Virtualizing History: The Digitization of Canadian Museums

By Denisa Popa, University of Toronto

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the closures of business and institutions around Canada, many museums are offering virtual ways for the public to engage with Canadian history. Knowledge and information that had previously been conveyed through in-person experiences has now been digitized. Nevertheless, not all Canadian museums are engaging in this process, and those that are, have adopted different approaches.

Though there is little debate amongst scholars on the epistemic importance of museums and libraries, a study contracted by the Ottawa Declaration Working Group assessed the benefits of these institutions. The results, available on the Canadian Museums Association’s website, state that these institutions have a positive influence on the well-being of society, as well as on the Canadian economy. According to this study, the economic benefits gained total approximately $8.6 billion.

Thus, it is likely that recent closures have had a significant impact on this industry and Canadians as a whole. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of Canada announced that it would provide museums and heritage organizations with $53 million of emergency funding. Though this helps, it is difficult to assess if this is enough to address the struggles these institutions are facing. Nevertheless, even during a pandemic, Canadian museums continue to allow visitors to explore and engage from the safety of their homes.

The Canadian Museum of History

Located in Gatineau, Quebec the Canadian Museum of History has an extensive array of online resources. As part of their Museums at Home series; activities, films, exhibits and stories are available online. Frequently publishing new content, the museum honoured National Indigenous History Month with recipes and activities, such as Métis-style beadwork. In preparation for Canada Day, the museum published a series of activities for families and children that are dedicated to celebrating Canadian heritage.

One of the museum’s focal exhibits, the Canadian History Hall is available for a full virtual tour. Key moments in Canada’s history of science, technology and medicine are also showcased online. For example, a one page “story” titled “MANIC-5: A Marvel of Engineering”  briefly details the history of one of Canada’s most important hydroelectric dams. Full virtual exhibits, (accessible even prior to the pandemic) are also available. Highlighting key moments in the history of Canadian healthcare, the exhibit “Making Medicare: The History of Health Care in Canada, 1914-2007” provides a comprehensive retelling of the narrative, with detailed chapters on each time period and an array of archival pictures and documents.

Ingenium- Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation

A variety of online exhibits and virtual tours are also available from Ingenium’s three museums: the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and the Canada Science and Technology Museum. These museums have six digital exhibits available for viewing on Google Arts and Culture. One exhibit details the life of Elsie MacGill, “the world’s first female chief aeronautical engineer”.

A unique feature of Ingenium’s digital platform is the Ingenium Channel, described as “a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation”. Some articles featured in this platform directly engage with issues related to COVID-19 and encourage Canadians to share their views. An article written by Molly McCullough, an assistant curator, inspires readers to think about the relationship between science, technology and COVID-19.


While the increased availability of online exhibits and virtual tours has no doubt been of great benefit to many Canadians; historians and scholars have been greatly impacted by the global closure of museums, libraries and archives. As an early stage PhD student with a focus on local history I found that my research was disrupted by the closure of the local archives I relied on the most. As we continue the process of reopening, we should consider: is the future of history virtual? How can we plan ahead for the future to make museums, libraries and archives more accessible to Canadians and scholars during times of crisis?


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