Museum of Science and Technology: Putting art in a ‘technical’ space

There is a crack in everything by Sunniva Geuer, Bouw Design. Photo: Ingenium

There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” wrote the late Leonard Cohen, who probably never expected his words to be surrounded by science.

There’s a crack in everything is now the title of a major art installation at the new Canadian Museum of Science and Technology, which reopens on Nov. 17 after three years of renovations.

The installation is one of several that represent the expansion of art in the realm of science, “the move from STEM to STEAM, the idea of bringing arts into science, technology, engineering and math,” as museum director general Christina Tessier puts it.

The Cohen-inspired installation, created by artist Sunniva Geuer and Bouwdesign, is made of 1,867 lightbulbs from the museum’s collection. (The number of bulbs represents the year of Canada’s confederation, as does the museum’s address, 1867 St. Laurent.) The bulbs date as far back as the 1880s, and the illusion of them lighting up is created by many tiny LED lights woven throughout them.

The installation is large. It hangs from the ceiling and has a wave-like shape, so it may bring to mind Bryan Jungen’s lawnchair skeletons at the National Gallery, or Ai Weiwei’s Chinese dragons made of backpacks. Visitors can activate the LEDs and stand below as patterns of light and colour move through the cloud of bulbs.

A look at the new lobby inside the renovated Museum of Science and Technology.

Bringing art into the familiar formula of the museum, which originally opened in 1967, allows a new type of introspection for the institution, and also reflects a broader change in science and tech sectors.

“This one was a rethink of how we can interpret our collection, so it’s not just taking historical things and putting them out as historical things, but looking at new ways we can engage the public,” Tessier says, during a hardhat-and-steel-toes tour of the construction site.

“For us, it’s about the idea of the importance of creativity, and the arts is one very obvious manifestation of that,” Tessier says. “When we think about the way we see science and tech and innovation and the research going on, it’s more and more about multi-disciplinary teams and bringing other groups into those conversations.”

So while the museum still brims with scientific delights — for example, a glacier that visitors can walk into and hear the voices of people most affected by climate change, and exhibitions on energy, resources and technologies both antique and cutting edge — the presence of art is significant and enlightening.

Art is deftly woven in to exhibits that explain the working and history of technologies. Visitors can step on the squares in Alexandre Burton’s installation and create varieties of sounds. In the same sound section, they can scratch along to well-known beats on a giant turntable, or sit in a chair and literally feel sound waves travel through the body. An anechoic chamber — a “quiet cube” that absorbs sound — is also part of the larger exhibit on sound, and though it wasn’t complete during Tessier’s recent tour, if it’s anything like the anechoic chamber made by British artist Haroon Mirza at the 2011 Venice Biennale, stepping inside will leave some people delighted and others discomfited. 

Tessier says designers and curators looked for any available space to incorporate art into the scientific mix. A 100-foot wall was blank, until Eric Chan installed a mural along its length that celebrates Canadian innovation. HA Schult’s garbage people are life-sized humans built entirely of household waste, including a lot of empty Coke cans, and were drafted into service to explain household consumption and its effects on the environment.

Visitors will only have to look up as soon as they enter the lobby to see that art has its place in the new museum, as large, angled, wooden panels cover the ceiling like a giant piece of crinkled cardboard.

Yet the blurring of the line between technology and art begins even before entering. There’s a massive LED screen inside the outside canopy at the main door, and it’ll be programmed by the National Film Board and others, including artists.

The screen can clearly be seen from the busy thoroughfare that is St. Laurent Boulevard, and it leaves now doubt about what is happening at the museum. There’s a crack in everything science and tech, and that’s how the art gets in.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.