In a world where technology is constantly providing quick access and fast connection to information from every era, institutions that provide open channels to historic contexts like libraries and museums are being forced to adapt to the changes being ushered by technology. In fact this advent has garnered a presumption from adept observers of consumer behaviour along the lines of “will these institutions survive in the long-run?”

But I believe the question isn’t whether these institutions can survive into the future, it’s that can they adapt to fit the evolving needs of consumers and raise the bar every time to engage their visitors?

Photography by the Globe and Mail

Cue in the inspiration behind this post. In the past month, I’ve visited four National Museums in the city of Ottawa, the Capital of Canada, where I live. I typically identify with the majority of millennials today as extremely tech-savvy with Wikipedia my go-to for quick historic info and Google Scholar for literature reviews. It’s safe to assume that history is always literally at my fingertips – at least when I am by my keyboard.

Nonetheless, I have soon realized upon observing my forays this past month that museums aren’t only a space for information, they offer an environment that contextualizes history (in whatever form) with an experience that transports you back in time – cataloguing artifacts and preserving information. In fact museums were intended to tell stories. To further stipulate, my belief is that as long as storytelling is a core part of the human experience in the world today, museums and other information gathering sites will always exist. But they need to constantly iterate and pivot to meet evolving needs.

A report by Gensler titled, “What is the future of the museum,” further provides context as to the survivability of museums by stating that museums will always face a myriad of challenges that are both overt and subtle. The report further highlights these challenges as a constant negotiation with “shifting demographics, evolving visitor expectations, funding realignment, and ever-escalating technologies”. So how can museums curate a richer and more memorable visitor experience in the wake of all of these challenges?

Some museums have gotten the formula right. They now digitize their offerings by incorporating VR/AR experiences and create a digital portal to access their artifacts remotely. Others have simply adapted their offerings to fit the needs of the new generation. So, questions like “how do we get them in here without school excursions and compulsory volunteer work?” often get asked.

James Peltzer
Photography by James Peltzer/Ottawa Tourism

My most recent trip to the museum was to attend Nature Nocturne – an event hosted monthly by the Canadian Museum of Nature – for their Wild in the City edition. Interestingly, the entirety of the museum was opened up to ticket buyers and presented as a night to escape at the museum with every floor open for access with security simply protecting an abuse of the museum artifacts. There was something about having exclusivity to the artifacts that provided childish giddiness. But that could have also been the slight buzz from alcohol. Either way the museum directors had the last laugh. Every floor was designed as a dance floor and a bar, making every attendee exclaiming, “wow this is the biggest party in Ottawa ever!” This sentiment had also transported beyond Ottawa with one attendee stating, “I just moved to Ottawa to study from Niagara Falls and I was told Nature Nocturne was a place I had to go when I moved here”.

But it wasn’t just about the party – I applauded the team leading the museum for finding a clever way to get a bunch of 19+ in a building filled with exuberance all in the hopes that they would interact with the museum’s exhibits. And they did. At some point before midnight with intoxication levels on the rise, I observed a few attendees battling to see who could cause a simulated earthquake by creating force on a digitized planet earth via a screen. At some point someone mentioned to me, “do you know how much I weigh in mockingbirds? …In the tens of thousands, that’s insane” – alluding to a weight scale offered as an exhibit in the museum to calculate your human weight in the number of specific bird species.

Nature Nocturne has been branded a success and it ushered in a new way in my eyes that museums can create an interactive engagement between their attendees and artifacts.

Photography by Fatima Said

Visits to the other museums in the past month include a stop at the Canadian Museum of History to listen to Rupi Kaur recite some of her work from her new book, “The Sun and her Flowers”. This event concluded with a Q&A and an opportunity for every attendee to checkout the museum’s exhibits especially its newly instated History Hall – a space designed by Douglas Cardinal to recount the history of Canada by retelling both the good and the bad. This event not only got everyone who was there to meet an esteemed poet like Kaur in person, it also provided a clever way to intersect visitors who were there to see Kaur to stop, gawk and learn some more about Canadian history. Another museum on my historic voyage this month was the Canada Aviation and Space Museum for a friend’s wedding. Not only did every attendee take photos with some exhibits as their photo backdrops, there were interactive elements at the museum that caught the attention of the wedding guests during long speeches.

Photography by Jessica Deeks
Photography by Jessica Deeks
Photography by Jessica Deeks
Photography by Jessica Deeks

The final visit to the museum was a stop at the Canadian War Museum to support my friend, fashion designer, and founder of We Are Kings, King B. Hector. He collaborated with the Tamir Foundation to offer some of his pieces to their members during their annual fashion show. The premise was to provide awareness into the good work that Tamir Foundation does for the Jewish community in Ottawa. It was an inspiring event – particularly because a lot of the models that presented on the runway where members of the Tamir Foundation who live with developmental disabilities. Having the museum exhibits in the backdrop offered not only an interactive space to engage with other members of the Ottawa community, but a space to read about Canada’s long history and experience an evolution of that history with the culmination of several people who identify with differing sub-communities in the city.

It is no surprise that at all four events, I interacted with almost every museum artifact and awed at every exhibition. In fact I met new people in my community who like me had no place in a museum any other day but while we were there, we transfixed on history like never before. I felt the walls of every museum welcoming me in with open arms, as if to say, “where have you been all this time?”.