Story Seeker: Myriam Benzakour-Durand
Person interviewed: Barbara Beranek, Communications Manager
Interview date: July 8, 2021
The Musée d’art de Rouyn-Noranda (MA) helps promote the arts of the Americas with its multidisciplinary programming. Located in the large territory of northwestern Quebec, the art museum affirms the importance of forging close and respectful ties with Indigenous Peoples and giving visibility to the cultural diversity of the recent immigration to Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
The Virtual MA project consists of a gallery of virtual exhibitions whose objective is to make the museum’s exhibitions available outside the region as well as to offer schools pedagogical support and flexible access.
The team had the idea for Virtual MA before the pandemic. They started working on the first project in partnership with Cuba prior to December 2019 and put it online in 2020. The pandemic only served to accelerate things with the closing of the museum—resources were entirely dedicated to reaching and maintaining contact with the public, as well as providing continuous artistic offerings on a virtual platform.
The Challenge: Maintaining artistic offerings and contact with the public
With the closing of the museum during the lockdowns in the first and second waves of COVID-19, the MA team needed to find a way to maintain artistic offerings and contact with the public, despite the health measures in place. MA Communications Manager Barbara Beranek said that prior to the pandemic, she had never used livestreaming tools on social media.
They started off slowly, with the education and outreach department offering online drawing classes for children. Then they created do-it-yourself video workshops. They also developed a virtual project to reach older adults at home in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society in Rouyn. Although things seemed a bit rough around the edges because of the learning curve associated with putting various projects on the Internet, these online platforms reached their different partners in a very positive way, and the content was greatly appreciated.
It was good that we did it, because even if things seemed a bit approximate at first, it didn’t really matter. People looked more at the content than at the elements that were maybe a little more disorganized. But in any case, it gave us new tools to use on social media. And I realized that, in my opinion, it works. People like it.
The Innovation: Creating an on-screen museum experience
In order to replicate the experience of visiting a museum, the exhibitions featured 360º image captures of the works of art and their accompanying labels. To support all these new elements, the MA team had to do a total makeover of their website. Virtual MA resides on its own dedicated page, which is separate from the museum website. The communications and outreach managers needed accelerated training to learn how to maintain the website.
The contract for the 360º image captures was awarded to a company in Rouyn that specializes in this field, primarily doing work for businesses and real estate agencies. This partnership simplified the museum team’s job since they didn’t need to be trained to shoot 360º image captures, nor did they have to acquire new photographic and other types of equipment. In addition, when they experienced technical problems or had other needs, it was just a matter of contacting the service provider, who in turn would send any requests to the developer.
When the museum closed during the pandemic, the team had to get the virtual museum project up and running very quickly. The upside of the lockdown was that all their resources—human and material—were put to use on Virtual MA instead of dividing their time between working on the project and maintaining their regular activities. Now that everything is set up, all that remains is to expand the virtual exhibitions and add to the education tools. The team is pleased to have focused on this project and to have accomplished it so quickly.
The Financials: Digital outreach grant
The Virtual MA project was financed entirely by a digital outreach grant from the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications.
Since all expenses were covered, access to the exhibitions is free and will most likely remain that way.
The Takeaways: Partnerships, taking risks, and prioritizing an important project to reach new audiences
Initially, the MA team wanted to do the Virtual MA project independently — they planned to get trained in shooting 360º image captures, programming, and more, as well as to purchase the necessary equipment. But the partnership with the Rouyn company that shot the 360º image captures greatly simplified the job, lowered production costs, and allowed them to make connections with the community. This partnership was extremely beneficial on many levels.
This project meshes well with the museum’s mission. As a window on the arts of the Americas, the virtual component allows the museum to reach beyond Rouyn and connect with various communities elsewhere in Quebec, across Canada, and throughout the world. Of its 3,807 visits, 20% were from Canada (outside Quebec), 19% from Cuba, 13% from the United States, 5% from France, 3.5% from Spain, and 2.3% from Mexico. This wide visibility will allow the museum to develop new partnerships and should also bring about new opportunities.
The MA team is very proud of this project. They wouldn’t have been able to accomplish it so quickly if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. As Barbara said, “It was a good move and it happened at the right time. COVID forced us to push ourselves to the limit and make decisions quickly.” The team took risks and put in the necessary effort and resources, and it paid off.