09/03/2011 04:08 EDT | Updated 11/03/2011 05:12 EDT

Travelling Space Show 'Cosmomania' Too Big For Canadian Museums, Would Cost More Than $600,000


MONTREAL - The Canadian Space Agency's elaborate plans to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2010 with a travelling international exhibit backfired because the show was too big.

The original idea was to bring "Cosmomania: The Incredible Space Adventure" from France to Canada to criss-cross the country and visit museums and science centres.

Emails provided under an access-to-information request show several centres were told they couldn't present the Cosmomania exhibit — or they rejected it — because of a lack of space.

The information obtained by The Canadian Press reveals Cosmomania ended up costing taxpayers $637,756. That included $288,226 to rent it from the French museum that originally organized the exhibit.

The idea was the show would be free for the public and that the space agency would pick up all shipping, set-up and dismantling costs.

Cosmomania, a 50-year retrospective of space exploration, was originally organized by the Cite de l'espace museum near Toulouse and visited several French cities.

But after its arrival in Canada, only two cities ended up hosting the space history exposition.

The $637,756 included $64,476 to develop additional Canadian content, which also meant translating the original French exhibit into a bilingual event.

It had to add Canadian highlights, including models of rovers and space satellites like Alouette, the country's first.

The space agency also paid $27,000 for the rights to use images, music and radio clips which it wanted included in the exhibit.

An early exchange of emails with the Cite revealed the space agency had a number of complaints about the poor English translation.

But the translation errors and other grammatical faux pas, like missing commas, were corrected before Cosmomania was ready to go on display in Canada.

In the end, only the Discovery Centre in Halifax and the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg welcomed the exposition during its shortened one-year stay. The original plan was for it to be in the country for two years.

Halifax had 11,492 visitors between October 2010 and January 2011.

There were close to 18,000 visits in Winnipeg, where Cosmomania's brief Canadian tour ended last April.

Scott Young, a manager of the Manitoba Museum, admits the multimedia exhibit was a tight squeeze.

"It was a really big exhibit," he said in an interview. "We shoehorned it into our 6,000-square-foot exhibit hall.

"I know the folks in Halifax had to split it into two rooms."

Young said that by fitting Cosmomania into two smaller halls, "a lot of people missed the second half."

But he also praised Cosmomania as a "great and fantastic" exhibit and was thrilled to get it for free.

"It was as good or better than travelling exhibits that we brought in (and) that we paid lots of money for," Young said.

"For us, it was a great way to highlight the space program and to highlight the Canadian contribution."

The exhibit was originally supposed to open its Canadian tour at a museum in Kitchener, Ont., in April 2010 after it arrived from France.

David Marskell, president of The Museum, says his team was hoping for a North American premiere to help promote his young museum.

The space agency reserved Cosmomania for the Ontario museum in 2008, when it was known as The Children's Museum. Marskell's team began planning in earnest in July 2009.

The Kitchener museum was already promoting the event in February 2010, a few months before it was due to open.

But after the CSA looked at the floor plan, it was judged to be too small for Cosmomania and Kitchener was dropped.

"All of a sudden we were told it wasn't going to fit in our space, so we had to scramble," Marskell told The Canadian Press.

"They told us they were going to take it directly to Montreal to keep it for themselves."

Cosmomania ended up being put on display in May 2010 in tents outside the space agency's headquarters.

A CSA official says before making the decision, it compared the costs of putting the exposition in storage for three or four months or offering it up to the public.

Choosing the latter scenario meant unforeseen expenses, which included about $92,000 for the tents, more than $67,000 for security — and $3,500 for portable toilets. Those figures are part of the overall $637,756.

Fewer than 5,000 people — the majority of them students — visited Cosmomania during its three-month outdoor summer visit.

The Canadian Space Agency main offices are situated in an isolated location south of Montreal which is not easily accessible to the public.

Marskell says Kitchener managed to pull together its own show which featured moon rocks, astronauts and photos of Canadian space accomplishments provided by the CSA.

But he ran afoul of the space agency when he wanted to continue to use the name "Cosmomania."

"We had bought the URL (the web address) and we own, but then they kind of said 'Don't do that or we'll get lawyers involved'", Marskell said.

"So we called it: 'CosmicMania: Our Space Rocks!' and put on a better exhibition with the Royal Ontario Museum, NASA and others and drew 26,000 visitors."

The Johnson GEO Centre in St. John's, Newfoundland, was among other Canadian centres approached by the CSA, but its manager emailed back that "unfortunately, Cosmomania would not fit."

An email sent in September 2008 by Kirsti Cheese, the manager of the London Regional Children's Museum in Ontario, said the exhibit "was simply too large for our site."

A spokesman for the Canada South Science City in Windsor, Ont., says Cosmomania was too big for the museum's ground floor and it could fit on the second floor.

But Bill Baylis, the president of its board of directors, says there was another problem.

"We had space for it on the second floor," he said in an interview. "But the Canadian Space Agency didn't want it where we didn't have wheelchair access."

An email from the space agency to the Windsor centre maintained that Cosmomania did not fit in the available space.

The Telus World of Science in Edmonton was also offered the show several times but the centre declined because it was committed to other shows — including a "Sesame Street" exhibit.

The space agency refused to grant interviews on Cosmomania but provided background information.