Edmonton’s premier museum in the age of COVID

By: Corbin Stewart

How the Royal Alberta Museum is transitioning to virtual field trips in the pandemic

Western Canada’s largest museum is hosting three different virtual field trips for classes in the fall and winter. (Explore Edmonton)

When the Royal Alberta Museum moved from its old home in Glenora to downtown Edmonton in Oct. 2018, excitement was in the air.

The $375.5 million move marked a new adventure for western Canada’s largest museum and its thousands of annual visitors. The convenient downtown location allowed more tourists to visit, while the improved 7600-square metres of exhibit space permitted new galleries to flourish. One of these new exhibits was the interactive children’s gallery. Hundreds of students would frequently visit the museum for class field trips – a fond memory for those of us who loved history at a young age.

Then – less than two years later – COVID happened, and the Royal Alberta Museum had to make changes to how they would operate.

In-person viewing was limited, and the transition to an adaptable online environment had to be implemented. When schools were initially closed in the spring and field trips were cancelled, the museum was looking for different ways to support public education.

“A way that we could offer them a little bit of connection to the museum was through this program called the human library,” says Royal Alberta Museum educator Tori Pudde.

The Royal Alberta Museum didn’t invent the human library program but its use for education is very effective, especially during the pandemic when they moved the program to the virtual sphere. Schools can book a 45-minute online discussion where students and teachers can ask questions to a museum professional. Topics range from the earth sciences like geology to cultural studies such as political history and Indigenous studies.

A 3D model of a giant water bug. There are now 31 objects available to see on the museum’s website in 3D. (Royal Alberta Museum)

Pudde explains how the discussion can be customizable towards a specific grade level or curriculum.

“A lot of teachers were looking for something to supplement their classroom because they’re so limited in the things they can do right now. You get a chance to talk to a museum expert, and it can be very personable.”

Alex Lesko, a grade 11 social studies teacher, says he is glad that the museum allows classes to continue to participate in learning through COVID.

“I think it’s awesome what the museum is doing. To even give teachers some break and relief is great.”

Lesko teaches at Sturgeon Composite High School near Namao, where the student population primarily comes from rural backgrounds. He says that his students don’t often get a chance to visit museums.

“I’d love to be able to book a tour and for them to be able to see the museum the best they can this year.”

Along with the virtual human library program, the museum offers a “little” virtual human library intended for pre-kindergarten to grade two students, which Pudde directly oversees.

“The learning team at the museum has a different audience that they focus on based on different developmental ages,” says Pudde. “We looked at a way to make the program suitable for younger audiences.”

This program only runs 20 minutes instead of the usual 45 minutes to account for younger children’s online attention spans. It began as a pilot program this fall. The Royal Alberta Museum was the first to implement the little virtual human library and has since become very popular for teachers. The bookings are currently full until Jan. 2021.

Resources are sent before and after the program to children, including a short video explaining what museums are. They also include a short bio about who the museum educator is.

“We do this so they’re more familiar with us and not total strangers to them,” Pudde says.

Another online resource that the Royal Alberta Museum has taken advantage of is the digital 3D diorama models available on their website. According to Pudde, an intern at the museum created the project before the pandemic, originally used for their practicum work.

3D model of a sabre-tooth skull. (Royal Alberta Museum)

The models are presented in 3D through Sketchfab, an online platform that publishes 3D content. Currently, there are 31 objects on the museum’s website, including a giant water bug, a sabre-tooth skull, and even the Millennium Falcon for all you Star Wars nerds.

“It became extra useful during the pandemic to share that kind of content in a way to get people as close as possible without attending the museum,” says Pudde.

3D model of the Millennium Falcon. (Royal Alberta Museum)

The museum also offers 30-minute virtual tours where a museum educator sets up their cell phone on a gimbal and walks around specific areas of the museum. The area depends on what type of class enrolls in the tour.

Pudde stresses that the Royal Alberta Museum is only one of the thousands that have had to adapt to the pandemic, but she says they will continue to serve public education in any way they can.

“The pandemic has impacted museums across the world; we’re not any different. Field trips are a big market for museums for the educational aspects, so having to pivot from that and find different ways to deliver that has been a big part of our transition.”

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