When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, museums around the world were faced with the challenge of adapting to a new normal. Facing lengthy closures, museums searched for new ways to continue providing access to information and education for their patrons and beyond. How could cultural and historical institutions create more accessibility, not just in the wake of an unprecedented crisis but in their usual, day-to-day operations? For the McFaddin-Ward House Museum, the solution was to build a virtual tour system, post-pandemic.
“It’s foolish to think another global pandemic resulting in mass institution closures won’t happen again,” says Todd Hoeft, an Application Developer at PrimeSite Web who would go on to help bring the McFaddin-Ward House’s virtual tour to life. “Institutions can be proactive by publishing a digital museum experience — whether simple text and photos or full virtual immersion with panoramic images — institutions can reach a much broader audience globally.”
Todd learned about the McFaddin-Ward House’s need for a virtual tour solution after his wife, Rayanna, took the position of Director of Museum Education at the Beaumont, Texas museum in July 2021. “PrimeSite Web was hired to develop a virtual tour system that met the following three criteria: easy self-managed updates, full ownership of data, and an affordable cost with no contracts,” says Todd. From here, a partnership emerged and visiTOUR.US was born.
“Even with over 20 years experience creating web applications, the visiTOUR.US product is our first entry into digital experience management for the museums industry, and the McFaddin-Ward House was a key proof-to-pilot partner as their needs provided a framework for the needs of many museums,” said Todd. With a collective effort to bring the virtual tour to life, Rayanna acted as the project manager, liaising between McFaddin-Ward’s Executive Director, Board of Directors, museum staff, and PrimeSite Web throughout development. “It is for this reason that we say visiTOUR.US is ‘created by a museum educator FOR museum educators,’” says Todd.
Early in development, PrimeSite Web learned the museum used CatalogIt as their collections management system (CMS), so they reached out to discover that CatalogIt features an API that fit their needs. “The CatalogIt team was incredible to work with and gave us plenty of information and time to ensure our mutual client was satisfied with the results,” says Todd. “Therefore, we developed a one-click CatalogIt object import function that eliminated the need for multiple object management points.”
The McFaddin-Ward House always planned for their virtual tour to consist of 360-degree panoramic photos, and envisioned creating something similar to what museums such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon accomplished. The end result provides separate and detailed tours of the main house’s three floors, carriage house, and grounds. Using CatalogIt, the tours display collection object details. In addition, the tours include video clips and oral history audio files for an even more immersive and informational experience.
In addition to telling the story of the house’s original owners and their family, the system includes “specialized tours that focus on learning and understanding of concepts that relate to the family, society, and history at large,” says Todd. The project continues to evolve. “More education tours are coming, and are easy for the staff to assemble. Since the system also allows users to add tasks, the prospect of making scavenger hunts, escape-room adventures, and other quiz activities make it a great platform for both general information tours and extended learning.”
The McFaddin-Ward House discovered the benefits to building the virtual tour are ever expanding. In particular, the system allows for significantly greater accessibility for its patrons. “The demographics of the visitorship of the McFaddin-Ward House Museum lean toward older visitors, and as a historic home there are instances where there can be accessibility issues,” says Todd. Additionally, because the home’s items are original to the family, the in-person tour flow has to be guided and guarded. “With visiTOUR.US, those with accessibility issues can enjoy tours of the home and everyone can take whatever path they like, getting object details directly from CatalogIt data while the original items remain safe and intact.”
Offering a virtual tour not only expands the audience of the McFaddin-Ward House, but as Todd notes, that “outreach extends to all areas of the globe with internet access.” It also allows the McFaddin-Ward museum staff to create special tours. “Museum educators can create a tour to focus on a particular curriculum or topic of discussion, something that visitors may not get when visiting in person, almost like virtual personalized instruction by a museum educator, all with the CatalogIt system serving object data to the visitor at their request.”
Whether helping with accessibility issues, anticipated or unanticipated building closures, geographic limitations, and beyond, the McFaddin-Ward House’s virtual tour enables their staff to offer a supplement to the built environment, objects, and data. “There is no substitute for a real, in-person tour of a museum or historical institution, but there are ways to supplement those tours and a digital experience system is a great way to do so,” says Todd. “CatalogIt brings the object data right to the forefront and visiTOUR.US packages it in a story-based and enjoyable platform that’s easy to use. We look forward to many more projects involving museum data management platforms.”