Celebrating 50 Years of the Ontario Science Centre
On September 26, 1969, a radio signal from more than 1.5 billion light years away struck a circuit and turned the page to an important chapter in Canada’s history. That signal marked the grand opening of the Centennial Centre of Science and Technology – better known today as the Ontario Science Centre. Fifty years later, more than 53 million visitors have walked through its doors.
Science Centre CEO, Maurice Bitran, is one of those 53 million. In fact, the museum was the first place he chose to visit on his first trip to Toronto in the 1980s. “It was the summer of 1982, the China exhibition,” Bitran recalls. “I was totally blown away by a place like this, that was about science but allowed you to experiment and experience it. I was finishing my doctorate in astronomy at the time. I thought it was a great approach to mainstream science…to have everybody experience science in their own way.”
The China: 7000 Years of Discovery exhibit attracted more than one million visitors and examined the science and technology of an ancient civilization. Another notable exhibition from the era includes 1988’s Sport, which became the Science Centre’s first permanent and bilingual exhibition, with visitors testing their balance, judging an athletic performance and seeing what a skeleton looks like.
Sport would become the first of several permanent exhibits. The Living Earth opened in 1993, with guests walking through the humid rain forest, getting up close and personal with a tornado, and crawling through a cave. And, of course, there’s the exhibit most-often associated with the Science Centre: the Van De Graaff electrostatic generator – better known as the giant ball that makes your hair stand on end.
“Science and technology play such a key role in our lives,” says Bitran. “The Science Centre is somewhere you can learn about these things without having to be a scientist and without being intimidated. I think that’s a great contribution of scientists to societies – providing a safe place to talk about the issues around science, technology and society.”
In addition to its permanent exhibits, the Science Centre has hosted numerous rotating exhibitions over its 50 years. Everything from the magic of Harry Potter and the joy of candy, to relics from the Titanic, and the science behind Marvel superheroes, have delighted and inspired curiosity in the centre’s visitors.
A new exhibition, MindWorks, uses psychology and hands-on exhibits to keep visitors in the moment, while exploring why you think, feel and respond to things the way you do. It runs until April 26, 2020. “Every day, each one of us makes decisions without giving them much thought. Would we make better choices if we became more aware of the mental processes leading to those decisions?” Bitran asks. “Through interactive experiences based on cognitive psychology, MindWorks will encourage visitors to step into their own mind.”
Life of the Earth, an exhibit created for Nuit Blanche by Director X, is featured at the centre until January 5, 2020. The multimedia work is displayed on a giant sphere and reflects on humanity, the destruction of the environment and the planet’s mass extinction of plant and animal life.
Looking back, the timing of the Science Centre’s launch couldn’t have been better. A few months before it opened in the fall of 1969,
a monumental event captured the imaginations of millions: the moon landing. “We had a program [last summer] called Summer of Space, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing,” Bitran says. The program featured two exhibits: Astronaut and Women in Space. In fact, visitors to the Science Centre today can see a moon rock on display. It’s been there since opening day.
“We really made the most of the fact that it was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and the 50th anniversary of the Ontario Science Centre to remind people that this is a wonderful asset in the province,” says Bitran, adding, “I would say it is much more important today than it was 50 years ago, which reflects on the huge act of foresight of the Ontario government at the time.”
In the present, Bitran says the centre’s focus is on three main areas: encouraging kids’ love of science and technology, teaching them modern learning skills, and involving the community in what goes on at the centre.
“What’s really important in the longer term are the 21st century learning skills,” Bitran explains. “Kids today are going to need different skills as they go into the workforce. They’re not going to work one job all their lives. We are experimenting with new learning approaches…things like creativity, innovation, collaboration and resilience are all part of that.”
The community involvement piece, he says, comes from getting feedback about what visitors want to see in the centre, and providing a space for conversations about science, society and technology. “We have a program called Great Conversations, where [the speaker gives a presentation], an interviewer asks them questions and then we take questions from the audience. We need spaces where people can express their concerns and discuss issues.”
As the Science Centre heads into its next 50 years, Bitran emphasizes the importance of it serving the community and adapting its offerings to match the times. “I think we need to embrace being part of the innovation ecosystem, part of the educational ecosystem, and (being) more linked with our communities. For example, we have some relationships with startups, but this should be a hub for young innovators and startup activity that is linked to the rest of the province’s innovation ecosystem. In education, we need to continue to be the testing ground for new technological approaches that can then be scaled up throughout the province.
“I think that [the Science Centre’s] function in society is more important, relevant and necessary than ever,” Bitran continues. When science and technology become more complex and intertwined in our lives, there’s a tendency for some people to turn their backs on science, and there is some evidence that is happening.
“Institutions like the Ontario Science Centre play a role in making sure that we as a society continue to hold science and technology in the right regard, because it’s kind of the only hope we have to solve the problems we have.”
To learn more about the Ontario Science Centre and its 50th anniversary, visit www.ontariosciencecentre.ca