In this blog I want to share my ongoing experience with transitioning in-person cultural heritage outreach projects into digital cultural heritage during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been a member of Michigan State University’s Campus Archaeology Program (CAP) since 2018 and as an organization, CAP works to protect, preserve, and share the cultural heritage of the University. One major part of this work has been public outreach through events, lectures, social media, and blog posts with public, university, and professional audiences. Since spring 2020 CAP has had to radically alter how we perform public outreach. My experiences in CAP are similar workers at museums, libraries, and cultural heritage organizations who have had make big changes to continue sharing cultural heritage during this pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had severe impacts on the cultural heritage community, closing facilities, reducing visitors, and causing staff to work from home. Despite the fact that the vast majority of cultural heritage organizations, private and public, have small staffs and limited budgets, the industry responded to the pandemic with digitization and virtual technologies. In doing so many were able to continue to disseminate cultural heritage information and meet educational and outreach goals and likely changed the way heritage will be shared in the future[1].

Challenges faced by cultural heritage organizations during this time has included:

  • Improving virtual access to collections and exhibits[2] [3]
  • Supporting Intangible Heritage and cultural bearers[4]
  • Best practices for keeping visitors and staff safe5
  • Best practices for caring for and handling collections[5] [6]
  • Maintaining and Monitoring Heritage Sites4
  • Ensuring Business Continuity4

CAP, like many other cultural heritage organizations in recent years, already had an on-line presence, including our website and blog (, that formed the backbone of our shift towards more digital content. One major challenge we faced was to find effective virtual replacements for the large public events CAP usually runs or participates in. In Fall 2020 MSU’s campus was almost entirely closed and we could not run our yearly Apparitions and Archaeology Tour which generally draws 200 – 300 visitors to campus. The Apparitions and Archaeology tour allows visitors to walk through MSU’s campus at night, visiting several sites where docents share historical and haunted stories of the sites. Myself, Rhian Dunn (another CAP member), and Autumn Painter (the Campus Archaeologist) wanted to find a way to host this tour virtually because it is one of our largest outreach events of the year, so we decided to create an online tour that would run for the month of October.

Examples of virtual museum tours include the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, which pre-dated the pandemic, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian has exhibition on The Great Inka Road, and Mexico’s Museo National de Anthropologìa (National Museum Anthropology), which mad accessible over 140 digitized artifacts in 3D. Each of these three take different approaches to virtual tours but are all effective digital engagements and are interesting to explore. For CAP’s virtual Apparitions and Archaeology Tour we wanted to preserve the visitor experience of choosing which stops to explore and in whichever order they prefer. To do so we built the virtual tour using Twine, a platform for creating web-based choose-your-own-adventure-style stories and games. The freedom of the digital medium allowed us to incorporate all eight supposedly haunted sites on campus into the tour, in-person we are limited by staff to choosing five or six sites. Creating a digital tour also allowed us to add far more contextual and historical information, beyond the eight sites, for those who wished to explore the history of MSU further.

In creating the tour, Rhian and I had to consider how visitors who were familiar with the in-person tour would prefer to navigate the site, what information to include or exclude, and how to design the tour to show that the archaeological and haunted information were connected via place, but still distinct in fact and goals. We also had to learn to use a small amount of computer code, mainly HTML and CSS, which neither of us were familiar with. Like staff at many cultural heritage organizations across the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to work on the fly to develop new ways of engaging the public and did so by building on existing digital infrastructure and the digital cultural heritage work of organizations and creators who had been practicing and thinking about digital heritage long before 2020.

[1] Ekaterina Travkina and Pier Luigi Sacco (2020) Culture shock: COVID-19 and the cultural and creative sectors. OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19) 7 September 2020.

[2] ICOMOS Nepal (2020) Impact of Pandemics on Cultural Heritage

[3] Interreg Europe (2021) Good practice: Virtual tour of the Tribuna degli Uffizi

[4] Stacy Bowe, Nana Kaneko, Rebecca Kennedy and Liz Kirby (2020) Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. March, 30, 2020

[5] Digital Monastery Project (2020) Risk Assessment: Pandemic

[6] Irene Karsten, Janet Kepkiewicz, Simon Lambert, Crystal Maitland and Tom Strang (2020) Caring for Heritage Collections during the COVID-19 Pandemic Canadian Conservation Institute