Sensory Emotional Experience (but no information) in AQUA movie at Ottawa Nature Museum

I took the kids to the newly renovated Nature Museum this morning. Over all, it was basically fine: the restoration means there’s a nice building that will be there for a long time, and it’s clean and functional as far as museums go… otherwise, nothing particular special to report. But the movie (or “sensory experience”) they feature called AQUA (free admission inside the museum every half hour) was totally inappropriate for a museum — I was disgusted.

The movie is about water conservation, and it certainly covers that topic. However, it covers it with basically no information. Instead, the delivery is almost entirely emotional. It’s the kind of thing you expect from a tv commercial about a cause like water conservation, but which is totally inappropriate in a museum. Watch the video above for a sense of what it’s like.

The “experience” starts when you walk into a dark room and you pick up a glowing blue orb shaped like a drop of water to carry with you for the duration of the experience, thereby becoming a protector of the water, or maybe being protected by it’s friendly glow as the lights darken.

Some of the special effects are nifty — at one point the circular screen around the room is projected with the image of water giving the effect of being surrounded by ocean and, following the lead of the museum guides, the kids found they could use their hands and bodies to move the water, splashing its image around on the screen. Cool.

Not two minutes later, the room, and the music, turned very dark as a storm began to brew over the water — becoming what was presumably some sort of mega-storm that will consume the Earth one day if we’re not careful, although I can only guess what it was really supposed to mean. As the room got darker and the storm got more violent around us (in a 360 degree projection, recall), children clung to their glowing blue water drops for comfort, but not for long because, just as I picked up our 16 month old so she would not be scared and as my 6 year old lifted his water drop to her saying “Don’t be scared, here’s some light”, yes, at precisely that moment, the blue water drops flickered (yes, they flickered, sadly, warningly, desperately) and died. This was the first time in the “sensory experience” that children in the room cried, but not the last. Also not the last time something would die in the movie.

A few minutes later, the lights were back up and we were experiencing the water cycle first-hand — although you could only tell this if you already knew the water cycle: Sorry kids, you just have to try to keep up. At this point, as the grand finale approaches, by changing images and music, the mood switches rapidly between Good (beautiful image of water and happy music) to Bad (images of ecological devastation and angry music). For a minute, it’s like a very corny political campaign ad, totally geared toward triggering an emotional response.

Finally, the kicker: as the water drained out of the room leaving us standing on parched land, a voice told us that every eight seconds, a child dies of causes related to water pollution. On cue, the silhouettes of five children appear on the screen and, one by one, THEY DIE. I shit you not, nor do I exaggerate — the children in the video DIE. You can see this for a fraction of a second on the youtube video above at the 34 second mark as a child crumples to the ground and dissolves. Emotional blackmail, much?

The lights came up and the guides ushered us out of the room and, as I mulled over what I had seen and thought about whether to say anything to my kids about it, my 6 year old handed me his water droplet and said, “That was totally inappropriate.”

I couldn’t agree more.

That’s the end of my review, except to say that the museum and the movie’s producers (an organization called One Drop) also managed to blow their only opportunity to redeem themselves and deliver some actual information. After experiencing the thrill of emotional blackmail by sensory overload, the audience climbs to a second floor hall with posters and computer screens where one might have expected to find information about the content of the movie. Instead, on the computer screens, the audience is asked to commit to making a change to preserve water (or not to pollute water? It was hard to know for sure) either by not drinking bottled water, by eating cereal instead of meat (seriously) or, well, something else. By that point I just wanted to get the kids out of there so we could learn about the wonders of the Earth’s minerals in what turned out to be by stark contrast a very informative and well thought out exhibit sponsored by, who else, the formerly-Canadian mining giant Vale Inco.

Does mining kill children? Yes. Does water pollution kill children? Yes. But you know what? The sting of the scorpion or the bite of the Vietnamese centipede also kills children, but they don’t have silhouettes of children dying on the walls of THOSE exhibits, do they?

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