The Manitoba Museum, one of Canada’s nine provincial and two territorial museums, is Manitoba’s most visited heritage attraction. It comprises the main Museum Galleries (5,203 m2; 56,000 ft2), which tell the human and natural story of Manitoba; a separate Science Gallery (557 m2; 6,000 ft2); a digital Planetarium; and a travelling exhibition hall (905 m2; 9,740 ft2). The Museum plays host to over 300,000 visitors annually, including 90,000 students for curriculum-based programs. With a staff of 350 employees and volunteers, a team of about 17 is most regularly called upon to produce our new exhibits and programs.
Lake Winnipeg is one of the largest lakes in the world. Its watershed extends from the Rocky Mountains to the Canadian Shield, including four Canadian provinces and four U.S. states. It is home to over six million people, 40 million livestock, and one of the largest agricultural production areas in North America. All of this means that many nutrients, especially phosphorus, find their way into the Lake – much more than the Lake can handle. In 2013, the Global Nature Fund declared Lake Winnipeg to be the most threatened lake in the world, based on the visible increase in algal blooms covering the water’s surface in thick, greenish-coloured slime. The Province of Manitoba identified the Lake’s health as a priority issue at this time, and was formulating a plan of action.
The Manitoba Museum’s desire to communicate about water stewardship and the health of Lake Winnipeg began in 2009, during community consultations for the Museum’s Capital Renewal Project. The directors met with representatives from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), who had just opened their Water Innovation Centre focused on Lake Winnipeg. They soon realized that they had the makings of a natural partnership. IISD, as advisers to government policymakers, had research data and expertise but lacked public outreach; the Museum delivered science programs to a large public but lacked research on Lake Winnipeg’s issues. They signed a memorandum of understanding and began making plans. Project management would be provided by the Museum’s Scott Young, Manager of Science Communication and Visitor Experiences, with direction from Adele Hempel, Director of Research, Collections and Exhibits. Dr. Hank Venema, IISD’s Director of the Water Innovation Centre, agreed to be the content specialist, representing a significant change in approach for the Museum as curatorial staff relinquished content development to an external partner. The project assumed the working title, The H2O Solution, and agreement was reached to locate the exhibit in the Science Gallery (74 m2; 800 ft2).
The Museum and IISD formed a volunteer advisory committee of key stakeholders, all with a vested interest in Lake Winnipeg’s future: Environment Canada, Manitoba Education and Advanced Learning, Manitoba Hydro, Lake Winnipeg Foundation, Lake Friendly, Richardson International, Talking Water Project, Keystone Agricultural Producers, and the Manitoba Pork Council. Both partners contributed in-kind research and development support ($300K CAD), and the Museum raised the remainder ($700KCAD), obtaining support from stakeholders including some of the committee participants – all of whom were required to endorse strict terms of reference from the outset to ensure the integrity of the project. The Museum made all final content decisions with IISD, striving for balance in the between the differing viewpoints.
The project was contracted in two phases: 1) conceptual design ($50K CAD) and 2) fabrication and installation, for a total actual cost of $887K (CAD). This allowed for more precise budgeting in Phase 2. The Museum issued a request for proposals and selected the Vancouver-based design team of AldrichPears Associates, NGX Interactive and The Taylor Group. The first step to conceptual planning was assembling the research: mapping out the scientific, political and social issues, prioritizing, and grouping content. This led to first-draft designs, where gaps in information were identified and content was assessed for a Grade 6-12 target audience. The Committee checked content for accuracy, and scored it in terms of environmental, economic and social impact on the Lake.
The completed exhibit, which underwent prototyping in Vancouver and Winnipeg, was launched on March 22, 2014 - World Water Day. It includes multiple components surrounded by large infographic panels: a watershed simulator and interactive watershed model, a live ecosystem aquarium, preserved specimens, maps, satellite imagery, community-produced video content, and a Champions of Change action station.
The centrepiece is the Lake Winnipeg ecosystem Watershed of the Future game simulator, comprising a large table with eight touchscreen stations and synchronized overhead projection. The touchscreens can be played in stand-alone mode or facilitated group mode. The game prompts players, as “water stewards,” to select an “issue” threatening the Lake (e.g., agricultural innovations, tourism, and city waste management) and to make strategic decisions that will reduce the ecosystem’s phosphorus levels. Dynamic graphic representations of changes in algae bloom provide visual feedback at each decision. Random flood events are pre-programmed to add dramatic realism to the play experience. Manitoba is known for its spring floods, which can cover large areas of farmland and endanger cities and towns, so this topic is a common touchstone for many visitors when discussing the role of water in the province.
Each issue has three potential “solutions” affecting the environmental, economic, and social health of the Lake. These result in scores from +5 (very good) to -5 (very bad), contributing to a final score at the end of the session. Players are encouraged to probe layers of information through on-demand prompts and “polls” before making decisions. To “win,” players must improve the Lake’s health; there is no single correct game path, and they must seek their own reasoned, long-term solutions to achieve a strong finish.
Few innovative projects realize success without being challenged along the way. Staff found that they underestimated the cost, time and expertise required to develop new software for the simulator, for which they had no precedent; also the requirements to fit a large amount of content and multiple interpretation styles into a reduced budget and footprint. Funding for program development should have been budgeted for, and the Museum’s curators drawn in earlier to integrate the exhibit with other gallery content. The most difficult aspect of the project was accurately simulating a complex ecosystem, when all of the data did not exist, such as the measure of societal contentment with choices.
The Lake Winnipeg: Shared Solutions exhibit is a tool embedded with “soft power,” reaching into the minds of students and the public to incite positive action in dealing with the complex issues facing Lake Winnipeg. It demonstrates how societies, groups - even individuals - can make an ecological difference that will impact the health of a lake, or even a planet. For the Museum’s part, it has learned how to present a challenging topic, earning stakeholder trust through a position of fair play and neutrality. The Manitoba Museum is now monitoring the exhibit’s use and ultimate success, with hopes of capitalizing on this experience in its upcoming capital renewal, and is especially gratified by the public recognition its efforts to inspire visitors to “save” Lake Winnipeg have achieved.
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