Educators lead live programming while hundreds of miles apart during lockdown. Photo credit: Liberty Hall Museum.

By Hannah Gaston, Liberty Hall Museum, Union, NJ

I work at a small historic house museum and arboretum in northern New Jersey, and when we reopened in July 2020, we decided to go virtual. As the Coordinator of School Programs, I have learned a lot this past year about virtual programming, and I hope these twelve lessons can help other small museums feel more confident in their virtual offerings as the world moves into the next twelve months of this pandemic. 

  1. You do not need fancy technology. Our first virtual programs were filmed on a SONY HDR AX2000, a type of camera used in movie studios. Despite the quality of the end-product, we realized this was not a sustainable method. Instead, we use iPads and Zoom. It is basic technology, but it is far more manageable with (nearly) the same results.   
  2. Using what you have works. Developing brand new programming is expensive and time-consuming, so we decided to simply take our in-person programs and convert them to a virtual stage. This was a relatively easy process, and ultimately more than half of our virtual offerings were converted from already existing in-person experiences.   
  3. The staple programs are often the best. We have four staple programs that are frequently requested. Of the fifty virtual programs we created, the staple programs, even virtually, have still proved to be our most popular programs; 72.5% of all our virtual programming in the past twelve months was one of those four staple programs.  
  4. Not every idea will work. Back in March 2020, we created a number of online learning activities, shared via our website. However, our reopening survey discovered that only 2% of respondents used themWe recognized that this idea was not successful and used that knowledge to better guide our programming. Now, 100% of our virtual programming is live because that is what our visitors want.  
  5. Virtual programs help in other ways besides attendance and revenue generation. The museum’s educational program attendance suffered an 85.4% decrease, but we all now recognize that virtual programming leads to increased accessibility, a wider audience base, and reduced social isolation. Aserving our visitors in a myriad of ways is ultimately the mission of every museumthis is exactly what we want to be doing 
  6. Do not rely on traditional forms of marketing. Pre-COVID, our marketing campaigns were emails reminding teachers to “book programs soon.” During the pandemic, response rates to these campaigns plummeted to 3%. We then decided to advertise on four different online marketing and booking sites, and since then, 25% of our bookings have come from these platforms.

    Using an iPad to connect virtually with a class of students on a virtual field trip. Photo credit: Maeve Forde.

  7. Test your programs. Twelve months ago, the idea of running a virtual program terrified me. To ease my concerns I did a complete test run before our first ever virtual field-tripWe took the time to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and in doing so calmed my fears of the unknown.  
  8. Technology will fail you. The wi-fi signal does not reach every room in the museum, and our calls dropped so many times in our first set of virtual programs that we decided to be upfront about our issues. Every group is now told that we may experience connectivity issues, and we’ve found participants to be overwhelmingly understanding of our technological difficulties.  
  9. Your programs will change. Our first virtual programs looked very different from our virtual programs today. Based on participant feedback, we introduced live polling, stopped using the chat function, shortened the program lengthand started spotlighting the primary speaker. We got comfortable knowing that these programs will constantly change. 
  10. Virtual programming will be successful, just perhaps in ways that you did not expect. Instead of hundreds of virtual school students, we found ourselves inundated with booking requests from adult learners. Our virtual adult learning and continuing education programs expanded 300% over twelve months. It’s not what we expected, but we have enjoyed the opportunity to work with this new audience. 
  11. People are grateful. Managing virtual programming has made me question if we are doing the right thingbut virtual participants are overwhelmingly grateful. For example, one teacher reminded us: “Thank you for all of your hard work to make this virtual experience as rich as possible during this crazy time we are living through these days!”  
  12. We will return to normal. At the end of a recent virtual field trip a teacher said to me: “We were so bummed we couldn’t be there in person, but we will be back next year!” Her comment gives me hope.  We will return to normal and if we don’t remember what the old normal looked like, we will make a new onebuilding it with all the skills and resources we have gained from the past twelve months 

Hannah Gaston is the Coordinator of School Programs at Liberty Hall Museum. Historic house museums hold a special place in her heart. She has presented on the topic of relevant and compelling storytelling in historic house museums at the Small Museum Association conference, and has recently published her graduate thesis on the same topic. She is a May Kean Raynolds Museum Studies Fellow. She holds a B.A. in History from Elmira College and a M.A. in Museum Professions with a focus in Museum Education from Seton Hall University.