“Confronting concern”

François d’Aubert © S.Chivet/CSI
François d’Aubert © S.Chivet/CSI

In north-east Paris, the Cité des sciences et de l'industrie sees itself as a centre for disseminating a culture of science, where knowledge is accessible to all. Currently on the agenda is an extensive ‘health programme' that starts off with Epidemik, a surprising exhibition on the subject of epidemics. We talked with François d'Aubert, President of the Cité de la Villette.

You are holding a major exhibition on epidemics (1), a subject that could be rather off-putting. Do you not fear your visitors might be rather wary of the subject?

What we are not afraid of is trying to provide answers to the questions people ask in the field of science and research as well as in the social dimension. Epidemics arouse concerns. They are something that can appear suddenly and spread rapidly - even worldwide.

So they are a real problem of society that is part of the globalisation of health. But it is a subject on which it is possible to exercise scientific and political control. Vaccination - where possible - prevention, information and our collective responsibility and behaviour can limit the impact of epidemics.

This is very much an interactive exhibition, in particular through what appears to be a very innovative game.

Our aim is to improve understanding of complex notions through a simple means of communication. The exhibition is based on interactivity. There is nothing new about this as such, but here it is used in a very original way. It is the visitor's own body that, as result of his or her movements, is enabled to interact with others. Scientific advisers helped create the game that presents five epidemic scenarios providing information on the pheno - mena of contamination, protection, and sometimes very simple preventive hygiene measures that today's lifestyles tend to cause us to forget. We want the visitor to leave the exhibition with a clear understanding of what epidemics are and how to respond to them and protect oneself.

Will the exhibition be travelling elsewhere?

A number of European science centres are already interested in it. When we organise an event on a scale such as this we seek from the start to ensure that it can be exported, if not entirely then at least in part. The content is also available on the Internet, which enables persons interested in the subject to deepen their knowledge. The international conference on health and globalisation organised to mark the opening of Epidemik will be available online on the website.

The Cité is bordered by neighbourhoods with a broad social and ethnic mix. Will you reach the people who live there?

Absolutely. The Cité is rooted in its immediate environment. In addition to the exhibitions there are a number of thematic areas designed to meet the real needs of society, such as the Cité des métiers that allows visitors to explore different vocational orientations, the Carrefour numérique that is helping to combat the digital divide by facilitating access to computers and the Internet, and the Cité de la santé that provides advice, guidance and information. We also have one of the biggest scientific libraries in Europe.

Our role is to make access to scientific and technological culture more democratic by seeking to provide answers to the questions people ask. This is indeed the strength of the Ecsite network of European science centres and museums that shares these ambitions.

How will you evaluate your work?

Our Public Observatory carries out continuous visitor surveys using qualitative evaluation methods. We assess the level of satisfaction, the success of what we present and also the way our messages are perceived.

Evaluations are also discussed in the framework of the coordination between European science centres. We would like to eventually have a measurement tool which could be shared at the international level.

Interview by Christine Rugemer

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