- Sarah Cronin
The words "historical society" probably don't call to mind images of technological innovation. But during the pandemic, the digital sphere has offered the only way for Vermont's nearly 200 historical societies to reach their audiences. These organizations, many of which run on volunteer power, responded with creativity.
The Norwich Historical Society created podcast driving tours of the town for people to download and explore. The Peacham Historical Association, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, created a pandemic-themed scavenger hunt that linked historic sites with disease outbreaks of the past. The Westminster Historical Society completed a project that developed free, downloadable sewing patterns to accompany online photos of historic garments.
Eileen Corcoran, community outreach coordinator at the Vermont Historical Society, pointed to these as examples of how some historical societies have adapted this year. But for many others, there were no podcasts or virtual exhibits, which require resources and tech-savvy presenters.
"[At] these small organizations and local historical societies, especially, it tends to be older folks who aren't as tech savvy to begin with," Corcoran said. "They tend to have audiences that are older, as well."
That's one reason Corcoran organized a virtual roundtable Tuesday on the "mechanics of an effective online presence," at which a marketing professional discussed, among other things, the nitty-gritty of search engine optimization. Corcoran, like many in the arts and humanities fields, doesn't believe virtual content should disappear anytime soon. Even as the vaccine rollout offers a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, she thinks historical organizations will continue to want to host digital exhibits, talks and shows — and that audiences will continue to want them. The VHS is offering another webinar in March and may well host more.
"One of the good things about the virtual programming that we saw, and I think other organizations saw, especially at the local level, is an audience engagement beyond Vermont," Corcoran said. For VHS, which bills itself as for "Vermonters and 'Vermonters at heart,'" this is a natural extension of their work.
"But it's true even for local societies," she continued. "You have a lot of their audiences that maybe grew up in the town, or they have a seasonal home in the town. They wouldn't have been able to go to a talk at the local historical society, but now they can because it's virtual."
Corcoran also pointed out that for a historical society's Vermont-based audiences, online events might be welcome during the winter when road conditions can be iffy.
History is not the only field reckoning with how it will deliver content long-term. In the performing arts sector — one of the hardest hit by the pandemic — artists and organizations have invested heavily in livestreaming performances. And it hasn't been cheap.
For the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, said executive director Elise Brunelle, hosting concerts online instead of in person adds $6,000 to $8,000 in operating costs per show.
"I thought, If we're going to want people to continue to listen to us, they need to be able to watch something that's equally as exciting as what they listen to," Brunelle said. That meant multiple cameras and professional editing, along with hiring a company to do the ticketing and streaming itself. "Those were things that we just felt were too important to say no to or to skimp on."
All of the VSO's virtual performances are priced on a sliding scale, with tickets starting at $5. And though ticket sales don't cover costs, Brunelle said they're selling more tickets and seeing an expanded audience outside of the state. While she thinks nothing can replace live music, Brunelle suggested that the symphony could continue to be more accessible by offering online concerts, even after in-person shows are permitted again.
"The peer organizations that I've been talking with all hope to be able to do both," Brunelle said. "We absolutely are committing ourselves, and just simply putting the budget line in there, to record and stream our performances going forward."
Doreen Kraft, executive director of Burlington City Arts, said her organization is also considering its long-term digital strategy and likely will keep presenting some classes and programming online.
"I believe that we're going to continue to live in two worlds," she said. "The virtual world is not going away."
That's exciting, but it also worries her. Creating dual programming "means your budget is going to go up, and I'm not sure how we're all going to support this," Kraft said. "How much funding is going to be needed to create the level of sophistication that audiences are going to demand?"
For BCA, Kraft sees a need to support artists as they delve into virtual presentation. That might mean operating studios where artists and performers can have access to professional livestreaming and filming equipment, offering professional development courses, and funding grant programs for artists to invest in their own online presence.
Still, that doesn't mean all online content has to be completely slick and professional. There's still charm in an iPhone-in-a-bedroom recording.
"People love the intimacy of that," Kraft said. "The technology is in service to your intention. I don't want it to get so sophisticated that you lose that."