Bank of Canada Museum: Questacon for currency

You’re at the helm of a spaceship, hurtling past planets and asteroids. Your mission: reach destination without being knocked off course by the incredible gravitational forces pushing you to and fro through outer space.

It sounds like your standard arcade game, including a joystick and two buttons for navigating your way through the cosmos, but there’s a twist.

The asteroids, planets, supernovae and so on are labelled with terms like “market downturn” and “housing shortage”. The route you’re taking through this economics lesson of galactic proportions has targets marked “2 per cent”, as your manage your Starship Inflation through the vast galaxy of monetary policy.

In the words of a traveller of more conventional star systems, it’s a trap! You’re learning about stuff, and you’re having fun as you do it. This seems to be the primary goal of the Bank of Canada Museum, a small but jam-packed exhibition of economics in downtown Ottawa.

The entrance to the Bank of Canada Museum in Ottawa. Photo: Stephen Jeffery

The game of interstellar inflation is just one of many edu-taining attractions at the museum, built beneath a plaza outside the bank’s headquarters in the capital (for Australians, it’s Canada’s equivalent of the Reserve Bank). Its entrance lacks the grand facades of Ottawa’s other museums, but it stands apart in two fundamental aspects: firstly, it’s free; and secondly, you go there not to see, but to do.

Is it cheesy? Ooh yeah.

Is it cringe-inducing? In less capable hands, it almost definitely would be, but I think this museum manages to plant itself firmly in the Goldilocks area between kids screaming about how bored they are, and a “how do you do, fellow kids” try-hard nightmare.

A cash flow game at the museum.

The gold standard for this, in my mind, is Canberra’s science and technology museum/theme park, Questacon. Multiple storeys of interactive games, cool displays and a terrifying gravity slide have left generations of schoolkids bussed to the Australian capital each year with fun memories alongside all the lessons about parliamentary democracy.

Now, the Bank of Canada Museum gets nowhere near Questacon’s level of fun, nor the impression it will leave. For one thing, it’s much smaller. It also has a much harder brief: making the economy interesting to pre-teens and younger is a lot harder than getting them engaged in all things science.

Some of the museum’s extensive currency collection.

But its size also works to its advantage, in that it is able to sell its main message very easily: everybody is connected in the economy, and decisions made by governments, banks, businesses and consumers affect everyone.

This message begins as soon as you walk up to the welcome desk. Everybody is handed a wristband with a chip inside. With it, you create a customisable digital avatar and connect with the various information screens and games through the museum.

Fly through the cosmos fighting… inflation?

Inside the main section of the museum (with its Tron-like bright colours), you press your wristband to the screens and can learn about budgeting, Canada’s international imports and exports, GDP and monetary policy. All screens are filled with bright colours and cartoons to help get the information across, and it mostly succeeds; I think some of the concepts would leave kids scratching their heads (I wasn’t taught quite a few of them until year 11 Economics class), and interviews with the Bank’s board members are definitely intended for an older audience.

My avatar for the games, or a picture of me in 20 years.

Interspersed between these screens are glass panels showing artifacts from the bank’s currency collection. From an ancient Sumerian record of transaction, to war bonds, to polymer banknotes, the impressive (and shiny) collection is divided into different topics and was holding the attention of kids while I was there. One of the more interesting parts of this section was a large display showing the various anti-conterfeit measures built into Canada’s banknotes.

Then there are the games. Keep the economy in equilibrium by spinning wheels of supply and demand! Use multiple levers to ensure cash flow continues between different financial institutions! And of course, the aforementioned space race keeping inflation under control.

I’m not sure how much children would learn by playing these games, but they’re fun and a way to keep them engaged while adults take a more in-depth look at the topics. You walk out of the museum having learnt some cool things about currency and the Bank of Canada’s role in the economy, without feeling like you’ve spent the entire time reading descriptions of objects kept behind glass cases.

And for the homesick Australian…

It should be noted that the museum is primarily focused on the Bank of Canada and the current Canadian economy. There is no discussion of the pros and cons of different economic systems, nor structural issues. It is focused on an economy reliant on the use of a central bank instituting monetary policy and a government applying monetary policy, and the system set up around it. It’s Canada-specific, so don’t expect to pick up lessons on other countries while you’re there.

As a way to kill an hour or so protecting from the cold of an Ottawa winter or the heat of the summer and entertaining the kids, the museum is great. That you can do so without paying a cent (a rarity in the capital’s museums) makes it even better.

Where: Bank of Canada Museum, 30 Bank Street, Ottawa, ON.

When: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 7pm (open Mondays from May 1-October 1), closed December 23 to January 1.

Cost: Free.

How: No booking necessary, the entrance is in a plaza facing Bank Street between Sparks and Wellington streets. Information in both English and French.

More info: At the Museum’s website.

We visited in: July and October, 2019.

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