Everything old is new again at Ottawa's reimagined Science and Tech museum

Venerable tourist attraction eyes more interactive approach, puts renewed focus on local innovations as part of $80M overhaul
Christina Tessier
Museum director Christina Tessier shows off the Crazy Kitchen. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

When Christina Tessier started her new job as head of the Canada Science and Technology Museum in November 2014, she felt a bit like she’d just won the lottery.

By a lucky coincidence, she officially assumed the position the same day the federal government announced it would invest $80 million to completely rebuild the venerable facility, which had welcomed Canadians of all ages after opening as part of the nation’s centennial celebrations in 1967.

“I had my best first day of work ever,” says the museum’s energetic director general, who previously was the director of operations at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Built on the former site of a commercial bakery, the museum has delighted generations of Canadian children and their parents. But it was also often overlooked because of its distance from downtown and suffered from a lack of significant investment in upkeep and new exhibits.

In early 2014, the museum was shut down after mould was discovered in its walls. The closure gave the new boss and her team a chance to remake the museum into a cutting-edge temple of Canadian ingenuity that reflected the country’s past while offering bold hints of its future potential.

“We don’t want to rely on tech for tech’s sake. It’s about bringing the tech to this audience.”

“It’s really exciting to be able to tackle a project like this and actually be able to take something, and working with an incredible team, kind of turn it into something that relies on its roots but in my mind is really new,” Ms. Tessier says.

Makeover complete, the new-look facility finally reopened its doors to the public last month. Perennial favourites including the brain-bending Crazy Kitchen and the locomotives are back, while jaw-dropping new elements such as a giant LED display that snakes around the front entrance are vying to become must-see attractions.

The theme of combining tradition with next-level tech is reflected in old-school exhibits such as Locomotive 6400, the first artifact in the museum’s collection.

Locomotive 6400 continues to be one of the stars of the show at the new-look Canada Science and Technology Museum, which reopened to the public last month. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

Built for Canadian National in 1936, the sleek iron behemoth now sits beside a multi-sensory virtual reality booth built by Kanata-based SimWave Consulting that puts visitors right in the engineer’s seat, smelling the scent of burning coal and feeling the rumbling of the tracks below.

“The challenge with VR is, it’s one person at a time,” Ms. Tessier says. “Museums are often places of as many people as you can kind of suss through these experiences. That’s where we’ve turned to augmented reality in other cases. For us, it’s not about knowing which one is the right one – it’s about trying different ones out and seeing how the audiences respond. 

“We don’t want to rely on tech for tech’s sake. It’s about bringing the tech to this audience and how do we best make use of it for that audience to expand their experience of the museum.”

Many new exhibits are designed to be interactive. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

Even many of the old fan favourites have been updated to enhance the overall experience. The Crazy Kitchen, for example, now includes an explanation of why the room’s angled floor gives so many visitors that queasy feeling as it disrupts their senses. 

“For a family, in essence, it’s fun, but there’s some real science behind what’s happening in there,” Ms. Tessier notes. “And it’s a social experience. You go through with a group of people, rather than a solo experience.

People come to museums because they want to learn and because they want to have experiences with their friends and family. This one gives them both opportunities.”

Artifact alley

Historic tech of all shapes and sizes gets its due, with Artifact Alley running across the entire length of the building. More than 700 items from bicycles and radios to computers and refrigerators offer a glimpse into the devices that have changed how Canadians work and play down through the years.

Artifact alley
The redesigned Artifact Alley includes more than 700 items, from computers to old-fashioned radios. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

“Science and tech is part of so much of our lives, right?” Ms. Tessier says. “The technology behind refrigerators hasn’t changed, but the design is something that changes.”

Besides adding space for hundreds of extra artifacts and 11 new exhibits on everything from cars to medical technology, the museum’s designers moved the demo stage from the back of the building to a prominent position right in the middle.

Ms. Tessier expects it to become a popular forum for discussions on the future of science and tech and a showcase for made-in-Ottawa innovations. 

“We have some great sectors that are really building up in Ottawa, whether it’s around autonomous cars or AI work or other pieces that are happening here,” she says. “We want to make sure that they’re engaged with the new museum on that forward-looking piece.”

The museum features historic vehicles of all sorts, from cars to bicycles. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

As a federally funded organization, the museum has a responsibility to educate visitors about emerging technologies as well as promote Canadian industry, she adds.

“It’s kind of like it’s a mandate to us that we shouldn’t just be talking about what’s happened in the past,” Ms. Tessier says. “We should be supporting this whole infrastructure because science and tech and innovation is a huge driver for our economy. We have a role to play in that ecosystem, to be supporting and creating that window, and in other ways, we invest in it.”

She says the museum – which drew more than 300,000 visitors annually in the four years leading up to its closure – consulted with hundreds of Canadians during the redesign to get their feedback, even setting up a kiosk at the St. Laurent Shopping Centre with cardboard models of exhibits. 

Still, Ms. Tessier expects there will be critics, and she’s more than happy to listen to them.

“We know that if that experience isn’t right, our audience is going to let us know pretty quickly,” she says with a smile. “Our hope is that all audiences will see something that’s going to appeal to them in the new museum.”