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Montreal's Biosphere: The Environmental Museum in a Geodesic Dome!
Confronting Issues Affecting the Earth in Montreal Expo 67's Dome!
The biosphere is a museum dedicated to increasing public awareness of the environmental issues facing the world today. It does this by mixing a lot of information about the environment with fun activities for children, and is well worth a visit if you are in Montreal.
We visited the biosphere while on vacation in Montreal recently, and our two children had a great time. The biosphere is a bit out of the way on Ile Sainte-Helene, a small island next to the main part of the city, and you should plan on spending a good half-day on the visit. Children 17 and younger are free.
Here are some highlights of our visit. All photos in this review are ours unless otherwise noted.
The 1967 Expo's Most-Iconic Image...
...Turned into a Teaching Museum About Environmental Issues!
The biosphere is a 20-story geodesic dome made of steel that was designed by architect Richard Buckminster Fuller for the 1967 world's expo in Montreal. It was the centerpiece of the U.S. pavilion and became one of the best-known images of the exposition.
After the fair ended, the building was donated to the city of Montreal, who used it for recreational activities and, for a while, to showcase plants and birds. In 1976, unfortunately, fire destroyed the outer fabric of the building, leaving just the steel structure we see today. The building was unused for years after that. Environment Canada, the government's environmental department, took over the site in the 1990s and opened the biosphere in 1995.
The public domain photo here is a night shot of the dome during the Montreal World Expo 67 from Library and Archives Canada.
Buckminster Fuller in his Own Words
This book was published just a few years before Fuller's death in the early 1980s and sums up many of his thoughts and philosophies.
This is probably the most well-known of Fuller's books, and a great overview into the man's view of the world.
10 Environmental Crises Facing Mankind
Finding Balance in Today's World
The first place you visit at the biosphere is a walk-through exhibit on the first floor highlighting 10 major environment problems facing mankind. These include the loss of natural environments, overfishing and plastic trash.
The problems are highlighted on large columns in the room, and contain some very interesting facts for you to think about. For instance, in the area about the increasing amount of electronics waste the exhibit points out that cell phones today are made to last 2-3 years, while a decade ago they were made to last seven years. And, of course, the old-fashioned phones of our parents' youth were made to last decades!
Disposing of all these outmoded electronics is a big problem because so many of the devices contain toxic substances including lead, mercury and arsenic.
Also on the first floor is a small outside garden, which we didn't visit because it was March and the garden was pretty dormant.
What's The Most Pressing Problem Facing Our World Today?
The biosphere lists the following environmental issues that will get worse if we don't confront them. Although all need to be addressed at some point, it may be vital to confront some sooner than the others. I would think that deforestation and overfishing may have to be dealt with first, but maybe you have a different opinion?
(p.s. This is a view of the biosphere's viewing platform from below.)
Which Environmental Issue Should be Confronted First? Why?
Water, Water Everywhere
Fun in the Water Activity Room
Moving on to the second floor you enter the activities room, with eight areas that address different aspects of mankind's relationship with water. The activities include harnessing water, steering a ship and transporting water.
Our children enjoyed playing on the equipment and running around with buckets of water.
One activity was a video that traces the path of water from the toilet bowl through the sewer to the ocean to the clouds and back to a house's teapot. The neat thing is that if you stand in a certain spot in front of the video, an image of your head floats along with the water's path. It actually looks very funny!
If you have been to a number of children's museums then the majority of the water activities will feel familiar, but so what? The kids had a blast and stayed in the room for almost an hour doing nothing but playing with the water. So plan accordingly.
The Biosphere's Laboratory
Experiments and Specimens
The next room is the Eco Lab, where adults and children have a chance to use lab equipment for a variety of experiments including testing water for acid rain and examining tiny bugs through microscopes.
There are also a number of fish samples, including the copper red horse found only in Canada.
One of the more interesting tables was a diagram of a typical home (see photo). You placed a meter over a particular part of the home and it would illustrate what harmful chemical compounds may exist in the household.
For instance, when I placed the meter above the bedroom closet I discovered clothes that are dry-cleaned bring a chemical called perchloroethylene into the home. The chemical may cause long-term health issues, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Putting the wand over the bathroom shower reveals mold, another problem. However, the meter shows having certain house plants is actually good for the home's environment!
Reusing Materials To Create Works of Art
Dresses Made of Pill Bottles and Fish Skins
The next room contains a very odd exhibit. Called ''Outfits From a New Era,'' artists created 16 outfits using materials that would normally be considered waste.
The white dress shown here, by the artist Marie Line, consists of 6,800 pill bottles that have been flattened and affixed to each other. Up close it looks like a plastic dress, which of course is exactly what it is.
Other outfits in the exhibit included one made of salmon skins and mussels shells, which was kept in refrigerated container, and one made of 75 cans and 1,114 stainless steel rings!
One of the nicer ones was a dress by Chloe B. Fortin that is adorned by 2,500 tiny light bulbs and 66 meters of copper wire stripped from speakers. Unfortunately, it didn't photograph well at all.
Each outfit was accompanied by a video and soundtrack, and the exhibit was kind of cool. But I'm not sure what the point of it really is.
The next room is dedicated to climate change, with videos and a huge globe explaining what might happen if the temperature were to rise. It contains a very basic overview and anybody that has been following the topic can safely pass through this area quickly.
A Close-Up of Marie Line's Pillbox Dress
Rooftop Views ...
And the Environmental Impact of Cars!
Unfortunately, the rest of the exhibit halls were a bit disappointing. The movie room's shows didn't seem interesting, and the exhibition about wind power was closed for winter.
We were most disappointed to find that the exhibit dedicated to Buckminster Fuller called ''Planet Bucky'' was closed for renovation! It seems very cool, exploring his three-wheeled car, his solar and row boats, and many other inventions. If nothing else it'll give us a reason to visit again.
So we headed up to the viewing platform upstairs, where there was an exhibit set up about the effects automobiles have had on the environment and how we may have to change the way we get around in the future. One nice thing about the exhibit was the recognition that the auto is an important part of life and not just some evil instrument that can be easily discarded. I found the exhibit pretty clear-eyed about the problems we face without offering any pie-in-the-sky solutions.
The view from the platform was pretty neat, though of course you are looking through the metal frame of the dome. Montreal can be seen in the distance but unless you are familiar with the skyline it's hard to tell one building from the next. If you look down you can see the biosphere also has rooftop gardens that are beneficial for the environment.
The 102 20-litre Cans of Gasoline Consumed by the Average Canadian Car Each Year
Montreal Expo 67
Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome has a starring role in this four-minute 1967 video about the expo. The video is by CBCRadioCanada.
For More Information on the Montreal Expo '67
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Are You Planning to Visit? Or Have You Already Been?
This is a shot from the biosphere's viewing platform.
Are You Planning to Visit Montreal's Biosphere?
Reserve Your Hotel Room Today!
We used Hotels.com to book our hotel in Montreal, as well as for our other recent vacations, and haven't had a problem yet. You do have to spend a bit of time reading the reviews to make sure the hotel you select is exactly what you want, of course. Sometimes a good price just means that the hotel has had a lot of poor reviews and has dropped what it charges to attract customers!
One other bit of good news is that you get a free night's stay after booking 10 nights. The freebie has to be on a subsequent trip, but it has helped us save money. Check out Hotels.com today:
The Biosphere As Seen From Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel
More Photos of the Geodesic Dome
- Montreal's Biosphere: Atlas Obscura
This website has an entry on the biosphere that includes photos of when the dome caught on fire.
- USA - Pavilions - Expo 67 - Library and Archives Canada
This government website has photos from Expo 67 including the geodesic dome.
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