‘Diplomacy of Museums’: Israel and Canada collaborate for exhibit marking 200 years of the bicycle

While many technologies have come and gone, the bicycle remains as popular as ever because of its simplicity in design, aesthetics, and efficiency.

The flags of Israel and Canada (photo credit: REUTERS)
The flags of Israel and Canada
(photo credit: REUTERS)
From state visits to the signing of a strategic partnership and academic exchanges to establishing joint research institutes, the Canada-Israel relationship has had many highlights over recent years.
One that stands out came last fall when David Johnston became the first governor-general of Canada to officially visit Israel. Leading a delegation of prominent Canadian academics, artists and entrepreneurs, his main message was what he called the “diplomacy of knowledge.” Simply put, in order to push the boundaries of science, art and business, we need to collaborate globally. His visit came at a time of unprecedented levels of cooperation between our top scientists, researchers, policymakers and executives.
Although we tend to think of the “diplomacy of knowledge” as something limited to the academic and corporate sectors, the museum – an institution with deep historical roots in preserving the heritage of nations – is increasingly becoming active in today’s globalized world. Museums are forging new international partnerships to bring countries and people closer together. This “diplomacy of museums” is also making us more innovative through the sharing of knowledge and expertise.
This week in Jerusalem, Canada-Israel ties and “diplomacy of museums” reach an important milestone with the opening of a special exhibition to mark 200 years of the bicycle.
In just over a year’s time, four science museums from three continents collaborated to develop a one-of-a-kind exhibition about a technology that has changed the world in more ways than we think. Opening at Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem, the International Bicycle Exhibition travels to The Universum in Bremen, Germany, and Citta Della Scienza in Naples, Italy, before wrapping up in October 2020 at Ottawa’s Canada Museum of Science and Technology – one of Ingenium’s three national museums.
Most of us learned how to ride a bike at an early age and many of us ride them every day for sport, transportation or for fun. However, very few of us have stopped to consider their engineering, history, science and wider impact. On the bicentennial of cycling, our collaborative and truly global exhibition takes a closer look at a technology we all take for granted by offering three unique perspectives: the machine, the rider and the relationship between the evolution of cycling and social, economic and environmental developments.
While many technologies have come and gone, the bicycle remains as popular as ever because of its simplicity in design, aesthetics, and efficiency in translating human energy into motion.
From the rise of the women’s movement in the late 19th century to connecting rural communities in Africa today, the global impact of the bicycle has been immense. We also explore the technology’s recent comeback in China where in the 1970s over 60% of the population traveled by bike, yet by 2014 this number dropped to less than 12%.
However, spurred by air pollution and traffic problems, shared bicycles programs have surged of late and the number of shared bicycles in China is now larger than the number of shared bicycles in the rest of the world combined.
Although our goal is to educate, this immersive exhibition with plenty of hands-on and interactive displays will engage visitors young and old. Our exhibition invites visitors to see the bicycle as a remarkable product of human ingenuity, to revisit the familiar, and gain a new understanding of the relationship between a technology and people that began in 1817. Admittedly, there were many bumps on the road, especially collaborating across time zones and understanding how each museum operates, but we know that an exhibition with this level of quality and scope would not have been possible if any one of us went out on our own. The collaboration of four science museums, along with support and unique items from the Velorama Bicycle Museum in the Netherlands and private collectors, demonstrates the positive results that come from the “diplomacy of museums.”
It cannot be stressed enough how quickly this exhibition came together.
The inspiration came in October 2015 when Israel’s ambassador to Canada at the time strongly encouraged us to connect. Bloomfield’s leadership team, who were already visiting Montreal, was invited to tour the collection vault of Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation in Ottawa. While many artifacts stood out, it was one particular element that led to an “aha” moment and started the wheels to turn. Ingenium boasts one of the world’s best collections with nearly 200 well-preserved cycles highlighted by a rare 1818 Dennis Johnson velocipede, over 1,000 other cycling artifacts such as repair kits and locks, and approximately 1,500 archival documents including advertising posters and catalogues.
With an eye to the bicycle’s bicentennial in 2017, we led the charge in bringing together the right group of global partners to make the exhibition a reality. In the spirit of cooperation, each museum brought something to the table. Whether it was a selection of bicycles from Ingenium’s collection, Bloomfield’s experience in designing interactive exhibits or The Universum and Citta Della Scienza’s world-renowned educational programming, each had something unique to offer. We overcame cultural and linguistic barriers to share best practices and knowledge. As a result, together we created an interactive and immersive exhibition that covers the magnitude of the bicycle’s evolution over the past 200 years.
It is only fitting that in the same week that Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, the people of Jerusalem and tourists from all over will have the opportunity to experience the fruits of our collaboration.
When visitors walk through the halls, touch the exhibits and see the bicycles, they will not only get a new sense of appreciation for a technology that changed the world, but they will also benefit from what can only be achieved through the “diplomacy of museums.”
Maya Halevy is director of Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem.
Fern Proulx is CEO of Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation.