indistinguishable from magic

Returning from a family get-together in Toronto, my father, my brother J and I stopped at the Ontario Science Centre. We had been to the Royal Ontario Museum the day before. The ROM did not disappoint our memories.

The OSC was another story. It still has that fantastic space station building in the Don Mills forest, and a terrific display of rocks on the way in. The rest of the place is now a combination of magic show and corporate theme park, experiential in a way that feels empty afterwards. Among the exhibits:

– A Chinese pot full of water that sings when you rub the handles. “Look there are vibrations in the water,” says the docent. No other explanation. It felt like rubbing a lamp for a genie.

– A magnet that draws crystals out of liquid in a porcupine shape. No explanation for what the liquid is or what shape the magnet is or how the lines of field go or why the porcupine shape.

– Electronic music demos: Compare mono, stereo and Dolby (TM). Try out rock instruments and lay down your own track. But you can’t hear anything because they have a dozen different exhibits blaring in the same space.

– Rock and roll exhibit with videos, memorabilia, and a time lapse photo of show setup in a stadium. List of professions related to rock and roll. “If the rock and roll lifestyle appeals to you but you can’t carry a tune, you could be a roadie!” (K, later: So you could have gone to the Hard Rock Cafe and been equally as informed, and gotten a meal.)

– “Sing to the sludge” – play a synthesizer and something happens. Doesn’t work. No explanation.

– Miniature, forgotten, unloved model of a paper mill. Whenever I see one of these I try to pinpoint the magic moment when liquid becomes solid – somewhere on the moving belt as the stuff becomes drier and stickier.

– Challenge to lift beams made of different woods: balsa, ebony (which might as well be stone). No apparent connection to anything else.

– Quiz on the paper industry: Canada is the world’s largest exporter of pulp. “True!” As a former pulp and paper reporter, I found this of interest. However it was not quite up to date; Canada was actually passed by Brazil in March.

On the way out, J and I compared notes:

J: It lacked structure. There were about five panels on minerals, nothing explaining why these things were grouped together, how they were the same and different, what the structure was. Whereas the one at the ROM yesterday – I wrote down all the stuff, that whole inorganic taxonomy they had – I’d never seen it laid out that way.

Me: Yes, the ROM did a great job of organizing the minerals, dispensing memorable facts about them, telling stories about them. They also did a great job organizing dinosaurs. It was a little repetitive, Cretaceous was there twice, but they really informed us about a lot of dinosaurs and their domestic habits.

J: The target audience here is age 7 to 11 and they just want to push buttons. Whereas the ROM was all ages.

Me: It’s 7 to 11 and with parents who will do anything if it says “science.” This museum used to have real installations and great explanations, I loved visiting the cloud chamber and the Geiger counter and the other nuclear physics exhibits in high school. I guess they thought it was important for us to understand that stuff because of the Cold War and the threatening atom. Now it’s all touch demos, often broken or cryptic.

J: I think everyone who goes to the ROM comes out a little smarter. Here I wouldn’t be surprised if they come out a little stupider. Or at least disoriented.

My father emerged from the escalators at the other end of the corridor.

J: You think he noticed how bad it is?

Me: No, because he doesn’t need the texts. He is his own museum docent.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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