Jane Lavino and Carrie Schwartz share how the National Museum of Wildlife Art’s desire to make collections more accessible and relevant brought about the launch of Bisoncast – a video series that has gone on to win awards at multiple film festivals since its launch in 2020.
The National Museum of Wildlife Art is located in the small, rural town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. While the museum may be highly respected and known to feature many beautiful pieces in its collection, geographical restrictions will always make growing visitor numbers a challenge.
But, as the museum’s Chief Curator of Education, Jane Lavino, knows only too well, geography isn’t an issue in the online space and, with the right approach to content creation, engaging audiences can be done beyond the walls of the museum.
She says, “We have figured out how to reach a wider audience with our award-winning video series, ‘Bisoncast’. The videos offer engagement with our art collection in the context of our unique mountain environment neighbouring Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
“The idea for Bisoncast came about roughly five years ago, as the education staff at the museum began to explore the idea of a distance learning programme. We spent a year researching ideas: visiting museums, consulting with museum educators, and asking tons of questions.
“After careful consideration, we settled on a free video series that could be watched by anyone, anywhere with internet access and YouTube.”
Education, Interpretation and Design Consultant, Carrie Schwartz, works closely with Jane at the museum and is one of the team members who has also been integral to bringing the video series to life. She says,
“We have a really unique and interesting fine art collection focused on wildlife and we are in this breath-taking setting, which happens to be one of the most ecologically important places on Earth.
“But being in this location rather than a big city means it’s not as easy for people to get to us and enjoy the artworks we have to show. So, the challenge for us has been how to break down those barriers to entry and give more people access to the collection.”
Of course, a project like Bisoncast doesn’t happen overnight. In order to get the quality of content and the production value, the museum wanted, it was necessary to build a suitable budget – which involved finding sponsors and applying for grants.
With funding secured, Jane and the team contracted professional videographers, as well as bringing together an in-house team able to create strong scripts and gain the necessary permissions to use art from the collection online.
Five years later and the National Museum of Wildlife Art has 9 episodes of Bisoncast on the YouTube channel and has won three prestigious film festival awards in Toronto, Venice and Prague.
Over 8,000 people have learned about our Museum through this platform, a number that grows every day. As Jane says,
“The hope when submitting to film festivals is really always to gain exposure that will ultimately widen our audience. We didn’t go into this looking to win prizes, we really want to just share the museum’s collection as much as possible.”
Mastering the art of film production
Jane and Carrie are quick to point out that they didn’t begin the project with extensive experience in the creation of short films and they weren’t even confident that the initiative would work. However, they did find that through partnering with talented external companies and also being willing to simply experiment, Bisoncast has evolved into something the museum is rightly proud of. Jane comments,
“It’s worth saying that our first films didn’t win any awards! We’ve worked at the format, the storyboarding, the content, the editing and the style extensively in order to get to the point where we are producing short films that are gaining both attention and recognition. That’s how a learning curve works.
“There are almost too many options when you begin with a blank sheet of paper. Do you want to be funny or serious, long or short form, narrated or presented, etc. My advice to any museum professional thinking of doing what we have is to identify what sets your museum and also your team apart; what’s different to other institutions.
“In our case, the quality of the artwork and also the setting of the museum meant that it was important to us to lean on high quality videography – otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to do the art or the landscape justice. That’s not to say that shooting on a mobile phone can’t work for others. But it’s just not the right approach for us.”
Making the decision to publish to YouTube is also part of the museum’s strategy to break down barriers to access, uploading to a free and widely used platform that would gain maximum exposure. Given the audience and the medium, the team also found over time that a shorter running time was more impactful. As a result, their more recent productions have run nearer to 10 minutes, rather than the 20-minute films produced in their early attempts.
Engaging with internal teams is another key component of any good piece of content, according to Jane. She says,
“Working closely with our curatorial team helped us to identify the best pieces of art for a particular theme, as well as gaining permissions, ensuring art safety . . . and even, on some occasions, stepping in as guest presenters within the videos.
“Interestingly, we’ve found that scripting our own presentations but leaving guests to contribute to the conversation in an unscripted fashion struck the best balance between pacing, quality and energy.”
Both Jane and Carrie are also at pains to point out that the biggest challenge when trying to get a project of this kind off the ground lies in securing funding to employ talented film crews with good quality equipment.
Carrie adds, “Once you’ve got the funding in place and a project is ready to take off, I think we also found that balancing priorities and managing expectations among stakeholders within the museum was a challenge – one I don’t think we’d anticipated.
“It’s great that everyone is on board with this kind of initiative and that people are keen to be involved. But we did have to make difficult decisions and be aware that we could never entirely satisfy everyone.
“For example, we had to decide if we wanted to pursue funding that was tied to school curriculum or stand our ground and look elsewhere in order to get the end product we wanted for an adult audience.
“We already work hard to engage and educate school children elsewhere within the museum’s work, so this was one instance where we felt it necessary to pursue a different focus.”
In planning where to take Bisoncast next, the team at the National Museum of Wildlife Art has taken the time to first gather feedback on the content they have produced to date. Carrie says,
“We’ve consulted with educators, museum members, staff and our local community to try to identify how we can grow Bisoncast further. As a result, we’ve established a set of criteria that will guide us over the coming years. That includes keeping our films shorter and tighter, honing in more on the adult audience, elevating diverse and underrepresented artists, and also bringing more contemporary art to the fore.”
With a clear framework in place, Jane and Carrie are confident that their mission to share their museum through Bisoncast will reach wider and further than ever before.
And, for any museum professionals considering embarking on their own video project, Carrie says, “Our advice would be to go for it and see where your ideas can take you. It can seem daunting to get started with something like Bisoncast but we are proof that it’s possible to achieve more than you might think.”
Find out more about how museums are utilising the latest strategies, technologies and tools to enhance the work they are doing for their audiences and communities at May’s Digital Museums Summit.