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Finally, Ottawa's shrine to Canadian invention looks the part

After a three-year closure and $80-million makeover, the Canada Science and Technology Museum aims to be an irresistible blend of past, present and future

When the museum’s doors reopen to the public this Friday, curators will be hoping that their offering of sleek interactive exhibits combined with unique historic artifacts will prove to be an irresistible blend of past, present and future.

The elegant telescope resting in its humidity-controlled case is farther from home than its maker would have likely ever imagined. When Eustachio Divini of Bologna put the finishing touches on the astronomical device around 1665, this part of Canada lay at the edge of the known world as far as Europe was concerned.

Yet, in the newly refurbished Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, the telescope is fulfilling its original purpose: impressing onlookers with its ornamented appearance and the allure of a powerful and revealing technology.

"It's a showpiece", said Marvin Bolt, an expert in early telescopes and a curator at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. "A lot of these telescopes were made to be looked at rather than looked through."

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The elegant telescope created by Eustachio Divini of Bologna in 1665 now rests in a humidity-controlled case in the newly refurbished Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.

Dr. Bolt was in town last week just to see the instrument, on loan from the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy, and to witness its installation.

Sporting a hard hat and safety vest, he was getting a sneak preview of the Ottawa facility, following its three-year closure and an $80-million makeover.

The change marks a turning point for the federally funded museum, which was established in 1967 in a former commercial bakery some five kilometres from downtown.

For years, it was a favourite destination for local children and their parents looking for indoor fun during the long winter months.

But the building's utilitarian exterior and a reluctance by administrators to invest too heavily in case it was one day given a more central location, meant that the museum never really looked the part of official shrine to Canadian inventiveness.

But in 2014, after mould was discovered and the building was shuttered for a down-to-the-bones renovation, the federal government committed to the site in a big way. When the museum's doors reopen to the public this Friday, curators will be hoping that their offering of sleek interactive exhibits combined with unique historic artifacts will prove to be an irresistible blend of past, present and future.

Two museum visitors browse an exhibit in the centre’s ‘Artifact Alley.’

"It was basically creativity untapped," said Christina Tessier, the museum's director-general, describing how museum staff embraced the opportunity to reimagine the space.

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For visitors, the museum experience will now start before they walk in, with a giant LED display that wraps around the front entrance and white canopy along the building's exterior that doubles as a 75-metre long projection screen. Stepping inside, one finds an alcove with an interactive light and sound piece inspired by the aurora borealis.

Time lapse of the new LED projection canopy

The museum’s entrance features an artificial ‘Northern Lights’ display.

The tone of the new entrance should leave no doubt, Ms. Tessier said, "You are walking into a national museum."

The Divini telescope is another sign of how much has changed. Prior to closing, precious items from international collections would never have found their way to the Ottawa museum because of the lack of appropriate facilities for housing them. Now the museum aims to be a desirable stop for travelling artifacts and exhibitions that place its own impressive collection within a larger story.

"Science is part of a global history and culture so we definitely wanted [the ability] to show that and to get different conversations going," curator David Pantalony said.

Which is not to say that the museum is abandoning its local character. Returning exhibits include the "crazy kitchen," a perspective-bending room that is a perennial favourite with visitors. In its new incarnation, the kitchen is surrounded by a series of exhibits on human perception.

Returning exhibits include the ‘crazy kitchen,’ a perspective-bending room that is a perennial favourite with visitors.

One thing not returning is the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, which in 2015 became the focal point of controversy when a selection committee member quit in protest over a lack of female nominees. At the time, the museum pledged to revisit the process for naming inductees to the hall's roster of Canadian science achievers. It has since decided to retire the concept altogether. The names and portraits of those inducted during the 24 years that the Hall of Fame was active can be found online.

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New additions that seem likely to become popular include a maker space and an exploration zone for younger visitors. While such experiences can be found in other science centres around North America, what makes the Ottawa museum different is its unique role as keeper of the nation's most valued science and technology icons. Highlights include the "Electronic Sackbut", a precursor to the modern synthesizer designed by National Research Council physicist Hugh Le Caine in the 1940s, and North America's first electron microscope, built at the University of Toronto in 1938. And from canoes to snowshoes, there are ample reminders that the story of Canadian technology long predates European arrival.

So extensive is the collection, which includes items as large as locomotives and automobiles, that it is impossible to display more than a small fraction of it. But the museum has made the most of its expansive suburban location to build a 325,000-square-foot collection conservation centre next door. Still under construction, the $156.4-million centre already dwarfs the museum building beside it. When completed in 2019, it will become a hub for academic research and there are plans to hold public tours for those seeking a deeper dive into the collection.

A family plays with one of the museum’s interactive exhibits.

"From what I've seen, we're one of the only national museums with a collection of that size at such close proximity," said Fern Proulx, acting CEO for Ingenium, the newly rebranded organization that oversees a trio of National Capital museums encompassing agriculture, aviation and science and technology.

For those who can't get to Ottawa, the museum is unveiling a revamped online experience to improve its national reach. What remains to be seen is whether the country will respond. Despite surveys that suggest Canadians have a positive attitude toward science, it is also not widely regarded as central to the nation's character.

The disconnect cropped up in an unexpected way this month when Governor-General Julie Payette sparked outrage for flippant remarks aimed at those who do not accept climate change or evolution. Some accused her of espousing "scientism," although the Canadian Science Policy Conference, where Ms. Payette spoke, otherwise garnered little serious coverage. Despite the crucial role science plays in economic prosperity and public health, a demonstrable lack of media attention, chronic government underfunding and declining business support for research and development relative to other developed countries suggest there is currently little risk of Canada being overrun by too much scientific thinking.

Coincidentally, one of the museum's exhibits features a Canadian-build " newtsuit," an articulated diving suit for deep-sea exploration that was worn by Ms. Payette during her time as a Canadian astronaut. The suit stands not far from the Divini telescope, an object of high-tech affluence that was built only half a century after the Catholic church was rocked by Galileo's astronomical discoveries. Since the Enlightenment, science has occupied an uneasy double identity as bringer of untold riches and uncomfortable truths. In this century, those roles have yet to reconciled in public policy. For Canadians, a visit to the new national science and technology museum may not be a bad place to start.

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