Ontario museum using hi-tech goodies to enhance visitor experience

The Royal Ontario Museum is tapping technology in the hope of luring visitors out to a new gallery, including a barrage of touch screens, a high-grade videoconferencing system, and a revamped Web site.

When the Schad Gallery of Biodiversity opens to the public May 16, its content will focus on the perils of climate change for many of the planet’s animals. But the way the content is being delivered will highlight a new, hi-tech movement at the museum.

The gallery’s Web site will be a treasure trove of Web 2.0 goodies, including video and opportunities to interact with curators. The Earth Rangers’ Theatre room is an ideal site to put to use a new, two-way teleconferencing technology the museum will use for educational purposes.

And the gallery will feature one touch-screens that visitors can use to access more information about some of the specimens they are viewing.

“We’re trying to show leadership in the area of museum development,” says William Thorsell, director of the Royal Ontario Museum. The museum, he said, is defined by its collections — and the technology is not meant to shift the spotlight from them, but to offer visitors a deeper appreciation of them.

Search “Royal Ontario Museum” on YouTube or Flickr and you’ll find thousands of postings. Visitors have been uploading content from the museum to the Web for years, and now the museum wants to act as an aggregator for that sort of traffic.

Most visitors tend to bookend their trip to the museum with a viewing of the Web site, says Brian Porter, assistant vice-president of new media at the museum.

“New media is allowing us to reach people and allow us to do things that museums traditionally weren’t doing,” he says. “We’d like the Web to be a place where you plan your visit and really customize your experience by gaining some background information before you come in, and then go back afterwards and get into even more depth.”

The museum has dedicated a team of new media producers to the new Schad Gallery. They are producing content that’s being posted to social media sites as well as the Royal Ontario Museum’s official site. The team produces weekly podcasts, and an environmental issues blog. There will also be an @greenrom Twitter account.

The museum’s Web site offers many different audio tours to download, designed for visitors to play on their iPods as they walk through the museum.

Soon, visitors will be invited to upload their own podcasts to the Web site to share with others.

“Audio tours are traditionally a way for visitors to a museum to learn as they go through the galleries,” Porter says. “We’re hoping, in the future, to provide opportunities for people to produce their own audio guides and possibly post them on our Web site.”

For now, museum curators are providing various tours of the museum.

“Some of them might be theme tours,” Thorsell says. “Maybe the sex and death tour, or the children’s mystery tour.”

The Schad Gallery will also feature new technology integration at the museum dubbed “E-labels.” Visitors will be able to use a touch screen terminal in the gallery to further examine many of the specimens on the shelves around them. The “Earth’s Treasures” minerals gallery that opened in December features 30 such screens.

It’s a new way for the museum to push more content out onto the floor, says Julian Siggers, the vice president of programs and content communication at the ROM. The content can also be refreshed often and make the museum more dynamic.

“We can use digital technology to actually add layers of information to the objects you see in front of you in the galleries,” he says. “This allows us to show the public what we’re doing to catalogue certain species before they go extinct.”

The E-labels will be rolled out across the museum over time, Siggers adds.

The Royal Ontario Museum has also recently joined the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a fibre optic network connecting Ontario’s research and educational institutions. The network can be tapped for two-way videoconferencing in high definition. That means students from across the province and beyond could be interacting with museum staff while they are at work in the laboratory, or in the field.

“Take for example, our palaeontologist David Evans, schoolchildren could watch him while he is actually working in the field,” Siggers says. “We’ll be able to reach hundreds of classrooms across the country.”

So the next time you’re planning a trip to the ROM, don’t leave your iPod at home – and remember, you can reach out and touch those nice big display screens.

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