I’ve been in Ottawa for the last 9 days visiting with my parents. Yesterday we were supposed to drive to Montreal, see a couple of museums and have dinner with my brother, but a major snowstorm was moving in, and we decided to call it off. (Good thing, too, because Montreal was hit really hard and we would have had a horrible time.)
As a consolation, my dad and I decided to go to the Science and Technology Museum. I don’t think I’d been there since my teens, and jumped at the chance rediscover all the cool sciency stuff that had thrilled me as a budding nerd.
It was kind of disappointing, to be honest. Most of the old hands-on exhibits designed to teach little kids about science were gone. I remember one place where you could measure your hand-eye reaction time, another where you could create an electric arc between two poles, by cranking a handle over and over. And there was another big huge pendulum thing, filled with sand, swinging over a large circular space, and as it swung it traced its arcs on the floor below, back and forth, left and right. (There may have been more than one pendulum, too, though I wouldn’t swear to that). I think that last one was replaced by an interactive exhibit and quiz on Canada’s energy policies. Where the pendulum/pendula used to be, is now a big planet Earth. Where you could fill up swinging buckets with sand, are now four or five monitors where you can answer simple questions about renewable energy sources, your energy consumption, whether or not politicians, corporations or individual people should make the decisions about Canada’s energy future, and so on.
Still around, though: the Archimedes screw. Also still around: the gravity well simulator, where you could roll a little metal ball and watch it circle around the central hole as though it were actually orbiting it. They’ve got a similar device at Science World in Vancouver. But this one, in Ottawa, doesn’t use balls anymore (it used to, right? I think it did), instead using coins. And yes, coins do work pretty much as balls do—except loonies, their corners slow them way down—but that’s just weird. Did they run out of little balls at some point? Were toddlers swallowing the balls or something?
I didn’t actually use money, but I saw a family try it. I hope they were able to collect their money afterwards.
Other familiar stuff: the big locomotives. In my mind’s eye I kept seeing them as absolutely gigantic, five storeys high at least, instead of the 12–15 feet high they really are. We got to climb in the engine rooms and figure out what all the levers and gauges were for, and imagine what life must have been like for these men, zooming along at almost 100 miles an hour, only a couple tiny windows allowing you to see ahead, constantly having to monitor the health of this metal monster you’re riding, and shovelling coal in its maw…
Oh, and the Crazy Kitchen is still there. Always popular with the kiddies, even though back then I was too sensitive to motion sickness to really enjoy it. But that’s not so much of a problem these days, and, well… just like the locomotives, the kitchen is way smaller than I remember. I went through it in just a few seconds, and it never occurred to me to stay and enjoy the spatial distortion.
But here’s the thing: what if the museum had remained completely unchanged from the days of yore? And what if I found out the old games and exhibits weren’t quite as awesome as I remember? The Archimedes screw kept me amused for all of 10 seconds and a couple photos. The big locomotives were better, since I could read up on their history and enjoy them on more levels than as a kid.
Likewise, the new exhibits: on the Canadian space program, the cool science that came out of it; on cars, from the very oldest to the newest and coolest electric ones; on Canada’s energy use and resources, kind of didactic but overall very good; on communications, networks and connections, featuring old-timey phones, radios, computers and TVs (plus, interesting history and Canadian milestones); other interesting science instruments. All of that was very, very awesome and educational, and—nerdy and precocious as I was—I don’t think I could have appreciated what they had to offer when I was younger.
I realise now I was doing the museum a disservice by seeing it only through my nostalgia goggles, and not giving the new stuff a chance. Things change, and that’s okay. I’ve changed, and that’s more than okay. Nowadays I get to enjoy googling Anik satellites and lovely arithmometres (so deliciously Steampunk!), tagging Flickr photos and of course blogging about it. My nerdiness has grown up, that’s all.
On the way out I donated $5, all the cash I had on me. Though the museum doesn’t have the magic I remember, it has a different magic, and is still just as kick-ass as it ever was. Although, my biggest disappointment? The gift shop didn’t have the cool phrenology head that was on display alongside other 19th-century paraphernalia. Now that would have been a hell of a souvenir!