The story of a citizen-museum: the Biosphère

Visitors welcomed at the Biosphère by the “Colours of the World” exhibition, which showcases the unique role of colours in photography and celebrates the diversity of our extraordinary planet.
Credit: Space for Life (Mélanie Dusseault)
Visitors welcomed at the Biosphère by the “Colours of the World” exhibition, which showcases the unique role of colours in photography and celebrates the diversity of our extraordinary planet.
  • Visitors welcomed at the Biosphère by the “Colours of the World” exhibition, which showcases the unique role of colours in photography and celebrates the diversity of our extraordinary planet.
  • It’s not unusual for a museum to be the symbol of a city. Especially when that museum is dedicated entirely to the relationships between society and environment.
  • Around 1995, the “Connexions” room offered visitors a meeting place to discuss the environmental issues of the day and to reflect as a group on solutions for dealing with them.
  • “The Roaming Classroom” (2018), a touring installation of 100 desks painted pink. A project initiated by the city’s association of academic institutions to celebrate the contribution of university research to urban life.
  • The Bioshère: a welcoming museum that attracts visitors of all ages.
  • One of my favorite views of Richard Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. It shows the opening that was planned for the Minirail in the United States Pavilion (Expo 67). To me, it’s a symbol of openness to the world!
The story of a citizen-museum: the Biosphère

We know that with the passing of time, museums have become an integral part of our lives and our cultural identity. One thing is certain, it’s hardly unusual for a museum to become the symbol of a city! Especially when that museum, the Biosphère, is one that’s dedicated to the relationship between society and environment – a museum that has evolved with and for citizens since its very beginnings.


If the public loves museums, it’s partly because these have become so well integrated in the community by proving to be essential social players. That’s certainly the case with the Biosphère. 

Recently, this blog by Isabelle Saint-Germain let us know that the museum will carry on with its reflections on ways of having an even more important social impact while bringing itself closer to citizens. In that context, a citizen-based approach becomes a transformative process for both the institution and for visitors.

The Biosphère has always been an auspicious place for forging connections with the population. The institution has been mindful of its social impact from the outset, and the museum provides knowledge and expert points of view on environmental issues. It’s also a welcoming spot that helps further our sense of community. Indeed, quite apart from talking about the positive effect of a space where you feel at home, scientific activities are built on dialogue in a spirit of openness.


Citizen-oriented museum practice has grown popular in the country in recent years, but the Biosphère was a pioneering institution in that regard. What’s involved is a global approach taken by museums that make a commitment to their communities and that serve them in an inclusive, meaningful and forward-thinking way. The idea is to expand the user base, to diversify it and to listen to it. A good part of the discussions surrounding the new definition of “museum” under the auspices of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) focuses strongly on this approach.

Citizen participation and consultation have been part of the programming under the geodesic dome since the very first days. Biosphère activities are, among other things, geared to the local public, and this is expressed through the exchanges that the museum promotes between that public and scientists, educators, committed artists, etc.

The tradition continues. The Biosphère is involved, with all the Space for Life institutions, in a social-impact assessment accompanied by performance indicators. This is a highly pertinent yet uncommon experiment in the museum world. Space for Life wants to participate fully in a much needed socio-ecological transition by heightening its impact in the community, a process that’s in line with achieving the Montréal 2030 Strategic Plan.


When the museum opened in 1995, a videoconference was organized with the Institut océanographique de Brest in France. Participants could talk live with divers swimming in an aquarium. People were already “connecting” with the world to address global environmental change. And let’s remember that at that time we’d barely begun communicating by email! From the beginning, the museum sought to mobilize segments of the population who are not normally museum visitors, but who become as much when a feeling of belonging is born.

The room Connexions (1995-2015) became a place for get-togethers and exchanges. That room offered a multifaceted experience: a large-scale multimedia show that could turn into three podiums for scientific animations. These allowed for example the exploration of environmental monitoring resources deployed by the museum: keeping watch on zebra mussels, observing fish pathologies, counting marine mammals, and so on. The room also allowed for the organization of lectures and workshops. Already a number of museum workers were collecting knowledge and opinions from different segments of the population. The museum was finally serving as an intermediary between its audiences and organizations operating on the ground. Thanks to the museum, people could engage with a non-governmental organization or a municipality with a view to taking part in a citizen-science or nature-conservation initiative.


For the design of the American pavilion for the 1967 World’s Fair, the Fuller-Sadao architect duo didn’t only have a geodesic dome in mind. Initially, the U.S. pavilion had been thought of as playing host to the “World Peace Game.” Fuller dreamed of an immense interactive installation allowing visitors to plan an ethical use of planetary resources. Cooperation being in his view the best possible survival strategy, he considered this “game” to be a tool destined for humankind so that we could expand our knowledge while generating behaviour based in solidarity. And that takes us back to the symbol of Montréal: a museum born of a great idea, the idea of hope for a better society in which everyone is invited to participate. Are we not getting closer to Fuller’s dream?

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