Living History for Virtual Audiences

By Daniel Cockrell

Has the Virtual World of Programming in a Pandemic Changed the Way We View Our Audiences?

Today’s audiences have vastly more content options available to them at this moment than even a few minutes ago. With the ability to call up almost anything, how do we hold the attention of such an audience? Virtual programming—specifically the way that we are doing it now—has proven to be a highly effective vehicle to reach audiences.

I look at our education videos as art: A multimedia presentation that expresses an idea. A major factor in our success is reserving the time to deal with each small step and not banking on having unlimited time to complete the production. We have been able to create ease-of-use living history programs where we share a short video program of the character and then answer real-time questions from the students. We learned quickly what we liked and what we would want to change. A clear benefit was the ability for us to use these good-quality presentations many times over.

Our visitor experience goals remained the same: to provide the best experience possible. Technical issues have become so commonplace that we are very understanding when we see others having the same issues we have had. We become more critical when it is our own program. One solution was to film some of the presentation beforehand and limit the number of moving parts to the production.

Yes, it is possible to make short, quick programming videos, and that is very much needed and encouraged in many situations. We do that when the situation calls for it, but we wanted to provide quality education programs in a 15-25 minute format that can be delivered to the classroom in a way that is palatable for modern young audiences but still helps us to meet our educational programming goals.

One of the first requests for this type of program was from our youngest constituents and their parents. For years, we offered a weekly, in-person Little Beginnings story time and activity for our Pre-K guests. We needed to provide something similar via an online platform. We discussed trying Facebook live events, but the team was more comfortable filming then uploading a final product. Initially we set out to do a single-take quick video with easy filming and very few edits. Quick and Easy? Single-take was complicated from the first few attempts. We evaluated the process.

The solution for us was to put more work into it on the front end. Writing, planning, production schedules and timelines were key to the process of publishing over 150 video programs in the past two years. It required some shifting of job duties within our staff, but we are happy with our results. I use the Little Beginnings program as an easy-to-understand example because they represent a large percent of the video productions we (History Museum and Historic Site interpreters) produced. We storyboard our production. We plan the time and location of filming each short segment. I drop them into a video editing suite, cut them for length, add lighting filters and clean up the sound quality, then add free-to-use music to create a sonic texture and set mood. Then the video is ready for previews from my colleagues. Quality control by someone other than the editor is very valuable.

The process for the Living History presentations is very similar. We storyboard how the production is going to go and what extra images can be layered onto the narration provided by the living history character. We add close-ups on the items being highlighted and use diverse camera angles as a way to keep the attention of an audience who may be used to the fast-paced cut scenes and sound effects that go unnoticed but are heavily prevalent in almost every type of current screen media. Production tools are not tricks. They are tools used by industry very effectively to entertain and inform us.

There is no replacement for the live-in-person audience experience or the joy it brings us to share our programs with them real time in proximity to each other. We have seen growth in audiences via the virtual program offerings the past couple of years and understand that many of us are being asked to continue some form of this type of programming. Bridging this gap between the new virtual audience and the in-person visitors may be challenging, but we see the fruits of our labors during the virtual years benefiting students who will see our films for many years to come!

Daniel Cockrell is the Adult Education/Living History Coordinator at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock, AR.  Daniel has a BSE in Applied Sciences and a MA in History from the University of Central Arkansas. He currently serves on several state and local boards and committees.

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