Consequences of COVID: The pandemic has prompted museums and historic sites to focus on digital experiences of the past

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Two years into the global pandemic, studies have shown that 95% of museums around the world have been forced to close for extended periods during the COVID-19 crisis for public health reasons, according to the International Council of Museums .

This has been the catalyst for a digital pivot in the museum and historic sites sector – and it could bring lasting changes to the way we learn about history.

Buxton National Historic Site and Museum in southwestern Ontario has been one of many heritage attractions to cultivate this change during the pandemic.

The museum complex, located in rural North Buxton near the town of Chatham-Kent, preserves buildings from a 19andcommunity of runaway slaves and free blacks who came to Canada from the pre-Civil War United States.

Founded in 1849 as “Elgin Settlement” by former slave owner and abolitionist Reverend William King, the settlement was the destination of many fugitive slaves who fled the United States via the Underground Railroad.

Main Street of the Elgin Settlement – also known as Buxton – in the 19th century when it became a thriving community of former slaves and free blacks who fled the United States to Canada via the railroad clandestine. [Buxton National Historic Site and Museum]

The museum has grown its audience over the past two years by introducing virtual tours and issuing weekly social media posts such as “Family Fridays”, which feature mini-profiles of key historical figures associated with the colony of Elgin, later known as Buxton Colony.

Mariah Kaak, the museum’s assistant curator, said the shift to an online approach was both exciting and scary.

“If there are people from all over the world who can’t afford to come to Buxton, it’s a great way to have that experience,” she said. “I think the knowledge of Buxton will spread, and when people see this online they might be motivated to come in person when they can.”

Buxton’s attraction is also highlighted on the historic On This Spot app, which rose to popularity at the height of the pandemic.

Aiming to combine past and present to become “the future of history”, the app emphasizes historical places that are not widely known.

The app was launched in 2016 as a travel blog, but quickly gained popularity due to its successful feature showing ‘then-to-now’ images of places rich in history.

On This Spot has since expanded into an app and website dedicated to telling others about historic communities such as Buxton.

Ross Hiebert, head of business development for On This Spot, said they’re using e-learning to make the story more accessible.

The On This Spot history app features images of historic Buxton Settlement near present-day Chatham-Kent, Ontario. [On This Spot/Buxton National Historic Site and Museum]

Virtual options for exploring museums and historic sites are often best for people with disabilities or weakened immune systems.

One in seven Ontarians has a disability. With much of this population also immunocompromised, virtual options for learning more about the province’s history can offer a safe and interactive alternative.

The On This Spot app includes closed captions and subtitles to help present a site’s history to the viewer. It aims to provide an option for all history lovers.

“We can create something for everyone with skimmers, divers and snorkelers,” Hiebert said. “For people who are just looking to see cool photos and skim through them and don’t have the patience to read. And then there are the people who read the captions for more information, and then we have the tours guided tours for people who really want to dive deep.

Hiebert also noted that the app focuses on illuminating stories within rural communities.

On this Spot plans to expand its audience by making lesson plans to implement in elementary schools.

Duncan Travis, a scion of a Buxton family, noted that the virtual story options connected him to his ancestry like never before. “It allowed me to see photos that I would never have seen otherwise,” Travis said. “It connected me to my heritage.”

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