This past August, the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa welcomed its 20 millionth visitor. Quite a milestone and one made all the more remarkable considering that the museum is located in its original building — a former bakery warehouse in a retail and light industrial section of Ottawa about 12 kilometres from the downtown core. Forty-six years in a temporary building! If you recently brought your children or grandchildren to the museum, which showcases the ongoing relationship between science, technology and Canadian society, you’ll have seen many of the same interactive displays that you viewed as a youngster, such as Locomotive Hall’s beautifully preserved steam locomotives. While these exhibits do provide continuity with the past, it’s questionable how relevant they are to today’s tech-savvy visitors. True, the museum does an excellent job with the resources available, as evidenced by recent temporary exhibits such as Energy: Power to Choose. Nonetheless, the museum only has enough space to display three per cent of its historical science collection. Surely our national achievements in science and engineering deserve better facilities.
I moved to Ottawa in 1982 and since then have seen the construction of three modern and architecturally beautiful museums: the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum. All were built at a cost of $200 million-plus and are strategically located in beautiful settings within walking distance of downtown Ottawa. All are well attended and Canadian citizens are extremely proud of the buildings and the history displayed in each.
Meanwhile, the Science and Technology Museum’s management team have given up any hope of a new permanent museum in a strategic Ottawa location in time to honour Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. This would have been especially auspicious, given that the museum was originally built to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday in 1967. The opportunity has passed and preparations must commence to honour this anniversary in the current dilapidated facility. This includes funnelling precious operating dollars into maintenance, such as the several million dollars earmarked for the building’s leaky roof.
What does all of this say about the commitment of government and industry? I am not only thinking about the federal government but the City of Ottawa as well. A new state-of-the-art science museum in one of several historical and available areas would be a major attraction. You would think the City of Ottawa would be pushing hard for it. Not so.
Studies over the past decade reveal that Canada must do more to generate interest in young people wanting to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). We do have some great science and engineering outreach programs in the country but can you imagine the influence that a modern, strategically located science museum could achieve? Would a modern museum attract an additional 20 million visitors? Likely so. One could easily extrapolate from that to guess how many more kids would have gone into STEM studies and related careers as a result of being inspired by the museum exhibits. What an investment it would have been for Canada.
Is this simply a case of everyone thinking that someone else will do it? We cannot just fault the federal government if industry has not been championing a new science museum. Individually, we as chemical scientists and engineers in government, industry or academia should also have pushed harder. Personally I feel guilty about not doing more.
In four years Canada turns 150. It’s time to start planning for the creation of a modern museum that proudly showcases Canada’s enormous contributions to and achievements in science and engineering to visitors, both foreign and national.
Roland Andersson is the executive director of the Chemical Institute of Canada. To respond to his column write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.