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Florence Griswold Museum is closed due to COVID-19 -- but will be offering virtual tours

On a recent morning, Tony Healy was setting up his 3D camera inside the historic Florence Griswold House in Old Lyme. No museum visitors were to be found — this was, after all, in the midst of the mass closures of sites due to COVID-19.

The closures were part of the reason that Healy was there.

With the Florence Griswold House and Museum shuttered during coronavirus restrictions, museum officials decided to hire Healy to create virtual tours similar to the one he did last fall for the Jennifer Angus installation at the Flo Gris House.

This time, though, he was focusing on the house itself and then on the exhibition running through May 24 at the museum’s Krieble Gallery, “Nothing More American: Immigration, Sanctuary, and Community, An Exhibition by Matthew Leifheit.”

Healy set up his Matterport 3D camera on a tripod a couple of feet inside the door that leads from the house’s back porch into the hallway. He got it ready and then, with iPad in hand, stepped into a side room. He pushed a button on the iPad, which triggered the camera to take a 360-degree view. Since it is literally 360 degrees, everyone had to be out of the camera’s sight, in another room, when it began filming. That said, no one had to be silent; there is no sound with the tour.

The machinery made a whirring noise as it began filming six 60-degree segments in quick succession. (Healy says to think of those like sections of an orange, creating a whole.) Then, Healy stepped back to the camera and moved it three to five feet down the hallway, and the process started over.

And so it went: move the camera another three to five feet forward, step away, let it film, repeat.

Healy brought the camera into the parlor on the left side of the hallway and then into the artist’s bedroom on the right. Eventually, he started heading up the stairs to the second floor, where some of the museum’s permanent collection is on display.

The museum is now working on things like adding text labels to the virtual tour, with the plan to have it posted on the Flo Gris website sometime on Tuesday.

But the public can get a sense of what it will be like by watching the virtual tour of the Angus exhibition on the Flo Gris website. You see the layout of the building, as if it were a dollhouse. The camera then rushes in close, settling into the main hallway. You are offered buttons to rotate, move or zoom, and off you go, able to tuck into any room or to get a close-up view, for instance, of the preserved insects that Angus arranged on the walls like wallpaper. Angus uses insects in her work to create beauty but also to educate people about insects’ importance to the ecosystem.

Tours in the time of COVID-19

Florence Griswold Museum Director Becky Beaulieu says museum staffers knew it was going to be a priority to launch a more extensive virtual tour program after the success of the Angus one. They had been talking about ways “we could be actively leveraging technology to create more sustainable engagement options. And one of those was the idea of not just our house but also documenting the special exhibitions we do in the Krieble Gallery and being able to launch a corresponding virtual tour or online tool that would be able to sustain all the work that goes into those exhibitions and also the rich and resonant resources they can offer for education and general visitors after the show comes down from the gallery.”

That was something they were interested in reviewing further in 2020.

When the museum had to close during the coronavirus shutdown, the idea for those virtual tours was fast-tracked.

“Museums right now are really benefiting from being able to share their message, to share their story, share their resources with the general public online,” Beaulieu says.

“But also we’re recognizing how welcome those tools are to those of us who are all in our homes and looking to have new experiences each day. While all of us are streaming our shows and hopefully reading the books we hadn’t had a chance to pick up yet, this is another really positive recreational and educational activity for the whole family. It’s a tool of sanity as much as anything else at this point,” she says with a laugh.

Beaulieu sees the tour as augmenting the museum experience rather than replacing it. It can orient visitors before they come, and it can serve as a great educational tool for school groups.

Healy says that someone had once told him these tours are like teasers for a site.

Beyond that, they provide a way for people who have disabilities to access areas of historic buildings they might not be able to. For instance, they can take the virtual tour up the stairs to the second floor of the Griswold House.

“We’re able to give them the full experience of the museum from their home,” Beaulieu says.

From basilicas to real estate

Healy, who has a special exemption to work during the state shutdown, has created tours like this for a wide range of locations through his Simsbury-based company Capture — Visual Marketing. He had done them for historic sites, including for the Mark Twain House in Hartford and for real estate that is being put up for sale. The day after his Flo Gris stop, Healy was headed to the basilica in Waterbury.

Healy approached Flo Gris about the museum’s possibly doing a virtual tour last year. The Angus exhibition seemed a perfect opportunity. It was innovative and unexpected for the historic Griswold House, and it was only going to last a certain amount of time. Beaulieu says they wanted a record of that and to be able to share it with viewers who might not know the museum. It would also show the interesting ways that Flo Gris is exploring new avenues, she says.

The intent was to expand the virtual tour program and, Beaulieu says, “Now that we have all of our wonderful team members working from home and working full time, we are really working collaboratively to think about how are we altering our content generation to be fully online versus the museum-specific experience.”

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