digital exhibit. What features of the Treasured platform were most valuable for you?

Many of the solutions for digital exhibits are meant for large museums that have different needs than we do. We really appreciate that Treasured is accessible for smaller museums, from a financial perspective and also from a usability perspective. The platform is super user friendly, which made the experience of creating our first digital exhibit a seamless one. 

We were also attracted to Treasured because of how attentive the team is. In building our first exhibit, the Treasured team was super responsive to our questions, and when pain points came up they were able to deliver a solution very quickly. 

Because we hadn’t created an online exhibit before, we had some concerns about how the content would differ from a physical exhibit. The Treasured team helped with these concerns too, giving us great feedback about what would and what wouldn’t work in a digital exhibit. It’s also fun to be involved at the beginning because we are learning from Treasured, and Treasured is learning from us what small, community museums need.

What was your goal in curating this online exhibit?

We recognize that an online presence is one of the best ways to reach new audiences. So, our goal with the exhibit was to reach a younger audience, as well as people that are further afield. Our digital exhibit might bring the attention of people who are in other parts of Ontario or Canada, for example. 

Our other goal was to use the format to tell some of our shorter stories. In our work we often come across interesting stories that don’t have quite enough length or material to merit a full, physical exhibit. But using online exhibits we can share these shorter stories without them feeling too brief or incomplete. 

When we start promoting the collection of exhibits we’ve created, we’ll include a visitor survey at the end. This should give us a good sense of the exhibit’s reception, as well as information about how people are engaging with them.

Can you share with us how you approached curating an online exhibit using Treasured?

The first part of the process was quite similar to curating a physical exhibit. We began by brainstorming ideas, and then researching the topics and ideas that we felt made the most sense for the digital format. There was lots of reading, researching, and writing in this stage. 

Once we were through the research phase, we had to pare the writing down. We had a lot of information, and we needed to trim it so that it would be succinct, but not too long. For the writing itself, we took a much more informal and playful tone than we would in writing content for a physical exhibit.

Were there any pain points or learning curves in using the Treasured platform?

We found that with curating a digital exhibit we had to shift our approach to creating layouts. When curating in a physical space we can be very imaginative with layouts. With an online exhibit, the options for layouts are a bit more confined. Getting our heads used to that confined space, and understanding what it can and can't do was a challenge.

The other challenge we found with curating online was how to make the exhibit interesting and eye-catching without the use of a physical space. Our physical exhibits always include many different types of materials, like text, pictures, objects, colours, music and artifacts. In building our digital exhibit we couldn’t really do these physical properties. Instead, we experimented with adding different types of content, like video, to our stories. In the future we’d like to include other digital formats, like voice recordings, in our exhibits. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to create atmosphere using digital tools.

What benefits do you see in creating digital content for KHCC and other museums?

Pandemic or not, digital content is the way the world is going. And providing it comes with many benefits. It helps us, and other museums, reach an audience that we may otherwise not have had access to. And it makes our museum accessible to people who may not be able to visit our physical location because of a disability, or because of their location. 

The other benefit is that it gives our research and our onsite exhibits a longer life. For example, many of our exhibits are up for just three months. When they are taken down, we can now add them to our digital collection where they can continue to provide value to our audience. The exhibits we’ve just launched were built from scratch, but in the future we will most definitely be transferring our physical exhibits to the online space. The other great thing is that digital exhibits aren’t stagnant - we can continue to update, edit, and expand our online exhibits down the road.

What’s next for the collection of stories you’ve just launched as an exhibit on Treasured?

We will be promoting these stories on every platform available to us! We’re excited to share this exhibit with our community, and see who it reaches beyond our community. We’ve had such a positive experience creating this content, and working with the Treasured team. We’re looking forward to building more exhibits in the near future.

You can explore King Heritage and Cultural Centre’s first digital exhibit, here.