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Film: Take Down The Walls!

In 2014, two months into his new mandate, Alex Benay, President and CEO, Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, was forced to close his anchor institution, the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) due to mold infestation. What has transpired for the past two years is a complete ‘reboot’ of not only a new museum – CSTM is scheduled to reopen in November 2017 thanks to Government of Canada funding – but a complete reinvention of an entire corporation which is now designing itself to interact with not only local audiences, but national and international citizens.

Okay, so there’s two of us standing between you and the bar, so I will try to make this as brief and as clear as I can, thank you very much MuseumNext for having me here and congratulations on a wonderful event.

So I’m Canadian, so I say ‘a’ after every sentence. I eat maple syrup for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We’re super nice people, I maybe the exception, because I’m French Canadian and Montreal Canadian’s are the best sports franchise in the world full stop. I like the New York Giants, come on, you know, hopefully not with the Jets, but I do like the Giants.

I’m 36, I have a teenage daughter and boy, this is my first museum job. And I’m telling you this, because it will be the disclaimer for everything else that will come out of my mouth for the next 20 minutes, because in theory I’m the one that knows the least about our world. And I did a bait and switch, you know, it’s about bringing down our walls. I have the privilege of working for 250 of the most dedicated and amazing museum professionals in the world back home on Ottawa that have gone through hell, and you’re going to hear some of that in the next 20 minutes. But at the same time, it gave us an opportunity to think about what could you do if you actually had a chance to start over? If you weren’t limited by how museums have grown over the last several centuries, what would you do if you have the chance to start over? Which is exactly what we’ve had.

So on that note, this is where I can buy back some time, we’re going to skip about what I’m going to talk about, because I’m going to talk about it, so that’s good. But before this, you know, to quote you, we had a bit of shit storm going on back home as well, before we got into a bit of trouble with the museum, we were a lot of the things that I’m hearing today. We were very inward focused, we were locally very engaged, like many of you are describing today. Nationally we were forgotten, I mean the problem with Canada is it is bloody big, so it’s hard to get across. And certainly globally we were not present. It doesn’t mean that we weren’t good, because I know we’re being live streamed and I’m going to get a lot of grief back home for what I’ve just said.

We had a lot of amazing things going for us, and we still do. Our reach is about 22 million, we’re in about 170 plus countries, and we’ll talk about that. We have hundreds of thousands of artefacts, we have one of the top 10 aviation and space museums, according to CNN, in the world. We also have an agricultural and food museum, because I have the pleasure of overseeing there museums where we have live animals, so you know, daily problems varied from a cow died to talking about space and Mars colonisation, and everything in between. So it’s pretty vast.

But what we are is part museum and we’re serious about that, we’re also part science centre, which I learned to discover is different than a museum, and so I have been reminded, but yet there’s positives in both, and we’re a third media. And I’ll explain by what I mean by that in a minute. So this is our Canada Science and Technology Museum, it’s one of our three museums, it’s the biggest one of the three, it’s our soul. It was created in 1967 for Canada’s centennial. It was located in a temporary bread factory, which we still occupied until the very end. So in a way, it was quite fitting that it was in an industrial setting as a science museum. But unfortunately we had a leaky roof, and unfortunately there was something called snow, and a lot of it in Canada, so it creates problem after problem after problem. One day it rained and with rain and carpets and drywall comes mould, and I’m not a chemist, but I’m told that stachybotrys, out of a 104,000 mould spores, apparently is one of the fastest and most aggressive spores that are out there. So within 48 hours, we had about 40% of our museum floor and wall infected with stachybotrys counts into the hundreds. Our safety protocol said that if we had a count of one, we had to shut down.

So all of a sudden you’re stuck and you’re out in the cold, it’s like worse than being naked on the stage so to speak, you don’t have anything any more. You’re literally, you’re done. And that’s what we had to go through. So I mean it was all over the local and the national media, how the Science and Technology Museum has been underserved by everybody for the last 48 years, how we should have been downtown, because all three of our museums are between suburbia and the downtown core. And all of the arguments as to why we actually need to be downtown in the heart of Ottawa, what we should do, and everybody’s opinions, which I discovered coming from the tech world and in the cultural space, a lot of people have a lot of opinion and that’s perfectly fine, it’s called a democracy and we want that. But it was hard. Like we were taking kick after kick after kick, we were down, we had 250 staff going, ‘What the heck did we do to people?’ I mean, we were being just thrown right under the bus at our weakest point. We thought we were, you know, we needed a new building and we thought we hit rock-bottom, and then this thing closed and we found that there’s a whole other layer of crap in the basement that’s actually worse that we could land in.

So we were in a really bad spot. And the media just continued to go, ‘Oh the attendance has been sinking because it’s not downtown.’ Or, ‘This is the reason why this museum isn’t good,’ this, that and the other thing. And meanwhile, we’re trying to deal with the people situation. We’re trying to make sure that people, you know, have a landing pad to go to, we’re trying to protect artefacts, we’re trying to empty the building that we can’t go in. I have, in my office, I have gas mask that’s hung as a reminder of how bad it got at a certain point. But meanwhile, things were really digressing here and we’re regressing, sorry, and it was just time for something new.

So luckily we got some funding from the Federal Government to reopen the Science and Tech Museum. Now I know it says 80 million on the screen, but that’s 80 million Canadian, for most of you that’s like $2 here in this country. But for us up North, that’s a lot of money. And so we sort of started getting a new lease on life. This is what our new museum’s going to look like, we’re going to have the largest LED entrance in the history of the country right now. We’re going to do 90,000 square feet of new exhibition space from scratch within two years. There’s a reason it’s not been done before, and I never want to do it again, but kudos to the people that are working on it back home. We have design fabrication companies and all parts of North America working on our project with us. It’s going to be a bang.

But what it’s done is more important than that, and that’s what I want to talk to people about as much as I can, is there’s a definition of what museums are, and then the reason I gave you my introduction is I was not a museum person. I was a very competitive hockey player that did not have time to go to museums, because my life was spent on the ice. I am the demographic in a way that you are chasing in a lot of cases. My children, at 16 and 12, are also the demographic that you would want to be chasing, because they spend their lives somewhere else, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. It doesn’t mean I agree with what I’m about to say next either by the way. But what it did for us, is it gave us an opportunity to say, ‘Hold on a second, is downtown where we want to be?’ How about being a national institution and how do we reach across from coast to coast to coast? Does it really matter that we’re located in Ottawa? If we have a national mandate, is there not a bigger picture that we wanted to look at here? So what this has done is it’s made people think completely differently. We took our programing, we threw it on the road, we crammed it in a minivan all over Canada. We started going to where people are, and when you don’t have anywhere to host them, you go mooch dinner off of your friends when you don’t have a place to stay, so we started going to every major Comic Con festival across Canada. So you know, big Sci-fi festivals, hundreds of thousands of people go there. We started being the science behind the science fiction. We brought the first prosthetic limb of Canada and started talking about Iron Man. We brought our collection and our science culture of Canada to people and let them engage. And that was an audience of people, and I’m not saying Comic Con people, don’t start Tweeting, don’t go to museums, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying generally speaking, this was a completely different audience that we were certainly used to engaging with.

So people started thinking and acting differently, in fact when you don’t really have a box to think in, the saying of thinking outside the box is actually completely 100% irrelevant. You don’t think outside the box, the box never existed, it doesn’t exist, it’s a figment, it’s a false mental premise, it’s not even relevant. So it takes you to some pretty scary places when you start thinking that way, because people start panicking, but really what you get back to is actually a definition from the 1960’s, from André Malraux, a museum without walls. And this is back to the reaction of photography and oh my God, it will completely bastardise the museum experiences, photography thing turns out that it’s now art. But that’s okay. It’s part of evolution, and it’s this definition of a museum without walls that we are choosing to accept as a corporation now, because we didn’t have a choice.

Yes, the Ag Museum and the Aviation Space Museum continued humming along, about 400,000 visitors for each of those, but there is only so many visitors that a 1.5 million city and region can take. But there’s so much more that we can do. So this definition of a museum without walls meant that we started looking at, ‘Whoa, what the heck’s going on around us?’ a little bit more, because I don’t have to worry about the plumbing, I don’t have to worry about the walls, I don’t have to worry about exhibitions. What if there’s another way to engage, and does it replace the real thing before I get in trouble? Because I get in trouble for that all the time. No, it does not. The real thing is actually the fuel that you use to engage outside your walls. It is your gold, it is your currency, it is what we have in spades in cultural institutions.

So you start looking at the world around you and you start looking at the digital impacts around you. When was the last time any of you went to go rent a movie, a blockbuster for us up North? Unless you have a cottage, you know, and you have to go rent the movie at the cottage, because there’s no internet service, most of you get your content online, libraries have shifted, [unintelligible 00:09:52] have shifted, Netflix is basically dominating a lot of the airwaves. If you don’t believe that, my daughter, and I’m comparing her to most of her friends, does not watch television, other than Dancing with the Stars, much to my chagrin, but anyways. She gets her content from YouTube, she gets her content from Facebook, when she can’t watch the show she’ll go get the snippets. Snapchat. She lives in a different place, and yet we have federally funded broadcasting corporations. I’m not saying that this is wrong, I’m saying that these things are diametrically opposed. She is a digital citizen first, that’s what she was born to do, because I did not give her … I gave her my cell phone when she as crying in the restaurants, not a colouring book, okay, so they’re in a different realm of existence. And this is the audience for us as an institution that we prided ourselves in engaging. There’s a right of passage in Ottawa, you go to the Ag Museum, you go see the animals, you then go to the Science Museum, you do some experiments, and when you’re a little bit older you go to the Aviation Museum, because there’s a little bit less to do for youth, that’s changing.

But they live in a different space, and if you do not believe me, my 12 year old son, and I love him to death, came to me about a month ago now and asked me to use my credit card online. So I said, ‘Okay son, what do you want to use my credit card for?’ ‘I need five bucks.’ ‘Okay, well it’s not 50, so what do you need five bucks for?’ ‘I need some kid in India to do my research for my homework so I can do the PowerPoint stuff.’ Because there’s a company and that’s what they do. So being very smart and mature, I gave him hell and then I started … so I sent him back up, I said, ‘Go do your research upstairs.’ And then my wife, you know, because she’s perfect, corrected me and said, ‘Hey, maybe you were wrong about that.’ I had the advantage of having my kids really young, it’s also a disadvantage, let’s not get into my personal life, but in theory I’m supposed to be pretty connected at 36, I’m not supposed to be reacting that way. So the saying goes. So I brought him back down, gave him some more hell and then said, ‘Okay, listen, we’re not going to do it this way in this case, but maybe next time and kudos for entrepreneurism. That’s fantastic, good for you I’m happy for you, now go do your homework properly.’ The old way, maybe I don’t know.

But I used that story because it’s important, because it shows global instinct at 12, that wasn’t me. I’m 36, I grew up with digital, it’s a Commodore 64, by the way, so since the beginning. I did not grow up global like that. I did not grow up thinking outside the box that way necessarily. Did not think about connecting with people around the world, did not think digital that way certainly. And that is the audience that us as an institution cater to, this is our bread and butter. So digital’s disrupted absolutely everything. We have lost the battle, the curve of change, the growth patterns of change, because of technology we’ll never be caught up again so stop trying, stop debating it, stop thinking is this right or wrong, good or bad. Okay, you saw Neil yesterday, I heard some of you guys were saying whether that was real or not, well I mean, he’s walking proof of where this is going, and he’s now an anomaly in the system so to speak, but give it five years, maybe give it 10, and when we’re all walking around and we’re walking internet connectivity feed, and by the way that’s your phone, it’s already there, then all of a sudden you start to think that maybe the world is changing very rapidly, and we’re not changing quickly enough.

So what does that mean for me as a … I’m sitting here with 250 of our gang trying to figure out how you architect the museum of the future, because we have this opportunity and how the heck do you do that? So what that means is that every single visitor that comes through our door is a digital citizen. We are lucky to live in a digital country, every single visitor that comes through my door is a digital citizen, which means they have different expectations. It means that they’re born digital and they will demand participation. In our country youth voter turnout was at an all-time high, and apparently this is a generation that’s disengaged. That’s false. There is a demand for participation from this generation coming through. This didactic environment that we’re used to, well, let me tell you your culture doesn’t work with this generation any more. There is a participatory element, an engagement element. We have failed as an institution in telling Canada its science culture. We have told a lot of history of dead white guys, so let’s just own it, let’s talk about it, let’s fix it, but let’s not fix it on our own, let’s fix it with others, because we have the tools that we did not have 20 years ago to have a dialogue. So the walls are … I haven’t even started talking about infrastructure yet. We have the tools necessary for a dialogue today that we did not have, if you think about it, the iPad is barely six years old.

So it’s the new norm, so we talk about participatory heritages, there’s lots of literature out there, that’s great if you’ve defined what you want to do. How about participation right at the beginning, and strategy as to what the institution should even be talking about in the first place? What if we shifted the dialogue completely one way and let everybody into the discussions of what it is we’re going to do? What our strategy is for the next five years? So people, again no misconceptions, the real thing is important. But there’s a different set of media out there that we should be using as these mediums for engagement that we could blend things and have much more of an impact and you could go get me to come into your museum. And that’s the bottom-line of what we’re trying to do as an institution, is how do we get out there, how do we challenge this unassailable voice?

So here’s some examples. We’re moving towards a fully open heritage system, if we could call it of existence. So we were the first national museum in Canada to release its data as part of the open data movement, I had about half a dozen apps created for us for free, so you don’t need a big IT budget, our whole collection was put online. We released all of our archives and our content, and we are now, as of this summer, the first public institution in the world to be opened by default. And what I mean by that is if we have an exhibition thought, if we have a draft of a strategy, if we have an exhibition plan, if we’re doing an acquisition of an artefact, the draft is live online within two hours. You see exactly what we think, when we think it, because we are I a world where that is possible, and that should be encouraged. So what does that do? It means if we’re going to be [vacant] so to speak, out in the public without physical laws, you might as well drop your digital ones at the same time and truly engage with the world around you. It’s redefined for us our sense of engagement, you know, people were scared, what if I put a draft out there and it’s completely wrong? Then someone will correct you and that is called democracy. And that’s fine, you should be encouraging dialogue. And we have cases where we now have relationships with secondary institutions or researchers or the every day Canadian where they’re helping us shift our narrative only because our content is online. It is an extremely powerful day and age that we live in as a knowledge institution and we shouldn’t be debating the right, the wrong, the application, the this and the that and I’ll get into some of our lessons learned. And it’s easy to do, again when you don’t have walls to worry about, so this made it all over the media. We think we’re in a position to actually truly be, when we reopen with the walls, an institution without it.

Tell us what you think, where should we be going, what is wrong, what is right, do not fear dialogue, you can see what we’re thinking and before you ask, there’s no personal data online, and we don’t do procurement data online either, so don’t … I’ve heard all the arguments as you why we shouldn’t be doing what we’re dong by the way. But we’re still doing it, because we want to be that museum without walls, and the irony of this is the private sector moving towards more open innovation models, because back in the day it used to be how much can we capitalise our research and development, but they realised that in today’s day and age more and more companies are going towards open innovation models where third parties can innovate with them. So good things start to happen from a cultural perspective when you do that, because we have to do that, because if the private sector’s doing that, that means the pace of change will continue to go up and we will continue to not understand it. So what it does when you start looking at letting other people do things with your content, with your archives, with your artefacts? It means that there’s a broader ecosystem that gets created, because you’re now hitting people that were not necessarily coming to your museums, they may not understand that you have a conservation rule, they may not understand that you have a research rule if you’re a natural history museum. It’s now about the ecosystem. It’s about the third parties, it’s about internal and external use of knowledge, understanding that there is more information available on my child’s cell phone than most of my museums that I get the pleasure of overseeing. And I cannot bring a didactic world into that environment anymore.

So it’s about internal and external knowledge. It’s about citizen input into the decisions that we’re making, and it’s about redefining success, because when you start looking at the world in that lens, when you’re forced to look at it in that lens, because you have no more walls, you start thinking that maybe attendance is not the only measure of success for a museum. Maybe myself in the system that I work in should not only be measured on the attendance that comes through the door because there is a ceiling to that. And maybe the investment should be made to try to contact around the world, to try to connect with more digital citizens. So it starts to redefine your definition of success.

So quickly some of the results. Our travelling exhibitions have increased, our third party applications where people are doing things with our knowledge has quintupled, if not more. And our collection is now fully online through third parties, they’ve not cost us anything. We are in the business of mobile games now, we did the first one, it’s called Ace Academy, you’ve got to fly some of the aircraft from the floor through structures. We just wanted to make sure a public institution wouldn’t get in trouble for doing a video game. Turns out you didn’t, 174 countries in six months. And the second game become more real, we took the war diaries of five Canadian pilots and re-enacted their lives through Google Play and the App Store. That was about 175 countries as well. It cost under six figures, so again bargain for everybody here. And you know what? It got our culture out, we have fan pages in New Zealand of this game and we didn’t even create it and people are talking about it. We don’t have the HBO budget in Canada, I can’t compete with Band Of Brothers. I can’t compete with The Pacific, but I can take it on a mobile app, under six figures to develop, because a third party did it, came in and wanted to work with us, because the third party didn’t want to do another Bejewelled, and I’m sorry if you like Bejewelled at the airport, it’s horrible. But this is meaningful content that’s online, that’s engaging in a new way, that is reaching more people than an exhibition could. It’s not replacing the real thing, because at the Aviation and Space Museum, we have the plane on the floor that you get to see, an Xbox Connect for the youth to start moving that airplane around with their bodies to physically be engaged. You can walk out with an app and we’re now doing a documentary about it. Medium after medium and blending after blending means I’m reaching more people than ever before.

So this concept of where we’re sitting as a museum of science and tech because our walls came down, is now permeating it’s way into the other institutions. We’re also very big in virtual reality and why? I had a video to show you, but we’re doing VR a little bit more aggressively and I just stole my own thunder there.

We’re doing virtual reality because if you’re up North in Canada, you will never get to see this train, this is a 6400 series train that down to the cracks and some of the dials is 100% accurate. Our curator has worked with the virtual … this VR company out of Ottawa. If you start pulling on some of these dials, it’s a 4-D, you get the wind in your hair, you get to live it, you get to come to the floor and see the 6400 series train. You get to walk into this booth that I can send across Canada, even better download on your phone, and you actually get to live the artefact, you get to live the stories of it. That’s the one that scares everybody, because then the thing blows in your hair.

So it’s forced us to look at all of these things that we do, and then say, ‘How do we add an outreach layer that just doesn’t necessarily fit within the DNA of the institution up until now?’ And again we were provided the opportunity to do that. Documentaries, a documentary for us to produce a science documentary. It’s about a million dollars. I’m doing 12 of them, not because I have $12 million, but because if a third party does it, they get to leverage all the Government of Canada taxation rights and benefits, and it’s costing me $60,000 Canadian, to get my content out in 50 to 70 counties. Multiple passes through each country, so this collection, this knowledge of mine by letting other people do things with it is getting out.

So really, for us, I guess last slide on some of the things that we’re doing. We have a third party coming in and doing our Ottoman collection research. We have one of the best Ottoman science collections in the world. We’ve never been able to get to it. Yet we’re bringing in volunteers and it turns out we’ve been sitting on a goldmine for all this time. We’ve got our first global open by default graduate level course being developed by the University of Ottawa to take all the content that we’re doing by being open by default. Helping us shape new politics, new understanding, new technologies. We’re doing more with less than we’ve ever done. And that’s because we’ve opened up, we’ve look at the digital world around us and we’ve chose to engage differently and redefine our definition of success.

So I mean for us, I keep using the … I keep ripping the line off of Frozen, if you have kids, Elsa, Let It Go. So I use Let It Go all the time and we rip off Nike of Just Do It as well, because the more you get out there, the riskier you are, the easier things get. So I mean we’re dealing with partners that would never even speak to us in a previous generation. And we’re doing this without walls. We’re doing more without walls because it’s been a catalyst for change and how we perceive ourselves in our role in the world than we were ever able to do before. So what’s happened? Our reach has gone from four million to 13 million, to 22 million, probably closer to 30 million this year. And when we get out with the documentaries like I mean, to pick a number, I mean that’ll be global instantaneously, and that is the role that museums can play. Oh and by the way, for the peerists, we’ve smashed our all-time attendance records of most of our years as we’re doing this. So it’s not one or the other. It’s both. Because today’s visitors are digital citizens and they expect both.

So if you’re in a position to be able to offer it, you’re sitting very well. So lessons learned and then I’m done. We have to look at redefining the value propositions of museums and other cultural institutions in the world that we live in, change is much too quick. We have to do this yearly. We’re not talking about doing this once because you’ve got mould, you do this yearly. Engagement, participatory, co-creation, whatever the hell you want to call it, in a digital world you have to be in this space. And it’s not just about picking an artefact in an exhibition, it’s about where the institution’s going. So it’s much, much more impactful than simply participating within an exhibition.

Another lesson that we’ve learned is that the didactic environment does not work with this generation coming through. Being perfect is a problem. It’s easy to not be perfect when you don’t have a building. Like you’re at the opposite end of perfection. But being imperfect, it encourages participation. I encourage people to correct me, I encourage people to tell me Benay, you’re completely wrong, and that’s fine, because I’ve been here the least longest out of all of you. So that’s fine. But being perfect is a problem, especially in a cultural world.

Thinking global first, I mean I’ve heard a lot of great stories about local sort of impact, and I’m not saying not to do those, but you’re investing so much time and we do the same. We invest so much time on local, local, local, because it’s important when the visitors, especially the new visitors coming through your doors, are not local people, they’re global people. They outsource their homework to India. That’s the people that are … so you may not see that as they’re walking through the door, but those are the people that are walking through our doors.

So it has to be global first. And it has to multiple mediums. The days of doing just an exhibition or just this or just that as a product, you have to see a video game at equal value than an exhibition. Sometimes I could even argue it’s more important, because it reaches more people, but it’s not again an [‘or’] thing. It’s ‘let’s look at this world here and let’s look at it quickly, and let’s not try to be perfect, because it’s important’.

So for us, the conclusion, I mean we’re out of the box, I don’t care what box you build up around us, we will never go back in the box. It’s like a broken, what’s the name of those things there? We’re not going back in. The island of misfit toys, that’s where we like to belong, and that’s where we’re going. So you will not be able to put this institution back in the box. Some of the things we’re looking at, new games, it’s now a global thing. We’re partnering with the UK, with Germany, on our next World War One application. We’re going to look at introducing artificial intelligence into the workplace. And then I want to see whoever thinks they are the best fountain of knowledge as a human keep up with some of the soft machine learning that’s going on in the artificial intelligence.

The days of museums as a fountain of knowledge and exclusive fountains of knowledge as you all know, are done. They’re even more done when you start introducing technology, that every other sector is using by the way, but it seems to be a slower adoption in our cultural sector. Linked networks of knowledge, I want someone walking through my bicycle exhibition but knowing what they could see at The Franklin, what they could see at Museum [unintelligible 00:27:29]. Why can I not link my data and my knowledge across multiple museums, so that the museum is no longer Ottawa, but it is all museums of the world that have a bicycle collection? We are talking about sending people to Mars, there is no way that this cannot happen.

And the last thing that we’re looking at, obviously our new infrastructure, not only are we re-launching a new museum, we’re actually re-launching $156 million storage facility that will be state of the art for all of our collection. So infrastructure is important, but if it’s infrastructure for infrastructure’s sake and you don’t use it for something more, then it’s a bit of a shortcoming.

So hopefully I’ve pissed off half of you. I’m about five minutes over schedule which means I don’t get questions, right? That’s great. Thank you.


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