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Each year, the Ontario Museum Association puts on a conference where those of us in the business, and those who would like to be in the business, gather to talk about the professional issues of the day. The theme for 2013 is “Culture: Taking Charge.” I’ve been asked to be a panelist in a session called “Paradigm Shifts: The Challenge of Doing Things Differently.” The panelists have been asked to think about a major change, issue or crisis that has confronted their institution and reflect on how they dealt with it.

Two challenges came immediately to mind for the Canadian Canoe Museum, and the more I thought about them the more they seemed to be related.

Challenge #1: Our collection of more than 600 canoes, kayaks and watercraft is national in scope and includes watercraft from every province and territory. Our ambitions are also national in scope, and we want to be engaged with Canadians and visitors across the country. One typical way to do this is through membership. But, one of the benefits of membership in a museum is often free admission. How does that work if you live 1500km away from the institution? Is there a way to deliver enough value to members to make it worthwhile to join even if they never visit in person?

5-bay without pins

Challenge #2: Most museums have only a portion of their collection on display or accessible at any one time. In larger institutions, this can be as low as 2-4%. With nearly 20% of its core collection on display, the Canoe Museum does better than most, but it’s still a safe bet that most of our in-person visitors will never have a chance to come into contact with most of our collection. For those members-from-away that we’d like to attract (see challenge #1 above), it’s even less likely. Given the relatively slow rate at which museums are able to turn over their exhibits, this means that most of our visitors will never see most of our artifacts. That seems like a problem.

Fortunately, I think there’s an answer, and like so much of life today, it lies on the internet. Many museums, including the Canoe Museum, are “on” the internet. You can go to our web site  (and please do, if you haven’t already) and see what we do, and what’s coming up in the way of events and programs, and where to find us. So far, so good, and the internet will show you how to get to our front door. But (see above re: living 1500km away), if you’re not able to visit in person, it won’t really get you inside the museum in a meaningful way.

The internet also has some amazing search capabilities that help you sort through huge masses of material to find what you want. For instance, just searching for birchbark canoes brings up a long list of web sites:

google search results birchbark

And an equally rich array of images:

google image results birchbark

What if you harnessed the power of internet search to not just find a museum but to look inside it at the collections? And what if you used this capacity to provide a rich, immersive online experience of a museum that wasn’t just images of what you would see if you were there in person, but rather a whole other way of seeing and belonging? What if the Museum’s collection was like a city, and what if you had an online map?

5-bay with pins flattened

Stay tuned, we’re working on it!