How to build a museum for the 21st century

In 2014, a crisis forced a complete renovation of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, in Ottawa. A new TVO documentary explores the three-year transformation that followed — and the questions it raises about the role of museums in the modern age
By Daniel Kitts - Published on December 12, 2018

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It’s not unusual for museums to renovate in order to remodel their space and exhibitions — but the reinvention of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, in Ottawa, was anything but routine.

The original museum building, which opened in 1967, had formerly been a bakery warehouse. By 2014, it was clear that some renovations were in order. The roof was leaking and contained asbestos. But the unexpected discovery of toxic mould forced a more drastic course of action: an immediate shutdown of the facility.

“Literally, people were told, ‘Leave your desks: the place is closing,” says Frank Taylor, executive producer of Reboot: A Future Museum, a documentary airing on TVO tonight at 9 p.m. that chronicles the museum’s subsequent transformation.

Over the next three years, the institution rebuilt itself, and not just physically: an almost completely new structure went up on the existing site — but the museum also more fundamentally reimagined the function that it should serve.

Reboot is effectively a case study looking at how the museum experience is changing,” Taylor says. “Certainly, other museums are doing similar things, but this museum was forced by circumstance to change — and change quickly.”

In the documentary, we meet Alex Benay, the museum’s young CEO, who champions and defends the role digital technologies can play in museums today. (Benay, who’s in his mid-30s, left the job in April 2017 to become the federal government’s chief information officer).

As part of going digital, CSTM began sharing some of its content online. It also started using technology to enhance the onsite experience. For example, when the museum re-opened in November 2017, the CN-6400 steam locomotive — which has long been one of its most popular attractions — had an added feature: a 360-degree virtual-reality experience that allows people to visualize driving the train through the Canadian Rockies.

“You can look at the world around you,” Taylor says. “You can look down into the fire box. It’s a full sensory experience of what it would have been like for the engineer of that train.”

Such innovations, Taylor says, allow CSTM to move beyond the traditional “voice-of-God approach.” Visitors aren’t simply told what an artifact is and why it’s important — they’re able to interact with it, making the experience more of a two-way conversation.

As Reboot makes clear, though, not everyone is sold on this vision of the future. “When I kept hearing about ‘digital, digital, digital,’ I worried about the content — the tactile content of museums — and how in the digital world we are in danger of losing that,” journalist and historian Andrew Cohen says in the film. “I see, all over, museums that have gotten so heavily digital, they’ve forgotten objects,” he adds later.

Nina Simon of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History disagrees. “There’s plenty of research that shows that the existence of museum objects and stories online has only increased people’s interest in visiting the real site,” she says later in the documentary. “So I don’t think it’s an either/or.”

So after working on Reboot, what does Taylor think of museums going digital? “I’m a believer,” he says.

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