People and Places

Science & Tech: Pondering the Future of the Science & Tech Museum


Last week, the Science and Technology Museum launched an online survey, encouraging Canadians to provide their feedback on the future of the museum — that survey is up until June 20.

In light of this and other recent news about the museum, here, a reprint of Paul Gessell’s column about the future of the museum, which was originally published in Ottawa Magazine’s May 2015 issue.



From virtual exhibits to private-sector involvement, Paul Gessell ponders the future of the Canada Science and Technology Museum — and suggests the Harper government missed a golden opportunity to show support for science and culture

The Canada Science and Technology Museum wants children to have memorable museum experiences without having to visit the building — even when it reopens in 2017, mould-free and with a new roof.

Consider Ace Academy, a mobile app created by the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, a subsidiary of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, that allows kids anywhere to be guided by live-action characters through First World War flight training. Swipe and click your way through aerial challenges! Take command of a century-old biplane for a solo flight, interact with 3-D models of planes, and discover museum artifacts not on display.

Apparently, Ace Academy is ranked by iTunes as one of the 10 best apps. That’s according to Alex Benay, the former high-tech executive now serving as president and chief executive officer of the Science and Tech, Aviation, and Agriculture museums.

“According to Apple, it has reached over 12,000 users in 133 countries.”

Ace Academy is just one example. Many more high-tech experiences are being planned for museum visitors and those in cyberspace as dowdy Science and Tech goes through a digital “reboot” to shoot it into the 21st century and beyond.
Well, that all sounds positive. Or does it? Is there a danger that the overwhelming digitalization Benay envisages for Science and Tech is going too far, that flashing screens and bleeping machines will obscure the true purpose of the museum — to showcase real locomotives, Yousuf Karsh’s cameras, and other artifacts?

“Most people under 30 years get their information from Google and Facebook, and if you don’t exist there, you’re irrelevant,” says Benay.

Yes, but even Benay says his two children “sadly” spend too much time staring at screens. Do we, as a society, want our children to think a virtual biplane is more interesting than the real thing?

Clearly, the museum needs both a digital and a physical presence. The challenge is to find the right balance.

David Baird, founding director of the museum, is worried about Benay’s digital vision. He has been quoted as saying digital technology should be “a tool, not the message.” But it appears that at the rebooted Science and Tech, the medium will be the message. In such a scenario, the message is not that Joseph-Armand Bombardier crafted the first Ski-Doo in 1959 — and here is the actual machine for you to see. Instead, the message is that high-tech wizardry can tell very Canadian stories, including the invention of snowmobiles.

When the Canadian Museum of Civilization opened in Gatineau in 1989, the then director, George MacDonald, was accused of turning the institution into Disneyland North: exhibits seemed to rely more on child-friendly electronic whiz-bang than on actual artifacts. When MacDonald retired and Victor Rabinovitch took over in 2000, there was a return toward more traditional museology or the so-called “dead-butterflies-in-a-box” approach.

Now Mark O’Neill is in charge, transforming Civilization to the Canadian Museum of History. Those changes will, like those at Science and Tech, be unveiled in 2017. Which direction will O’Neill go? Will we get to see Samuel de Champlain’s astrolabe only through an app on our phones?

Benay came to Science and Tech last July from the software giant OpenText, with no museum experience. A few months later the museum roof literally threatened to collapse; mould abounded. The building, an old bakery on St. Laurent Boulevard, was shuttered, and the federal government offered $80.5 million for repairs and revamped exhibitions in time for Canada’s 150th birthday on July 1, 2017.

The roof dilemma came amid long-standing complaints that the Conservative government undermines both science and culture by muzzling the former and starving the latter. Here was an opportunity for the government to redeem itself on two fronts. But it balked at building the new Science and Tech museum that all Benay’s recent predecessors had championed. Instead, it decided to repair the old building, which, like the proverbial pig with lipstick, will still be just a pig.

Benay’s statements on the issue sound like a Conservative minister’s talking points: the current location is best; a new museum would have taken too long to be built; there is a need for more travelling shows; the private sector should play a bigger role in financing museums.

Corporate sponsorships are especially problematic for Science and Tech. If Imperial Oil finances a Monet exhibition at the National Gallery, there is little risk of a conflict of interest. But if Imperial Oil finances an energy exhibition at Science and Tech, as it did in 2011, the potential for conflicts is enormous. In fact, evidence surfaced that the oil giant tried to influence messages conveyed by the exhibition.

Benay says he has not been “strong-armed” by corporate sponsors since arriving last year, and if it happens, “it’s the museum’s responsibility to push back.” But he also acknowledges that there need to be benefits for industry, suggesting these could come by way of encouraging young visitors to explore a career in, say, mining.

When the Conservatives nixed building the Portrait Gallery of Canada in Ottawa or elsewhere in 2008, they pledged to showcase the portrait collection around the country through travelling exhibitions. Some shows followed, but few of great significance. The Portrait Gallery’s parent, Library and Archives Canada, has seen large chunks of its annual budget disappear. It struggles to fund its core services, let alone mount painting exhibitions, which are far cheaper to tour than Science and Tech’s trains, planes, and automobiles.

So what will Science and Tech look like in 2017?

museum facade du musee
Inside will be what Benay calls “immersive” exhibits on such themes as transportation, natural resources, and health care. Real artifacts will be lodged within digital, interactive experiences. The slogan “Past meets future” already appears on posters to get museum employees thinking of ways to showcase artifacts in a virtual world. The outside of the building — one of the most boring-looking museums on the planet — will have a new look, one more “alive.”

Phase II will come after 2017, when the museum’s spacious front lawn may get a mixed-use building, probably with considerable private-sector funding, to display more of the thousands of antique bicycles, pieces of industrial machinery, and other artifacts housed in warehouses. That front lawn, by the way, will no longer contain two familiar landmarks: a monumental American Atlas rocket and an oil-well pumpjack — both had deteriorated so much that they had to be removed.

“It is something that is very real, very concrete,” says Benay about the changes.“This isn’t just something we’re talking about. There is actually some action being taken now, as we speak, to figure out the zoning and things of that nature.”

Even before 2017, expect to see more outreach programs, including touring exhibitions and visits to schools across Canada by museum staff with artifacts. Benay is also intrigued with recent advances in 3-D printers.

Thus, some day schoolchildren in Inuvik could “print” their own 3-D replica of the museum’s tabletop model of the Bluenose schooner.

Hidden amid all the bravado about a rebooted museum is the realization that the dream of a new Science and Tech museum is dead for generations to come — unless the old building suddenly vanishes into a giant sinkhole. Other museums have suffered similar waits.

The National Gallery first opened in 1882 in two small rooms of a remodelled builders’ workshop adjacent to the Supreme Court of Canada. It took more than 100 years to get a proper building, even if the roof on Moshe Safdie’s splendid architecture does leak periodically.

The museum was founded 50 years ago. Maybe in another half-century, its time will come — if it has not completely disappeared into the virtual world.

Paul Gessell is a contributing editor to Ottawa Magazine and a former writer with the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean’s, and the Canadian Press.