When Sandy Baumgartner left Ottawa and moved back home to Regina 3½ years ago, it was for the usual reasons: friends and family, cheaper housing and the slower pace of life. But now the executive director of the Saskatchewan Science Centre can add another plus to the Queen City’s ledger—it’s far less prudish than Canada’s capital. Sex: A Tell-all Exhibition, developed in consultation with teachers, doctors and sexologists to educate teenagers about their bodies and desires, won an award when it premiered at the Centre des sciences de Montréal in 2010. Last summer in Regina, it came and went with barely a complaint. When the exact same exhibit opened at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa on May 17, however, it was greeted by hundreds of public objections and denounced by James Moore, the federal minister of heritage, as “insulting” to taxpayers.
“The talk shows tried to get something going here, but it just didn’t generate any controversy,” says Baumgartner. She’d been concerned enough about the show’s frank content—which covers not just the usual biology but also sexually transmitted diseases and a vast spectrum of bedroom activities—that she had consulted widely before bringing it to town. Almost all of the feedback, including from the provincial minister of culture, was encouraging. “And the people who didn’t think it was a good idea just didn’t come.”
The controversy in Ottawa began with a socially conservative think tank, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada. Started in 2006, with seed money from the American evangelical movement Focus on the Family, the IMFC has waded into the debate over same-sex marriage, abortion, tax policy and all-day kindergarten. Protesting the content of museums is a departure from the research-focused agenda, admits Dave Quist, the organization’s executive director, but one they felt was necessary. After being alerted to the exhibit by a member of the public, he arranged for a preview tour and was shocked by its matter-of-fact tone. “It basically reduced sex to a pleasurable act,” he said last week. “The message was, ‘If you enjoy it, go for it.’ ”
The complaints of the IMFC, amplified by an Ottawa talk radio station and the Sun Media chain, soon found their way into the House of Commons, where Moore said he had expressed concerns to museum executives and invited the public to do the same. As a result, the age of unaccompanied admission for the show was raised from 12—what it had been in Montreal and Regina—to 16, and video that depicted cartoon figures masturbating was removed. But the backlash hasn’t subsided. The museum has received hundreds of emails—many with the same text—demanding that they cancel the exhibit all together.
“It surprised us that people have mobilized over this with such vigour,” says Yves St-Onge, the museum’s vice-president of public affairs. However, opinion among those who have actually come to see it seems to be running mostly in its favour. Over the holiday weekend, more than 2,000 people toured the display and the feedback forms they left behind were overwhelmingly positive, says St-Onge. “They don’t understand the controversy, they don’t understand the fuss. They found it educational.”
It’s not the first time that Moore—considered to be among the more progressive members of Harper’s cabinet—has objected to the choices of the cultural institutions that he oversees. In 2010, the 35-year-old minister refused to visit a sex-themed exhibit called Pop Life at the National Gallery of Canada, just a short walk away from his Parliament Hill offices. But the show, which had previously been put on in London and Hamburg, and featured performance-art videos of sex acts, as well as wall-sized colour close-ups of genitalia, generated not a single complaint, says a gallery spokesperson.
What’s different this time? A commentary by the IMFC in the Ottawa Citizen last week suggested that teaching teens about orgasms was “unreasonable” and invited capital residents to rise up and “join the prude revolution.” The paper responded with an editorial begging residents not to further enhance the city’s reputation as a no-fun zone.
Nancy Ruth, a Conservative senator and life-long feminist, stopped by the exhibit on its opening day because she was concerned about talk on the Hill that it was pornographic. She says the only thing she found shocking was how prim it all was. “There’s more eroticism in the Picasso show playing at the Art Gallery of Ontario.” Ruth sent an email to caucus colleagues warning them to back off the debate or risk looking like fools. “God, Jesus, everybody wants a pickle now and then, but there’s nothing in that show that’s going to do it.” She’s still waiting for a response.