Change is in the air at the Canada Museum of Science and Technology. The museum’s main building, which closed in 2014 due to mould in the walls, is undergoing an $80-million revitalization and will reopen in late 2017. Earlier this year, the federal government approved $156 million for a new collection and conservation centre to house the museum’s 300,000 artifacts.
Alex Benay, 35, is at the centre of it all. The president and chief executive of Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, which also operates the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, is a leading proponent of museums stepping outside their traditional walls and into the digital world.
TECHOPIA spoke with Benay, one of the Ottawa Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 recipients this year. The interview has been edited for length.
TECHOPIA: You’ve been in this job for almost two years. What has surprised you the most about the gig so far?
BENAY: After six or seven weeks on the job, we closed Science and Tech. That was probably the biggest “what the heck” moment. We had always been the underdog museum in the national capital, and I kind of liked that, but we found a whole other level of underdog.
But the thing I found the most surprising is how this group’s been able to turn this around into something absolutely amazing. We’ve completely redefined the meaning of the word “place” in the institution for us. The place is not Lancaster Road or the Aviation and Space Museum or downtown. “Place” is the world. If you’re at a tech company or at an export company, people understand that. If you’re in the museum space, you don’t always think about it that way.
We do a lot of things digitally now with the collection to increase our outreach. We do video games that are in over 170 countries. We’ve been able to put our public programming in vehicles and take it on the road from Montreal to Toronto to Sudbury, you name it. We’ve been able to slowly use 3D printing as an outreach mechanism across the country. Considering everything that happened, that’s really good for us. When we reopen Science and Tech it’ll be amazing, but we don’t want to lose that.
TECHOPIA: You’ve said museum attendance as a measure of success is outdated. What are some other, more up-to-date ways to measure success, in your view?
BENAY: Well, we still measure attendance. Aviation and Space has had some of its best years in history, in terms of attendance. But there are so many other factors. We’re a national institution that happens to be in Ottawa. What are we doing with youth in Iqaluit? What are we doing to engage in Victoria? In St. John’s?
We just signed an MOU with the Smithsonian Channel to help produce televised documentaries in science and tech and to get Canadian content out in the world. That’s just as important as attendance in Ottawa. The agriculture and food museum is going to be at the Stampede in Calgary this year.
Is attendance important? Absolutely. We want to have the best local experience that we can. But the point is, we have a local, national and international role as an institution. It’s a much, much broader mandate than just getting visitors in the door. So that’s what we’re looking at: what is that new value proposition for a cultural institution in today’s world? If we’re not at least having these conversations, then I would argue we’re almost archaic by default.
TECHOPIA: You just launched consultations for a year-round science park in the green space next to the museum. What’s your vision for that?
BENAY: Being downtown would have been fantastic; it just wasn’t in the cards. And we feel confident in the site that we have. We have 20-plus acres of land to grow on. A science park outside doesn’t exist in Ottawa, but seems to exist in other major cities like Vancouver or Calgary. So why not look to create something for youth in the area? Let’s face it: it’s an area that needs this kind of space.
TECHOPIA: After several years of asking for it, the federal government finally approved the funds for a new collection and conversation centre in this year’s budget: $156 million over three years. How much of a game-changer was that?
BENAY: It’s everything. The museum investment was important, but this is at par with that, if not greater.
One is we get to have all of our staff in the same building. A lot of the corporate staff are spread out. We have 19 buildings to manage, so we have 65 per cent of the national museum portfolio infrastructure to manage.
From the collections perspective, it’s going to be a purpose-built facility. This is going to be state-of-the-art. We’re going to be co-housed with the National Gallery and the Canada Conservation Institute. We’re trying to make as much of it open to the public as possible. We are trying to create some digital research labs in partnership with post-secondary institutions and incubators like Invest Ottawa and DigiHub from Shawinigan and others.
We are committed to opening a large part of this by March 2018. It’s extremely aggressive.
I think the word I officially want to use is “awesome.” The unofficial word may be “absolutely chaotic and crazy.” But we’ll get it done.