When Bryan Tisdall got a call in May 2017 telling him he’d be joining the Order of Canada, he thought it was a prank.
“I pick up and it's Genevieve something-or-other from the governor general's office. They say, you’ve been recommended for the Order of Canada, would you be willing to accept? And I say come on, who are you really,” Tisdall laughed.
He’d been sitting in his car in the driveway of his Steveston home, and now, more than a year later, he still finds the honour hard to believe. He's in Ottawa this week for his investiture ceremony on Sept. 6.
“It has reinforced with me a responsibility. I look at it as what's ahead. What can I do now?” he said.
Tisdall has had a remarkable career contributing to science education in B.C., spending nearly two decades as CEO of Science World from 1997 to 2016. He never shied away from controversial exhibits and took the iconic False Creek orb from a floundering operation to a renowned not-for-profit that doesn’t rely on government funding for any ongoing support.
He came to Science World from a stint as general manager of Exhibition Place and the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. Before that, he worked as director of finance and administration for the Metropolitan Toronto Police and as director of planning and production services with TVOntario.
“Don’t pre-determine too precisely what it is you want to be,” he said. “Was being (a certain professional) your goal from when you were in a sandbox at four years old?”
The key, he thinks, is to do things you enjoy that also have an impact.
“But be open to opportunity. Prepare yourself,” he said. “And assess and respond to opportunity as it develops.”
He remembers clearly the day he decided to move from the Toronto neighbourhood he grew up in to Metro Vancouver.
“I was sitting in my desk, having no intention of ever leaving Exhibition Place, when the search consultant called … and said 'I have another opportunity for you, at the science centre'. And I said, 'I'm not a scientist!' And he said, 'that's exactly what they don't want’.”
As it turned out, Science World already had good scientists and science leadership. What they needed was someone to manage the organization.
And that’s what Tisdall did. During his time, the facility saw a massive renovation and reliable revenue through gate admissions, food services and facility rentals—from business meetings to weddings.
The biggest part, though, was focusing on exhibits that people would find interesting.
“We were a little colourful, quirky and cacophonous. Because that's the way you get (the point) across.”
One of those exhibits, though, brought explosive controversy. It was called Body Worlds, and it used real human cadavers to illuminate our innermost workings.
Certain groups thought the preservation process was disrespectful to the dead. There were also allegations that some of the bodies belonged to executed political prisoners.
Another science centre had backed out, and the exhibit was offered to Science World on short notice. Once an ethics panel determined the people in the exhibit had consented to their bodies being used, Tisdall knew Science World had to run it.
As it turned out, the exhibit was a smashing success. During its final weekend, Science World issued timed tickets to guests and stayed open 24 hours a day. As Tisdall recalls, the only timeslots that weren’t sold out were after 3 a.m.
He thinks the appetite for such knowledge speaks to the importance of scientific education that’s done in a fun and accessible way.
“It's to develop an appreciation for the (the fact that) science isn't only test tubes and laboratories and old white guys with curly hair. It's everywhere and it's all-pervasive.”
He also says learning to think like a scientist is important, no matter what one does with their life.
“It's being analytical. It's being questioning. It's being open,” he said. “It's appreciating you may never have all the answers.”
Over the years, Tisdall knitted several connections between Science World and Richmond. Kids in Richmond public schools got the chance to act as test groups for new exhibits. Science World also operated a now-closed retail store near Aberdeen Station.
When Tisdall retired, colleague Suan Teo decided it would make a good gift to nominate him for the Order of Canada. But, as per Order of Canada nomination rules, she couldn’t tell him she put his name forward.
That’s why he thought the call was a joke.
He was appointed a member of the order on July 1, 2017. On Thursday, governor general Julie Payette will place a medal around his neck at the official ceremony. Tisdall thinks it will have special meaning since he and Payette are personal friends from her time serving as director of the Montreal Science Centre.
“You’ve got to curtsy to the Queen, but do I say ‘hi Julie’ and give her a hug?” he joked
"I don't think you can give her a hug," Teo, who accompanied him to the Richmond News interview, replied.