Museum now in ‘touch’ with future

Duane Hicks

A wealth of local history literally is at patrons’ fingertips at the Fort Frances Museum.
The museum launched its new interactive programming during a reception for museum supporters and volunteers, as well as town management staff and council members, last Thursday evening.
Museum visitors now can use tablet computers installed with an app to easily access text, photos, and video and audio clips that detail historical information on a myriad of topics, ranging from forestry and the mill to tourism to First Nations.
“This has been a project that’s very important for our museum,” said curator Sherry George.
“Up until now, our museum has offered exhibits that can be experienced through looking at photos or artifacts and reading the text that accompanies them,” she noted.
This type of display can be accessed by most people, but primarily is enjoyed by adults who have some connection with what they see, added George.
Youths, on the other hand, are engaged for brief periods–and only if the museum can relate the exhibits to what they understand, she said.
“Too often we see our young ones come in, spend a little time peeking into cases, intrigued by the odd thing that they remember hearing about, and leave without really understanding the importance of our museum or the history and culture we’re trying to preserve,” George explained, noting it was clear something more had to be done to engage them.
So over the past year, the “Friends of the Museum,” in partnership with the “Friends of the Library,” accessed funding from the Winnipeg Foundation (Moffat Family Fund) to purchase tablets for the museum. Donations paid for the development of the app.
With the assistance of last summer’s intern, Julia Piskiewicz, who collected community stories, this year’s intern Lauren Hyatt worked many long hours to research and present the material.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Hughes of the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre built the app for the tablets through which the digital content can be accessed.
“We now can access our region’s history on interactive devices,” said George.
“It sounds very complicated, I know, but in fact these tablets can be used very easily with the touch of a finger.”
Hughes said the museum now sports four 18.4-inch tablets, which are set up at stations upstairs, as well as several 9.7-inch and eight-inch tablets that patrons can carry around the museum.
These are loaded with an app that is simple to use and intuitive, he noted.
If, for example, someone wanted to learn about the forest industry, they would touch that tile on the screen and be routed to information about logging and other related topics.
The app also has been created so that it can be “dynamically updated for years and years to come,” explained Hughes.
He designed the program so museum staff simply have to add files in the appropriate format and the program automatically will discover, cross-reference, and tag them and display the files for people to access.
This means the wealth of digital content will increase as time goes on.
Hyatt noted past, present, and future exhibits will be accessible via the app, including not only the permanent one upstairs at the museum but the “Rainy River Roots” exhibit from last year and the Métis exhibit from 2013.
“We have the content so we may as well,” she reasoned. “The exhibits can live on.”
Hyatt also consulted Couchiching First Nation and Rainy River First Nations (Manitou Rapids) to get input on aboriginal content, and the museum even may have elders come to there and tell stories down the road.
In addition to photos, text, and videos, each topic also sports “audio guides” that have been recorded with the participation of local talent, said Hyatt.
This not makes the information even more accessible to all patrons, but adds an authenticity to it.
“It was important for Sherry and I, when we were recording the audio guides, to get people who actually understood what they were talking about,” she remarked.
For example, Anne Marie Armstrong recorded the guide on Métis culture while Don Dickson covered the history of forestry.
Hyatt thanked B93.1 The Border and Acadia Broadcasting, which donated their studio and editing time to do the audio recordings.
She urged the public to try out the app and provide feedback regarding any errors or omissions.
Thumbs up
“I think it’s fantastic for the museum,” enthused Community Services manager Jason Kabel.
“It’s going to engage the younger museum patrons . . . it’ll catch their interest,” he added, noting most of them already are very familiar with using tablets at home.
“What’s most exciting is it’s going to be around for a long time. Longevity is key,” Kabel noted.
“It’s relevant indefinitely.”
Micaela Jensen and Kathy Treflin also were impressed.
“It’s easy to use,” Treflin said while checking out a tablet during last Thursday’s reception.
“The touch use is awesome,” echoed Jensen.
“And the content alone–you could go on forever here,” she added.
“I’m anxious to get at it.”
Treflin liked the fact past museum exhibits also have been–and will be–accessible digitally.
“You never lose it,” she said. “You can always go back to this and pick [it] up again.
“When they have the exhibits and I try to get my sisters in here, I never get them in here,” noted Jensen.
“Now we can come back and look at something that’s come and gone.”
Museum advisory committee member Mary Hickling said she’s “very impressed” with the interactive programming, adding the technology is “intuitive to use” and requires no experience.
She admired the high quality of images included in the content and, better still, the fact that content easily can be added going forward.
“It’s a wonderful start,” Hickling said.
Coun. June Caul thinks the interactive programming is “fantastic.”
“It’s such an important time in our lives to have this,” she remarked while utilizing a permanent tablet station upstairs at the museum.
“It brings us up to date and brings us into the future.
“It helps us when the people who were around during those times are going or gone,” Coun. Caul added.
“Even at my age, I can learn things I didn’t know about before by looking at this kind of thing,” she said.
“It’s just amazing.”
Coun. Caul was particularly impressed with the audio content featuring “voices of people you know.”
“That interface is amazing,” marvelled library board chair Andrew Hallikas.
“It blew me away.”
The public is welcome to come by and check out the new interactive programming at the museum, which is open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Last Thursday’s reception also was a chance to highlight the museum’s new strategic plan.
George noted museum advisory committee chair Debbie Ballard, Hickling, Robert Schulz, and Caren Fagerdahl, under the leadership of Ian Simpson, have been meeting regularly and putting in many hours to compile it.
“This plan is meant to provide us with a road map and guidance for the years ahead, especially as we work to develop our digital platforms,” said Ballard.
“We realize the power digital media has to aid us in preserving and promoting our rich heritage and culture, along with our programs and exhibits,” she noted.
The plan also establishes the museum’s purpose, mission, and goals.
“It’s not enough to just open the doors every day,” Ballard stressed. “Our true function is one of stewardship and education.
“We fully appreciate and understand the trust involved in assigning such an important role to our museum,” she added.
The plan has not been made public yet but was available for stakeholders’ feedback Thursday evening.
It also will be submitted to town council for its input.
The museum also used the occasion to show off a sample of images that will be included in the forthcoming book dedicated to the work of local pioneer photographer William Hampden Tener.
Local historian Merv Ahrens is in the process of putting the book together, with help from volunteers Maxine Hayes and Nell Laur.
The aim is to have the book ready for sale later this year.
As previously reported, the Tener book will be a collection of some of the photos of pioneer life in the Rainy River Valley, which recently were re-acquired from the Ontario Archives.