‘Please touch everything’: Inside the opening of the Ontario Science Centre

Fifty years ago, it changed the way we see museums. TVO.org looks back on how the Ontario Science Centre came to be
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Sep 27, 2019
an archival Ontario Science  Centre ad
Promotional materials for the Centennial Centre of Science and Technology, now the Ontario Science Centre. (Toronto: Province of Ontario, 1966)

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“It is a place to experience the excitement of science: as our knowledge of the world changes the centre will change. It will provide an opportunity to watch the development of our technology, to study and to understand science and to feel the imaginative power that gives us an understanding of the world in which we live and to whose future we contribute.”—Lister Sinclair, describing the Ontario Science Centre in a 1969 promotional book

When it opened 50 years ago, the Ontario Science Centre helped revolutionize the museum-going experience, offering fun and interactive exhibits. Who doesn’t like to press all the buttons?

Announced by Premier John Robarts in August 1964, the project was originally known as the Centennial Centre of Science and Technology — the hope was that its central core would be ready for the celebration of Canada’s 100th birthday three years later. But it ended up running behind schedule and overbudget: it opened two years late, in September 1969, and cost $30 million, $25 million more than had been originally projected.

The centre’s Don Valley site was chosen for its natural beauty, its central location within Metropolitan Toronto, and its access to the recently opened Don Valley Parkway. City of Toronto officials, including mayor Phil Givens, insisted it be built on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, which they believed had better access to highways and public transit. But the province stuck by its choice — indeed, the CNE site came in near the bottom of its list.

Rising architect Raymond Moriyama was commissioned to design the centre. “The centre must be a place for everyone — not cater to 12 specialists and ignore 12,000,” he wrote in his personal notes in October 1964. “It must be FUN. It must arouse curiosity. It must be a place of wonder. It must have unmeasurable qualities of comfort and joy, of discovery with others. It must fuse the visitor with ideas through active participation. It must be an emotional experience with intellectual satisfaction.” The design of the halls was kept simple to allow for better flexibility when creating exhibits. Noting that people had a limited capacity to absorb many exhibits at a time, Moriyama created a cellular design that broke up the space. He also kept accessibility in mind, incorporating grab bars, larger-than-average bathroom stalls, and low-placed telephones.

Promotional material from 1966 promised that the project would serve as “an investment in Canada’s present and future in a world of accelerating change” in which “the ultimate concern will be the welfare of Man himself and his progress toward a better life.” Planners hoped that the complex would nourish the love of learning among the public, especially among school groups from across the province. To cater to the 750 students expected daily, the centre hired 11 science teachers to conduct activities and lectures. The plan was to see a 15 per cent turnover in exhibits each year, so that they could remain on top of current technology. A number of the first exhibits took advantage of the news cycle: visitors were treated to a mock-up of Apollo 11’s command module and to a series of moon-landing-simulator capsules.

The opening was spread out over three days. During an evening media preview on September 26, 1969, 400 members of the press and their children tried the new exhibits even as workers were making the finishing touches. Young children loved the power-generating bicycles, while teens checked out the electrical exhibits and tried — and failed — to beat computers at tic-tac-toe. The interactivity charmed even hard-bitten political reporters. “It’s like being a kid in the fun house again,” an unnamed writer told the Globe and Mail.

Watching children play with water pumps, Moriyama was pleased: “It really looks as though it’s all going to work.”

The official opening on September 27 began with a morning ceremony for 1,000 VIPs. Robarts predicted that, despite the delay, the centre would have more impact than any other centennial project. Just after 11 a.m., a signal from a quasar 1.5 billion light years from Earth was picked up by a radio telescope in Algonquin Provincial Park and then relayed to the centre. It triggered a laser that sent a beam across the Great Hall to an infrared sensor, which, in turn, activated a pyrotechnic device. Electromagnets parted curtains, revealing the centre’s logo. As the ceremony finished, Robarts urged the crowd to “please touch everything you can get your hands on.”

After the VIPs toured the site, 30,000 invited guests were let in at 1:45 p.m.; organizers estimated that 10,000 others managed to gatecrash. Lineups formed for everything — including empty lecture rooms. Two OPP officers were assigned to guard a moon rock and samples of moon dust in the Great Hall. The manager of the centre’s W.H. Smith bookstore was surprised to have sold a dozen geographical dictionaries and run out of kaleidoscopes. Parents were pleased to see how fascinated their children were by the exhibits.

On September 28, the centre finally opened to the general public, drawing approximately 9,000 visitors. The Toronto Star reported that a 70-year-old man walked more than three hours from his west-end Toronto home to attend the opening. The paper also reported on one of the first uses of what would become one of the centre’s most iconic exhibits. Robin Keller, a University of Waterloo student who was Miss Argonaut at the time, “touched a large metal sphere, which was connected to a generator. She shook her long black hair a little and it all stood on end from the 27,000 volts of static electricity that was generated.” Twenty of the 450 exhibits did run into technical trouble over the weekend, but the engineering staff was relieved that at least none had been vandalized.

The centre was a smash hit: 55,000 visitors passed through it during its first three weeks, and, by year’s end, the average weekly attendance was 20,000. Sundays were so busy that opening was extended by three hours. There were some hiccups — kids sometimes slammed buttons so hard that they broke; bikes required re-welding — but visitor response was enthusiastic. When Prince Philip visited in late October 1969, he described the exhibits as “fascinating.” Trustees from New York City’s struggling Hall of Science came in search of new ideas.

It’s possible that, even today, a half-century later, the Ontario Science Centre could issue the same invitation that appeared in an ad for its opening: “Come see what would happen if Albert Einstein and Walt Disney had gotten together.”

Sources: The Centennial Centre of Science and Technology (Toronto: Province of Ontario, 1966); To see what everyone has seen and think what no one has thought by Lister Sinclair (Toronto: Centennial Centre of Science and Technology, 1969); the September 1969 edition of Canadian Architect; the September 1, 1964, September 2, 1964, September 15, 1964, August 7, 1969, September 27, 1969, September 29, 1969, October 14, 1969, October 18, 1969, and December 17, 1969 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 29, 1969 and October 22, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 27, 1969 edition of the Telegram.

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