HIS­TORIC FRON­TIER

Mu­seum CEO looks to fu­ture

Ottawa Business Journal - Techopia - - Front Page -

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?

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.

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.

PHOTO SUP­PLIED

LT.-GEN. MICHAEL J. HOOD, CANADA SCI­ENCE AND TECH­NOL­OGY MU­SE­UMS CORP. PRES­I­DENT AND CEO ALEX BE­NAY AND MP KAREN MCCRIM­MON, PAR­LIA­MEN­TARY SEC­RE­TARY TO THE MIN­IS­TER OF VET­ER­ANS AF­FAIRS AND AS­SO­CIATE MIN­IS­TER OF NA­TIONAL DE­FENCE, AT AN EVENT TO MARK THE AR­RIVAL OF CANADA’S OLD­EST HER­CULES AIR­CRAFT.

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