Museums and libraries maintain virtual programs as in-person tours fall behind

Back for months now, many cultural institutions in southwestern Ontario – from museums to libraries – are not seeing the crowds they once drew before the pandemic.

But even without visitors, some organizations that have switched to online programming during the pandemic are relying on the virtual option to recreate the traffic they depend on.

At the London Public Library, visits to its 16 branches fell by almost a third in October, compared to before the pandemic, according to the library’s latest figures. The service reported a total of 78,000 in-person visits this month, up from 240,000 in 2019.

One of the main reasons for this decline is that social distancing makes it difficult to offer activities, said Ellen Hobin, the library’s communications manager.

“The programs were a big driver for the people who visited the library,” she said. “We would (also) let other organizations run programs in our spaces, or people could rent our spaces to run programs. ”

The library offered 1,300 programs in 2019, but switched to outdoor activities, such as story time for children when the pandemic struck, Hobin said.

Still, that hasn’t stopped customers from using its services, she said, adding that the library offers both digital and physical library materials.

Hardware withdrawals have remained constant, at 300,000 in October compared to 8,000 compared to 2019. The use of digital equipment has increased over the same period, Hobin said.

“The service that has really grown, unsurprisingly, is all of our books, audiobooks and movies online,” she said. “People are pretty excited to find this stuff, even though they’re still borrowing physical material as well.”

Museums, art galleries and libraries were among the last places to be given the green light to reopen to the public. Under Stage 3 of the Ontario Reopening Act, the centers were allowed to operate in July at a rate of 50 per capacity indoors.

For the London Children’s Museum, July 26 marked the end of a difficult period in which staff were forced to close the building three times amid the pandemic.

“As of March 2020, we have finally been closed for 363 days between this multi-month period,” said Mira Noordermeer, Marketing and Communications Coordinator. “We had three separate closings at that time, so it was definitely a challenge. ”

Unlike the London Public Library and several other Ontario museums, the Children’s Museum requires all staff and visitors to show proof of vaccination.

This is one of many steps the museum is taking to bring families and children back into programming, Noordermeer said.

“We are just working with visitors to create an environment that they are comfortable and happy to be in,” she said.

While most of its activities have returned to normal – with between 100 and 150 people coming to the museum each day – many programs, including field trips during the March and winter holidays, have been suspended, Noordermeer said.

At those times, “we would have had maybe 600 (people) throughout the day, which is a bit busier. But we won’t see this kind of traffic anytime soon.

At the Lambton Heritage Museum in Grand Bend, there was a 15% drop in visits in August and from the same month before the pandemic, according to the museum’s latest figures.

Like many other museums, Lambton Heritage relies heavily on in-person programs, such as interacting with artefacts and educational collections that people can touch, said Dana Thorne, museum curator and supervisor.

“It’s hard to think about how to proceed when people can’t touch anything. It is definitely something that we have had to struggle with.

While traditional experiences are no longer the same, online engagement has, in some ways, increased dramatically, Thorne said, citing the museum’s virtual lectures.

“We did virtual lectures on different local history topics, and we could have 100 or 110 people coming in and watching… While doing an in-person lecture here at the museum, you could have 15 or 20 people physically coming to the museum. Museum … That way it’s nice to be able to deliver content virtually and really expand our reach.

Going forward, Thorne said the museum may adopt a “hybrid model” in which activities are conducted both online and in person.

Marie Lalonde, executive director of the Ontario Museums Association, which represents about 700 museums across Ontario, believes many will continue to take “new approaches to exhibits, planning visits and learning. in line “.

“If we can find the resources to support the work, I think some of the virtual opportunities will create greater accessibility, not only locally but for people outside your region and across the world… and some of these practices are here to stay, ”Lalonde mentioned.

At the same time, it is recognized that nothing can replace this authentic experience of being next to or in front of a very important artifact that tells a fascinating story.

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The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

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