Simulation exhibits offer a vibrant new way to connect visitors with history, but some curators see it as a threat to their mission
Museums are usually considered purveyors of the past, but in Alex Benay’s eyes, they might be better off as tech pioneers. “I’m not a traditionalist,” said Benay, president and CEO of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation. “The concept here is using things like virtual reality, open data, anything that gets the story out … whether it’s raw or filtered, [it] means engagement.” The first test of Benay’s approach is a virtual-reality (VR) simulation of the 1936 CN 6400 steam locomotive. Acquired by the Canada Science and Technology Museum in 1967, the train is a popular attraction at the museum. Visitors to the museum, currently closed for renovations, will step into a six-foot-long by six-foot-high box, throw on an Oculus Rift headset and begin “operating” the train in 4-D, complete with surround sound, air cannons shooting steam into their face while the floor quakes beneath their feet. One of the first to try it was Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly on April 20 in Ottawa, where she tested a beta version. The museum is scheduled to reopen to the public in 2017 for the Canada 150 celebration.