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From Fort to Screen: Ticonderoga’s Virtual Public Programming

July 29, 2020 2:17 PM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

Under a new strategic plan implemented in 2019, Fort Ticonderoga began to increase access to its collections by expanding its digital impact. The goal was to grow their digital footprint to reach a broader audience across New York State as well as on a national and international level. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Fort Ticonderoga to postpone its opening for the 2020 season, staff took the opportunity to shift time and resources from its front-line on-site experiences and invest heavily in developing online program content. Fort Ticonderoga was awarded $285,358 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) CARES Act to expand its virtual public programming to engage a broad, multi-generational audience. The grant also supported staff positions and allowed the museum to sustain and develop educational programs to serve their audiences as well as reach new audiences.

Promotional image for Fort Ticonderoga’s Center for Digital History, photo courtesy Fort Ticonderoga

Increasing Digital Capacity

“Fort Ticonderoga’s approach isn’t simply digital or on-site,” said Stuart Lillie, Fort Ticonderoga’s Vice President of Public History. “It’s an integration of all we have to offer which will continue far into the future beyond the current constraints. In fact, a site visit is an extension of our digital engagement which has tremendously expanded this year.” Before the pandemic, Fort Ticonderoga invested in creating a new website and made its collections accessible online for the first time, the Center for Digital History, brought the museum’s educational programs into homes and classrooms through live programming and through thousands of museum artifacts. “Due to our rural location in the Adirondacks, providing remote access to our national and internationally significant resources is vital to leveraging the power of our collection and our potential to serve as an educational resource.”

Fort Ticonderoga’s Center for Digital History 

With this increase in its digital capacity, Fort Ticonderoga staff responsibilities shifted to contribute their time and resources to help build the Center for Digital History. “Our work as a staff is integrated and multi-departmental,” said Lillie. “They [the staff] have incredible capacity to embrace new opportunities, learn new ways and methods to engage, and do it fearlessly to test concepts to better serve our audiences.” Staff’s work plans were adjusted due to COVID-19 but the work remained consistent with the museum’s strategic plan goals and framework of their institutional long-term plans. “When we began working from home back in March, we looked at our strategic plan and decided how we could best meet these goals in a virtual environment,” said Lillie.

As the open date for the 2020 season approached, Fort Ticonderoga announced its “Digital Campaign” Virtual Opening” in April when staff knew that the physical reopening of the site would be postponed. The digital campaign played on the 18th century military campaign concept. “Like armies of the 18th century, reality on the ground forced our team to be nimble and adjust our programming based on the limitation of in-person engagement due to COVID-19,” said Lillie. “The increased digital capacity helped us continue to engage our audience and, in fact, increased engagement, while building excitement for when we were able to open the gates once again to visitors.” 

New Virtual Opportunities

Investing more into its digital programs and experiences allowed staff to rethink how Fort Ticonderoga used their resources in new ways. The museum’s collection storage space is small and can only accommodate a limited number of people at one time. New reopening guidelines from the state further limits access to this space. Staff set digital programming experiences like “Ticonderoga’s Treasurers” and “Collections Speed Dating” in the museum storage space which enabled broader accessibility to these normally restricted and limited spaces. “Digital program attendees for programs like A Soldier’s Life get to see museum staff and reproductions up-close in a way that would be challenging in a large classroom in-person lecture,” said Lillie. “With online programming, viewers get a front row seat every time.” Fort Ticonderoga saves and records this virtual programming to allow for even more people to share the experience from the comfort and safety of their homes. 

Image from Fort Ticonderoga’s Facebook Live with Assistant Registrar Tabitha Hubbard who highlighted the museum storage transformation of Fort Ticonderoga’s 17th - 19th century headgear collection. 

Social Media

Fort Ticonderoga uses both Facebook Live and pre-recorded videos that are shared on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Staff created a private Facebook page to practice live streams in advance and solve any technical issues. “This was especially vital as we practiced going live while sharing PowerPoint presentations or when testing out new locations where we weren’t sure of the internet quality,” said Lillie. Staff created a schedule for digital programming to be shared on the website and on Facebook. Scheduling content on a consistent basis helped increase engagement and developed an online following for these programs. “Testing out new concepts is what is so exciting about this moment in time,” said Lillie on creating digital content. “We have a talented team and supportive administration that encourages trying out new ideas and constantly pushing the envelope.” Fort Ticonderoga tested out numerous digital programs over the course of four months. The ones that are successful are refined and continue to develop.

Hands-on Engagement to Digital Engagement

“Ticonderoga Tuesdays” is a series of free webinars for educators beginning this October. Each webinar will include a presentation by a visiting scholar on a topic related to the French & Indian War or the American Revolution followed by time with Fort Ticonderoga’s Curatorial and Education staff using objects and documents from their collection.

Fort Ticonderoga launched the Center for Digital History with fewer resources than planned because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s negative impact on their budget.  The NEH CARES Act grant allowed this project to continue into 2020 and provided a strong foundation for the Center to bring Fort Ticonderoga’s digital programming and educational resources into homes and classrooms on a global scale. It also provided resources to develop new digital outreach classroom programs, publish free k-12 lesson plans, work directly with educators through a series of professional development workshops, expand Ticonderoga Collections Online, update computer equipment, develop a studio for creating an editing digital programming, support museum staff salaries, and share lessons learned about the whole process with museum colleagues and community in a webinar that will be conducted later this year. “The keystone of this project is digital programming,” said Lillie. “Our museum staff will not only expand our virtual public programming, but also take this opportunity to make sure that our staff are trained and supported as we transition from a very hands-on model of engagement to a digital one.”

Reaching New Audiences

One of the primary goals of Fort Ticonderoga’s NEH grant to support this digital transformation was to engage a broad, multi-generational audience and according to Lillie, the reach of these digital programs has been the biggest positive takeaway. “Among our first virtual classroom programs was a series of A Soldier’s Life programs for a school in Wisconsin,” said Lillie. “Through this new digital medium, it felt as if we were present with these students in the same room. After a moment of reflection, we realized we were actually live, engaging students in many states, and a full time-zone away. It’s one thing to imagine national reach, it’s another to experience that in real-time.”

Through the Center for Digital History and the latest NEH funding support for From Fort to Screen: Ticonderoga’s Virtual Public Programming, the museum will support twelve lessons that target multiple grades and topics. Fort Ticonderoga will offer a series of webinars for teachers nationwide that will be led by scholars and a teacher moderator and will include primary source documents and objects from the museum collection and connect teachers to the historic landscape and to history experts from across the country. 

Fort Ticonderoga reopened to the public on June 30th,but will continue it’s online programming. “Our virtual programming will extend far beyond 2020 and we are excited to find ways to continue to blend digital and in-person experiences in the future.”

Learn more about Fort Ticonderoga’s digital initiative’s here.

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