I am passionate about the importance of cultural organizations in life and learning for people of all ages. That’s why, as a fourth-year student at the University of Ottawa majoring in Arts Administration, I chose to complete two consecutive work terms at the Canadian Museum of Nature. In this capacity, I completed all five months at the museum in the educational services department; the second work term was focused on assisting with the NatureTalks programme.

Working in that department, the main objective is to provide knowledge on interesting topics to the general public. I was lucky enough to get to work towards this objective in a way that was fun and exciting: events coordination for public programming, specifically, overseeing the successful completion of the wine bar associated with each NatureTalks. What better way to learn than through engaging discussions over a glass of wine?

A NatureTalks audience.
The captivated audience during the recording of a NatureTalks interview. Onstage in the red chair is journalist Ivan Semeniuk, host of the English-language interviews. Image: Cynthia Iburg © Canadian Museum of Nature

NatureTalks is an exciting exploration of science and its role in our lives. Our experts explore the fact, fiction and future of scientific research by discussing topics on the forefront of invention—things that most people might believe to be science fiction.

Each even starts with a 20-minute, on-stage conversation between one of our scientists and a well-known broadcast journalist in which they explore one of these exciting topics. From de-extinction to parasites, each of these topics provided very interesting ethical dilemmas to debate that got everyone in the audience talking. Following the interview, the audience, scientist, journalist and staff were able to participate in a wine bar event to discuss the issues presented.

Watch the on-stage conversations below (four videos, about 20 minutes each):

The series began by imagining a world where Jurassic Park is a real possibility and Passenger Pigeons darken the skies once again. In Jordan Mallon’s talk about de-extinction, the idea of resurrecting extinct species was presented. Although we learned that the technology is close and certain revitalizations have been successful in the past, the ethical questions presented in the talk made us wonder: just because we can do something, should we?

Kamal Khidas continued these ethical debates in his conversation about hybridization. What happens when two distinct species breed and produce a hybrid? Does this mean the end for the parent species? Is human activity making this possible? With these sorts of questions being considered, the discussion largely investigated our role in nature.

In the discussion on plant intelligence with Paul Sokoloff, we discussed the fact that, as far as we know, plants aren’t self-aware. But does that mean they’re not intelligent? Can they react, think, communicate, play and even learn? And if so, does this change the relationship you have with plants?

Finally, last night, we ended the inaugural season of the NatureTalks series. Perhaps the most provoking topic, the talk on parasites with Judith Price definitely left some (including myself!) rather squeamish. Of course, these talks were designed to turn people’s beliefs on their head, and the looming question we considered in this talk was whether or not the traditional idea of “the cleaner, the better” is always true.

A Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), mounted in a portable display case.
There’s a serious effort under way to bring back the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914. But given the hundreds of individuals necessary to propagate the species, does the work seem worthwhile? Image: Cynthia Iburg © Canadian Museum of Nature

At each event, I was able to gauge people’s reaction—and the moral dilemmas they felt in relation to these topics—through personal interviews. It was very interesting to see how many different opinions there were on each topic and also to see how learning new information in this way really created thought-provoking discussions. Although the video documenting people’s reactions is just a short snippet on the NatureTalks website, the discussions that continued throughout the night were intense.

The ability to shadow Cynthia through the development and execution of this programme has been an eye-opening experience into the museum world. As a student with particular interest in the cultural sector, institutions that provide innovative and creative opportunities for the future are of particular interest. Because museums, art galleries and arts centres are constantly looking for ways to increase funding and attendance, the work Cynthia does to create interest amongst many people has not gone unnoticed! I hope to bring this sort of forward thinking to my work because I would love to continue my work within the cultural sector.

Now before I go, I would like to send a huge shout out to everyone in education services for making my time and projects so meaningful. This was a great introduction to museum life and I can’t wait to be back!