Doors Open Ontario Moves Online, Offering Virtual Ways To Explore The Province’s Cultural And Heritage Sites

Doors Open Ontario: A family pictured at Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site.
Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site. Photo courtesy of Destination Ontario

For nearly 20 years, Doors Open Ontario has hosted hundreds of events allowing people across the province to experience cultural and heritage sites for free, but this season, the program is moving online, offering virtual ways to explore some of the province’s most special places.

Doors Open Ontario is a province-wide culture, heritage and tourism program that offers 35 to 40 free in-person events each year, spanning weekends from late April through early October. The program typically attracts about 500,000 visits per year, according to David Leonard, community programs officer for the Ontario Heritage Trust, generating a cross provincial economic impact of about $11 million a year and over $130 million since 2002. The trust works with municipalities, heritage organizations, and arts and culture groups to fulfill their mandate to “further, protect and promote Ontario’s heritage in all forms, cultural and natural, tangible and intangible.” The goal of the program is to allow Ontarians to get a free behind-the-scenes look at Ontario’s heritage and history.

“This has been a really valuable cornerstone of the trust’s work in a way that it’s generating free access in communities all across the province and it’s creating tourism opportunities by driving people to special places, incentivizing access and exploration,” Leonard said. “Those are really cornerstone values and the season was about to kick off with 35 registered events for 2020 when the pandemic hit.”

Leonard’s team consulted with the communities that were registered for the 2020 season and, recognizing that in-person events weren’t going to be possible, they decided to create a season that focused on providing digital access to heritage and cultural sites. They started to build a website, workshopping the content with their network of communities and partners, with the goal of providing Ontario residents with a “virtual journey across the province.”

“We’re focusing on opening Ontario’s doors online, featuring many of the provinces treasured places and the story behind their doors, providing a list of and a series of online experiences and virtual destinations that draw us together and hopefully inspire still a strong sense of community while we’re physically distancing,” Leonard said.

The website pulls togethers resources including photo galleries, videos and virtual tours as well as activities and online exhibitions for about 40 sites across the province. The trust will continue to add sites and additional content heading into the fall, aiming to create a new way to interact with their catalogue of sites. 

While the website was created in response to the pandemic and subsequent quarantine, Leonard and the team at the trust hope it can be a valuable addition to Doors Open Ontario alongside future in-person events. Leonard also hopes that it can allow people to interact with more sites as the program’s average visitor goes to about two events, but the website would allow them to see much more of what Ontario has to offer.

“Presenting a fulsome array of digital experiences on our website continues to take down barriers to access and exploration, and that’s very critical to the success of the program,” he said. “As we continue to build out this online resource of online tours and virtual experiences, we hope that this resource will continue to live on and outlast the pandemic in such a way that this continues to be a valuable online resource that becomes a part of the Doors Open Ontario experience, even when it is safe to go back to in-person events.”

Leonard and his team decided to kick off the Digital Doors Open Ontario campaign by focusing on Black heritage, showcasing sites like Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, Amherstburg Freedom Museum and Buxton National Historic Site and Museum. The trust recently added the Oakville Museum at Erchless Estate, which includes a virtual tour of a historic house that features an extensive underground railroad exhibit, according to Leonard. Additional sites such as the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, the John Freeman Walls Underground Railroad Museum and Grey Roots Museum & Archives are coming soon.

“This is part of our consistent, long-term approach of redefining and expanding the narrative in Ontario, ensuring that the heritage that we protect and the stories that we tell are a respectful, accurate and authentic portrayal of all the people that have lived here and contributed to this land, particularly those that have been historically marginalized,” Leonard said.

The online format encourages access and discovery to a critically important part of history in a way that speaks to the current cultural movement, he said. It also relates to the present moment in culture by giving Ontarians access to portions of the summer experiences they’re missing while in quarantine.

Canada’s Wonderland, which remains closed due to COVID-19, is one example of the summer staples included on the website, featuring virtual roller coasters and colouring pages courtesy of the amusement park. The website also showcases resources like art-making videos from the Art Gallery of Ontario and free virtual summer camp, storytimes and science labs for kids from the Aurora Public Library.

No matter what you decide to explore, Leonard said he and his team have worked to ensure the digital experience has as few barriers to discovering the material as possible, aiming to develop content that is digestible to a wide range of audiences.

“Whatever we can do to boost awareness of special places and heritage sites through the digital platform is really valuable because these places are really important to Ontarians’ identities locally and across the province,” Leonard said. “Encouraging learning, access and discovery is so important during the pandemic and following as well.”

While it’s not possible to hold the in-person events that have made the program so wonderful, the online experience of Doors Open Ontario will play an important role in helping Ontarians learn about and celebrate their communities until they can gather in person again, he said. For now, Muskoka residents can enjoy Doors Open Ontario on their computer screens, but the trust eagerly awaits the day that in-person events can return.

“Muskoka municipalities have participated in Doors Open Ontario in the past, Gravenhurst most recently in 2018,” Leonard said. “When the time is right of course, we look forward to hopefully working with the communities again.”

Visit the Digital Doors Open Ontario website to learn more.



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