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Yukon Transportation Museum: A new spin

Whitehorse, YukonWhitehorse (Yukon)

Story Seeker: Margaret Lam
Person interviewed: Janna Swales, Executive Director
Interview date: July 7, 2021

“A moving experience.” That’s the slogan of the Yukon Transportation Museum (YTM). You can’t help but smile when you read it. It’s the kind of humour that speaks to people who are interested in retired locomotives, airplanes, miniatures, and the like.

During the pandemic, when no one could pay those artifacts a visit in person, the board and staff at YTM engaged in an almost existential exploration of what it really means to be a museum of transportation. Through that process, the slogan took on a whole new meaning while preserving the fun in a pilot initiative called Yukon Spin.

With support from the Government of Yukon, the City of Whitehorse and local businesses such as Air North, Pelly Construction, and Lotteries Yukon, YTM explored what it means to digitally bring to life the history and stories of transportation in the Yukon – through the lens of a bicycle.

The Innovation: Fulfilling the museum’s mandate through virtual tours of the territory

Yukon Spin is a video subscription service that offers viewers access to 45-minute videos of the breathtaking landscapes of cycling routes in the Yukon. Currently, there are two-part videos featuring the route from Silver Trail to Mayo and the South Klondike Highway to White Pass. There is no music in the videos so viewers can overlap them with their own soundtrack.

The idea for this pilot initiative emerged from an informal feasibility study conducted by Inga Petri at Strategic Moves. While a number of project ideas were generated in the process, the concept of creating cycling videos stood out because of how much it aligned with the museum’s mandate and how simple it was to execute.

Janna Swales, Executive Director of YTM, is an avid cyclist. As soon as the routes were cleared of snow and safe to ride on, she just needed a Go Pro camera and some company to capture the raw footage. True to the museum’s mandate to “conserve the history, cultural material and artifacts of Yukon’s transportation modes and to interpret this history in an educational manner”, the videos feature key historical and geographical facts, telling the stories of Yukoners as only the YTM can.

In selecting digital distribution channels, YTM had to evaluate a variety of potential digital platforms that would allow them to monetize the content. The museum considered business and technical requirements, as well as the values of the company with which it might work.

This resulted in YTM’s adoption of the Public Place Network (PPN), a Calgary-based platform that enables clients to deliver and monetize video content. In addition to the technology service, there was a great value alignment with PPN as a social enterprise that offers streaming video solutions designed to redistribute economic benefits in a way that sustains content creators.

The real story of innovation, however, is in how Yukon Spin enabled YTM to reach new audiences as well as to create new partnerships and strengthen existing ones within the aviation, health, and fitness industries.

During a time when everyone was sheltering in place and unable to travel, the cycling videos bridged geographic distance and offered viewers from anywhere in the world a taste of the region. One viewer who used to live in the Yukon shared that they were using Yukon Spin as part of their physical recovery from an illness.

Example of Yukon Spin video (screen capture)

As a partner, Air North has been a long-time supporter of the museum mainly through advertising opportunities. They got involved in Yukon Spin by having staff join in on the rides and by promoting the videos to potential travelers. Habit Health and Wellness was a new partnership for YTM, one that developed out of the realization that transportation and movement have a strong connection with fitness. This has even led to fitness classes being held within the museum itself.

For the YTM board and staff, this pilot initiative contributed to a growing appreciation of digital means as a sustainable way to capture and preserve authentic stories of the region’s past, while also enabling the museum to extend its reach beyond the in-person visitors that it had traditionally served. However, further cultivating the potential that the museum has identified will require dedicated support and resources that the organization does not currently have.

The Challenge: Resources to continue to grow the pilot project

While Yukon Spin has been a tremendous success in terms of validating the concept’s business viability and tech feasibility, YTM’s current challenge is garnering the dedicated human and financial resources needed to sustain and grow the pilot in order to cultivate further opportunities.

Digital initiatives can require a separate team and infrastructure distinct from brick and mortar operations. Currently, Yukon Spin is managed by YTM’s Executive Director, who does not have the capacity needed to regularly promote the service and grow interest in it. YTM’s needs include a dedicated video producer to increase the number of videos offered (including an expansion of the content to offer museum tours in addition to cycling tours) and a dedicated marketing and communications person to cultivate new digital audiences (which will require different approaches than those used to engage in-person visitors).

Some creative thinking will be required to find new funding sources to support these new efforts. While numerous arts councils offer funding for digital initiatives, YTM does not qualify as an “arts” organization for the councils’ application processes. However, YTM is exploring economic development and tourism funding by situating its work within those contexts.

Another challenge is the reality of being a digitally-oriented initiative in the north. Internet connections are not consistent or reliable, which presents a significant challenge in generating digital audiences. Furthermore, the availability of local talent with the skills and experiences needed for such a project is limited. While YTM’s preference is to form a local team for ease of collaboration, expanding its search to other parts of Canada will likely be necessary, leading to additional consideration of how to best stay connected as a geographically distributed team.

The Financials: Governments and businesses got behind the pilot program

Financial support for this pilot came from the Government of Yukon, the City of Whitehorse, and local businesses such as Air North, Pelly Construction, and Lotteries Yukon. The funds went toward video production and distribution, as well as marketing and advertising.

While the financial resources needed to fund the project and develop it into a sustainable source of revenue may take a number of years, the existing pricing model has price points that would make that objective possible once Yukon Spin scales up their reach. Currently, interested viewers can rent individual videos for $1.50 for seven-day access or get 30-day access to all videos for $5. While the current user base is quite small, YTM is learning from user feedback to kick off a new advertising campaign for the pilot in the hopes of attracting new interest in the project.

A notable shift in YTM’s business priorities is a reduced focus on venue rentals as a source of revenue for the museum. During the pandemic, all of the rentals were cancelled, which had a significant impact on the organization’s bottom line. With the incremental successes of the digital pilot, YTM’s board plans to reduce the number of rentals for larger events and reserve organizational capacity for digital initiatives.

The Impact: Major shifts in organizational activities and reach

Embarking on the Yukon Spin project led to significant shifts in YTM’s perception of its activities, reach, and impact on the community. In tandem with YTM’s major digital shift, which has allowed it to offer a different kind of museum experience, the movement toward seeing exercise as a form of transportation has also opened up new strategic directions for the organization.

YTM’s video content development has extended to other areas of the museum, including 360 degree video tours as well as other guided experiences, both within YTM’s space and outside of it. YTM’s new focus on digital offerings will proceed similarly to how Yukon Spin came about: through a feasibility study of what the museum now knows, combined with an understanding of the state of the world.

YTM’s digital shift has led creative thinking about how to fulfill the museum’s mandate, and it has also created opportunities for personal and professional growth among the board and staff. The organization has undergone a fundamental transformation in its recognition of digital as a way to ensure sustainability in the preservation of local histories and stories, as well as the importance of building a foundation to support the organization’s longer-term digital shift.

The Takeaway: Museums’ digital initiatives can enlighten us on our past, present, and future

The most impressive feat that Yukon Spin represents is its potential for integrating the region’s past, present, and future through a medium that is intentionally designed to reach audiences outside of the region. This story of resilience in Canada’s North highlights how innovation doesn’t just happen in urban centres as well as how much there is to learn from different regions of our country. Some key takeaways from Yukon Spin are:

  1. The delivery of digital services requires a separate and dedicated team and infrastructure.
    Many staff members of cultural organizations are under significant time pressures, and adding video creation and marketing to their tasks can be a disruptive force. A dedicated team can respond to the business and strategic needs that are unique to the development of digital programs and services, while ensuring that digital offerings are highly complementary to in-person ones.
  2. Explore new partnerships and novel strategic directions by piloting new ways of working.
    The work of arts and culture can extend beyond traditional spaces and contexts. The process of identifying opportunities for an organization to insert itself into new digital spaces while fulfilling its mandate can lead to new strategic directions. It is not easy to step outside of the familiar and think of new ways of doing cultural work, especially in a pandemic when all aspects of life require much rethinking. A culture of openness to small experiments and a commitment to learning from those experiences can allow organizations to become more resilient when faced with disruptions and uncertainty.

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Members of Tupiq Arctic Circus Troupe: Saali Kuata, Michael Nappatuk, Charlie Makiuk, Minnie Ningiuruvik and Sarah Ainalik. Photo: Danielle Bouchard