Creating CREATE: turning a festival of events into an online learning platform

Linda helping me present despite being unprepared for a hybrid event.

Quite poetically, after being prevented from attending the AMAGA 2021 Conference in Canberra due to the latest COVID restrictions, I needed to quickly adapt my presentation on adapting programming to digital formats, into a Zoom presentation. Delivering remotely from home to a room full of in-person attendees listening to otherwise physical presentations was an odd experience. But thanks to our newly honed skills in flexibly adapting to sudden change, Lynda Kelly and I were able to make it work.

I presented on the development of the website We The Makers CREATE – an interactive platform to learn and share for all ages. This project was in response to the cancellation of a major festival of events planned for the Museum for our We The Makers exhibition. I’ve previously written about the development of the digital exhibition and CREATE as a sister website.

A program festival was going to print when we shut our doors and went home. In a short time we needed to adapt the programs to digital experiences. Family events became stop motion videos for craft activities: such as weaving a friendship bracelet and making pom poms. Public workshops with local artists became Inspiration At Home: short videos to inspire making at home using fabric with crafts such as furoshiki and Karen weaving. Masterclasses with established artists became online courses in Slow Stitching, Natural Dying, Repurposed Fashion and Recycled Jewelry. And a public exhibition of handmade wearables became an online gallery.

To make this happen during lockdown was not easy. I was posting vlogging kits to artists in their homes, assisting with transferring and editing large video files, developing consistent branding without being able to control the content. The artists, however, were adaptable, resilient and willing to give it a try. Supporting them, both financially and technically, was critical.

I highlighted some of the success and learnings from the project. Successes included: audience reach, engagement with and support for artists, partnerships with other organisations to share content, selecting methods to overcome technical limitations (eg. stop motion) and a public platform for sharing. Learnings from the project included: negotiating intellectual property for the artists, creating meaningful and attractive experiences amongst a flood of digital experiences (ie. online events coinciding with digital fatigue at the end of lockdowns) and creating an easy user experience.

Ultimately the project was a golden opportunity for the Museum, and for me professionally, to test our ideas and push our boundaries, developing new digital skills and reaching new audiences that would not have happened with the physical events.

The digital pandemic pivot

There has been much talk of ‘pivoting’ activities and programs since the pandemic began. While some are tiring of the catch phrase, I have welcomed the opportunity to devote time and resources to testing and extending the National Wool Museum’s digital capabilities.

Back in March as we all headed home, we were due to launch a new festival – We The Makers Design Festival – featuring two exhibitions and a festival of events. I had prepared around 25 events and was about to hit ‘print’ on our festival brochure when we realised it wasn’t going to pan out as we expected. Initially we postponed events, but soon we began strategising about how we could keep the festival spirit alive while we all sheltered in place.

My colleague Luke Keogh forged ahead with curating an interactive digital exhibition experience for the Designer Showcase component of the festival. I wanted to build on this experience to create opportunities for learning, participation and sharing for the broad audience that had originally been catered to in the program of events. And so We The Makers CREATE was launched.

Initially the project focussed on delivering free opportunities for people to learn and experience in their own time and at their own pace, with a series of courses, videos and downloadable activities. Plus a platform for the community to share their creations and promote their creative endeavours – the Creator Gallery. As the festival draws to a close we are also offering ticketed digital events for live experiences with the course artists.

There were many learnings from this project and lots of successes to celebrate. We were able to support a number of local and Victorian artists to contribute their skills to the creation of content, we provided a platform for more artists to share their work and promote their businesses, and we supported families and schools with learning activities to do at home. Like many organisations we faced the challenge of a flooded digital environment, short timeframes and untested concepts. But I feel we made the most of the opportunity to test our skills and reach new audiences.