Celebrating great Canadian scientific innovators: moving forward

As you may have read in the media, some members of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame  Selection Committee recently resigned, citing the lack of female nominees as the reason for their departure. I was disappointed by this turn of events, especially at hearing about their decision second hand. Had I been given the opportunity, I would have shown them what the Museum is working on to remedy the current flaws in its process to celebrate outstanding Canadian scientific achievement and innovation, and urged them to remain on the committee to continue working to improve on this important aspect of the Museum’s mandate.

Here are some facts on the situation, as I understand it. Last year, some Selection Committee members voiced the valid concern that the call for nominations of the Hall of Fame generated few women nominees. It is important to note here that, while there have been ups and downs over the years, there are currently 11 women out of 60 Hall of Fame inductees — about 18 per cent — in line with the percentage of women working today in the research fields of science and engineering (source: NSERC).

The Selection Committee members who resigned say they wished to extend a renewed call for nominations in the hope that more women might be nominated. I do not share their view for a couple of reasons. First, I believe that changing the rules midstream would be unfair to those who have taken part in the existing process in good faith; and, the nominations that were received are certainly not devoid of merit. Second, the call for nominations was extended to fifteen months, from the usual twelve months, as a result of the unexpected closure of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which houses the Hall of Fame. The Museum’s closure impacted greatly on operations and drew heavily on resources within the Corporation during that critical period, which is why the nomination period was extended. At the end of this extended nomination period, as always, every nomination received was submitted to the Selection Committee for review.

The fact is that the concerns the Selection Committee members had expressed last year had been heard loud and clear by those involved, but work in revamping the Hall of Fame came to a temporary halt following the Museum’s closure. With this challenging time now past, the Museum has an opportunity for renewal, and will soon be in a position to announce significant changes regarding how it celebrates outstanding Canadian scientific excellence and achievement going forward. I am confident that, had Committee members known what the Museum is working on, they would have chosen to remain and work for meaningful positive change. Ultimately, what the former Selection Committee members want is the same thing the Museum wants, and that is to see women and men in equal proportion advancing Canadian scientific and technological prowess and benefits to society. To reach that goal, girls need to be encouraged as much as boys to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and this is something the Museum strives to do in a number of ways.

This situation with the Selection Committee is regrettable and saddens me, but the former Committee members chose their own course of action. As a result of their decision — and with deepest apologies to the current nominees — the selection process for the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame has been put on hold until further notice. The Museum is finalizing the details of a new way of celebrating Canadian innovation that it has been working on for some time now, and hopes to make an announcement soon. Stay tuned.

The biggest threat to Canadian culture…

Today I would like to share with you what I consider to be one of the biggest threats facing Canadian culture.

What is this threat? Digital irrelevance. How can we avert it? By throwing everything we can dream up at the digital world, seeing what sticks, and doing it all over again.

Why is it so important that we do this right now, and not after fine-tuning feasibility studies for months and years to make sure we get it right? Because by the time feasibility studies get done, the digital world will change, and our projects will be obsolete. Anyone involved in something as simple as a corporate Web site redesign knows the day after they’re done, the boss wishes they’d have included the new feature that is all the rage right now, but that feature wasn’t even considered in development stages, because it simply didn’t even exist a few weeks, or months, ago when the redesign was planned…

Think up an idea. Implement it now. Ask questions later. If it fails, that’s a great lesson in itself. If it succeeds: great. It’s time to move on to the next idea you had. Keep repeating the process until you have a winner, an idea that allows you to expose Canadian culture in pride of place on the world stage, like we just did with the Ace Academy app at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum: It has showcased our rich First World War aircraft collection to tens of thousands of users in over 131 countries by now. Oh yeah: then it’s time to start over again with another idea.

Why is failure to do this – and cranking up the output volume a hundred, a thousand, a million fold – such a threat to Canadian culture? Because the digital world is vast. Every day, the amount of content generated on the Internet measured in bytes represents more creative expression than every word said by humans since the first meaningful grunt of our distant primordial ancestor. If your area of Canadian culture isn’t making, and occupying, its place digitally, if it’s not there the next time someone in, say, Moroccoor Cambodia, is looking for information on, say, Alexander Graham Bell or Bombardier on their smartphone, someone else will be telling your story. It might be the BBC, or it might be Le Figaro, but in any case, it’s a safe bet their take on those stories won’t be the story we have to tell, and that those stories won’t be told in the way we would tell them, with our own voice.

The world is changing, and we have to adapt to it. If I look at my own kids, I see that if they don’t hear about something on twitter, or facebook, or YouTube, then they don’t hear about it at all, and that “something” might just as well not exist for all they know or care. Consider how many people under 30 today get their all their information, all their entertainment entirely on the Internet and through social media. Project them 10 years into the future, and there’s a good chance their children won’t be heading to the neighbourhood library to research their school project. Keep projecting yourself a few decades further, and you’ll see that if you’re not throwing everything you have at the digital world now, you may very well not exist then either…

This is why we are so committed to digitising our Museums’ contents in different ways: we’ve already launched one mobile app, Ace Academy, for the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and we are planning two more for the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and the Canada Science and Technology Museum. We’ve shared our collection’s dataset on the Government of Canada’s open data portal. We’re actively looking into the uses we could make of 3D printing. And that’s just the beginning…

New year, new projects underway

Welcome back to my blog, . I hope you’ve enjoyed the Holidays, spent quality time with your loved ones, and maybe even managed to get some rest to get ready for the exciting New Year ahead!

Here at the CSTMC as the year begins, we’re roaring ahead with a raft of new projects already underway, let me give you a sneak peek at some of them. You’ll have read about them here first!

You can’t say our assistant curators lack a sense of humour. Emily Gann is currently working on a pilot project to have comedians showcase some of the – ahem, shall we say… “unusual?” – artefacts in the collection. If you were a stand-up comic, I bet you could come up with a fresh way to look at some of the artefacts in the collection. We’ll be sure to share the videos with you when the comedians are done pretending to be museum curators (or is it the other way around?).

We’re also looking forward to beginning to shoot our new series of short films about contemporary Canadian innovators. If all goes according to plan, we should be able to share with you the first in what hopefully will be a long and fascinating series. This first instalment will focus on Dr. Francis Plummer, who was until recently the head of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, and one of the world’s foremost experts on HIV. This is part of the new focus of our museums, where we increasingly want to become the bridge between great Canadian innovations of the past, and the innovations of the future, which are being conceived right now. If you know, or are part of, organizations where innovation is in the making, we want to hear about you, and see how together we can showcase current Canadian ingenuity at work.

In the longer term, we’ve been busy defining what our contribution will be for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. We’ve begun work on some aspects of that ambitious project, and we are looking forward sharing the first fruits of that labour on the Google Cultural Institute. Coming soon!

In the meantime, you can browse through the collection using an app that was developed following the release of our entire catalogue’s data on the Government of Canada’s Open Data portal.

There is a common denominator to all these activities, and it has to do with our stated goal to increase our museum’s digital footprint, and digitize as much of our content as we can. Making our national museums’ content more accessible to all Canadians across the country, and not only to those who have the opportunity to visit the Canada’s Capital region, is a firm commitment towards which we will continue to devote every effort.

As for the renewal of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, with the announcement of the Government of Canada’s support, things are beginning to take shape: the request for proposals for a project manager closed last week, and we expect to hold the start-up meeting with the supplier that will be selected in mid-February. As for the choice of a prime consultant, the request for proposals period will end in early February, and the selected supplier should begin work by early March. Moreover, this week we began moving into the collection reserve warehouses some of the artefacts that were still in the Museum. All the artefacts that will have to be moved out of the Museum should be moved by about the month of April.

I will update you on these important projectsin the next blog entry. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing you at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum.

Welcome to my new blog

Welcome to my new blog. I hope you’ll find it interesting enough to visit regularly. We certainly have not had any shortage of important developments at the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC) since I first started here. So if the trend continues, I’m confident this space should make for some interesting reading in the months and years to come.

As everyone knows, shortly after I took on this new job, we had to close the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM). A leak in the roof had caused mould to grow in a wall, but I didn’t want to sweep the situation under the rug with a quick patch-up job, while running the risk that we’d be back to square one if a new leak sprang up six months down the road. I am sincerely sorry for the inconvenience the closure may have caused our visitors and members, but I believed it was time for a permanent solution, and we spared no effort in ensuring we reached such a solution.

We were therefore beyond pleased when – only two months after announcing the CSTM’s closure – the permanent solution we were looking for materialized as the Government of Canada announced it would financially support a complete overhaul of the CSTM, and committed $80.5M, to get the job done by 2017. I think we may have set a new speed record for the fastest approval of a major federal funding project, and for that I’m immensely proud of the team here at the CSTMC who put in the long hours, and went above and beyond normal expectations. I think it brilliantly illustrates the commitment of the entire team towards the institution, and it makes me very confident about the enormous amount of work we have cut out for us to reopen in 2017. Last, but not least, I thank the Government of Canada – particularly the Minister of Canadian Heritage, as well as the other Ministers involved – and all of the public servants who analyzed our needs and weighed our options with us who deserve our compliments and thanks for their understanding of the urgency of our situation, and their grace under pressure in finding solutions with us so quickly.

We also owe great thanks to our community in Canada’s Capital Region. Throughout the CSTM’s history, it always could count on very strong local support, and this backing from our community was there for us again in our time of greatest need.

When we had to close CSTM, we sent out a call – because if Canadians couldn’t come to their museum, then the museum would go to them. We asked those who thought they might be able to help us showcase our exhibitions in their spaces / facilities / buildings to come forward, and we’ve had great responses. We received many helpful offers, and we once again should be able to invite Canadians to experience soon their fascinating scientific and technological heritage in additional alternate locations.
In the meantime, don’t forget to stop by Library and Archives Canada on Wellington Street, who are graciously hosting our updated Echoes in the Ice exhibition about the doomed Franklin exhibition. The update to the exhibition following the discovery of Franklin’s flagship Erebus was due to start showing at the CSTM when we had to close, yet with Library and Archives help, we almost didn’t miss a beat.

There have been arguments as to whether it was better to give the CSTM the complete makeover it’s getting now, or whether it would have been better to build a brand new museum, possibly downtown or elsewhere.

We looked at all the scenarios, and the one we’re going ahead with is the one that made the most sense, for a wide variety of reasons. Let me go through some of the main ones.

First, I don’t buy the argument that in order to succeed, or to have good attendance numbers, a museum needs to be downtown. I see proof of that in the fact that, although they’re also located at the periphery, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum have seen their attendance numbers go up. We know our audience is overwhelmingly composed of families with children and school groups, and being outside the downtown core is not an impediment to them.

Perhaps more importantly: we own the land where we are, all 25 acres of it. This is something we have complete control over. It means the space we’ll need to grow in the future is already ours, right now. It means we can start thinking about addressing some of our other challenges right now. Now that the problems with the museum’s roof and the other structural issues of the building are being dealt with, we can turn our attention to some of our other challenges, such as our inadequate, overcrowded collection reserve storage issues, for instance. Stay tuned, there’s probably be more to come on that topic later…

Yes, the crisis and the new opportunity for the CSTM were the headline-grabbing events for the last few months. In many ways, it is pretty unfair to concentrate only on the CSTM, so allow me to level the playing field a little. They say good news is not news. That’s unfortunate because, while the spotlight has been on the CSTM’s situation, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum (CAFM) and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum (CASM) have continued to make us proud.

I was still new at this job this summer and it was at the CAFM one day at 4 p.m. when I had just seen for the first time in my life cows get milked – that I realized how massively popular the CAFM can be. In August, it was my first Ice Cream Festival, and seeing more than 7,000 visitors fill the site with laughter and fun was something to behold. I’m told it gets even better over the four-day Easter weekend. Can’t wait to see that!

This year also marks the centennial of the beginning of the First World War, and we are very proud to showcase at the CASM one of the world’s finest collections of aircraft from that era (according to CNN, we’re among the Top 10 aviation museums in the world, not enough people realize that). So in order to share these gems in our collection, CASM has teamed up with developers from SE3D to create a mobile device app. Frankly, I think everyone who’s tried the Ace Academy mobile app – and at last count that was more than 10,000 people in more than 100 countries – has been stunned at how rich and awesome it is. It allows you to virtually fly those rare aircraft, discover other artefacts from the collection… and it’s a lot of fun. Go ahead and try it, it’s free and available for download on Apple and Android devices. I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down.

Finally, as we enter the Holiday Season, allow me to invite you to come to enjoy all that our museums have to offer during this period. The CASM will commemorate some of the most poignant moments of the First World War, recreating the atmosphere of the Christmas truce that fighters from both sides of the Western Front observed 100 years ago, illustrating humanity’s brightest qualities even in one of its darkest hours. For a more light-hearted holiday outing, come breathe some fresh air on the farm, then warm yourself up inside the new Learning Centre with one of many delicious treats we’ll be cooking up throughout the holidays. Happy Holidays to everyone and their loved ones!