la Caixa

The muses of knowledge

Interactivity and emotion are the building blocks with which Jorge Wagensberg, director of the La Caixa Foundation Science Museum in Barcelona, constructed a world in which the aim is to awaken the pleasure of understanding and finding out more. Here, life is centre stage, with reality the best means to understand it.

Jorge Wagensberg Jorge Wagensberg
© la Caixa
This huge tree trunk symbolizes the museum’s cultural interaction with the city of Barcelona. Its natural orifices are reminiscent of Gaudi’s architecture. This huge tree trunk symbolizes the museum’s cultural interaction with the city of Barcelona. Its natural orifices are reminiscent of Gaudi’s architecture.
© la Caixa
A pendulum that resembles Foucault’s Pendulum swings back and forth with the hours. It is surrounded by a circle of rods – knocking one over every ten minutes. It illustrates the relationship between the earth’s movement and the passage of time. A pendulum that resembles Foucault’s Pendulum swings back and forth with the hours. It is surrounded by a circle of rods – knocking one over every ten minutes. It illustrates the relationship between the earth’s movement and the passage of time.
© la Caixa
Visitors can view the tropical greenhouse from the outside, from the inside or from above for a closer look. This approach to nature from different angles is accompanied by interactive effects – such as the simulation of a tropical storm that breaks as visitors arrive. Visitors can view the tropical greenhouse from the outside, from the inside or from above for a closer look. This approach to nature from different angles is accompanied by interactive effects – such as the simulation of a tropical storm that breaks as visitors arrive.
© la Caixa

Do you have a particular way of raising the general public’s interest in science?

Jorge Wagensberg: I start from the fact that emotion is the first stage in scientific questioning. This stimulation, very limited in time and very intense, initiates a dialogue with nature. Indeed any cognitive process starts with a stimulus. That is the way natural selection proceeds. If a species does not feel hunger or the desire to reproduce, it disappears. Knowledge is perhaps the last conquest in the process of natural selection.

Our role is therefore to cultivate this thirst for knowledge. The museum is there to stimulate it and not to quench it. It is not a matter of teaching science but of awakening a certain questioning. By generating emotions and stimulating curiosity we can initiate a dialogue between the visitor and nature. Then comes the understanding stage. I call this the moment of ‘intellectual joy’. This again is an emotion that everybody experiences in total solitude. The only real way to learn and be enriched is to arrive at an understanding by virtue of one’s own efforts. The museum is there simply to awaken this desire.

Many of the exhibition rooms at la Caixa display real objects, unlike other museums where the preference seems to be for the virtual. Do you see the real world as essential to the presentation of science?

I prefer the very worst of real objects to the very best of copies and I like to describe a museum as a place of ’concentrated reality’. This is because for any object you must associate phenomena. For example, our presentation of rock faces shows the geological strata and deformations caused by seismic activity. These are real sections of rock. One of them shows a fault line that was formed during its geological past. The object — the fault line — is indeed there, but the phenomenon — the formation of the fault line — is not. To present this we therefore had to add museographical elements, such as models or animations. However, these are complementary elements that cannot in any way replace the real world. There is also the matter of respect for the visitor, who should not have to be constantly asking whether what he is looking at is real or not. It is children who taught me the importance of showing the real world. I have always heard them saying “is that real?” That is how I understood that if there is any ambiguity, a lack of trust, then the visitor’s whole emotional and intellectual process is disrupted.

This concentration on the real is also fundamental to the work of researchers…

Absolutely. Reality is first observed by the researcher, who is careful not to distort it. It is from this objectivity that science derives its universality. Then there is intellectualisation. This is why you seek points in common between the objects observed but, above all, also their differences. Objects become comparable to one another. Then, an explanatory model or “truth” is built based on theory. But this “truth” enters into dialogue so to speak with reality. If it is to be a scientific truth then it must be susceptible to being challenged by reality – it is enough for nature to show one example for which it is not verified. In which case it is not the “scientific truth” that prevails, but the reality… This is why representation of reality is so essential in a science museum.

Inherent in our approach is an attempt to in a sense expose the visitor to this dialogue that is so essential to the scientific approach and thereby enable him to stand in the shoes of the researcher. Of course, this is very difficult to do in terms of museography. One experiment we tried was to present some of our research and then invite the public to participate. On the basis of the information we provide, visitors can develop their own theory and submit this to us.

How do you measure the success of your initiatives? By the number of visitors?

Quantitative approaches are not the best. Personally, I prefer to observe the visitors themselves. All my new hypotheses came from that. When someone experiences intellectual joy, you can see it on their faces. I hide, I spy and I eavesdrop on what people say as they leave or while viewing the exhibits. Of course now people are beginning to recognise me so it is time I adopted a disguise!

But in today’s context of cultural competitiveness, is there not a temptation to opt for the spectacular or to highlight “trendy” subjects to attract the visitors?

What do you mean by “trendy”? If the public is concerned about climate warming then it is our job to work on this. A museum is a very good place to present major issues of science and society. We hold regular debates and conferences on such subjects. The museum has the privilege of being neutral ground. Citizens, scientists, journalists, politicians, industrialists… they can all come together at a museum. We can encourage debate between them without taking sides.

What distinction do you make between a science museum and a science centre?

The word museum refers to a place with static objects. A science centre is a museum of phenomena. It is true that the term “centre” is more suited to my approach. But it is not a term I like. It makes me think of a “business centre” or “shopping centre”. Therefore, I use the word museum because it has a certain “cachet” if you like. Even if it does not reflect the break with traditional institutions. Also, museum has the same root as muse or music…

In seeking to present the scientific approach are you also seeking to acknowledge doubts and mistakes?

Science is not omnipotent and does not control everything. We would like to show that past mistakes can help us avoid future errors and that we can learn from our mistakes as they are a motor for knowledge. Having said that, it isn’t easy to show this aspect of sciences… The explanatory comments alongside certain objects, such as fossils, show that questions remain regarding their identification. We have no hesitation in using the question mark. More abstract concepts, such as uncertainty or order, are presented. Order is presented as an exception and balance as a special case. Uncertainty is presented as underlying quantum physics and biological development. More generally, perhaps this approach makes it possible to illustrate the complex paths taken by science in the face of nature.

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