SCIENCE AND SOCIETY The Museu de la Ciència in Barcelona
Never afraid of a little controversy or to try something different, Jorge Wagensberg, curator of the Museu de la Ciència in Barcelona, has a very personal view of how to interest all kinds of people in the realities of science. Rather than the traditional educational approach, he prefers what he calls 'emotional interactivity' in which curiosity, as the motor for acquiring knowledge, plays the key role.
Jorge Wagensberg: ´Interesting people in discoveries which they often knew nothing at all about´.
More than anything else, Jorge Wagensberg wants to provide a space that addresses all the senses. Touch, sight and sound are the rule. A visit to the permanent exhibition rooms at the Museu de la Ciència in Barcelona is like walking around a zoo where objects and phenomena have replaced the animals. Various installations combine interactivity and experimentation to enable visitors to discover for themselves the mechanisms and paradoxes of the perception of the real world around them.
The snail and the stair Original presentations, such as the use of a magnifying mirror, show the similarities between a snail and a Gaudi staircase, for example, and between fields such as biology and architecture. At first sight, a large vivarium, known as Invisible Silence, seems to contain nothing but dead leaves, earth and roots. It is only after reading the notice – '30 insects live here' – that careful observation will reveal a small colony of Extetosoma tiaratum, tiny stick-like insects lost among the mass of inert vegetation. 'In the real world, things are diffuse and we do not notice them. A science museum must present this reality in a condensed form, in such a way that it catches the attention of the visitor who then goes on to ask questions and discover the answers that reality itself can provide. You will not find that in books, at school or in a video.'
A top level physicist – a role he combines with university lecturing and his commitment to his museum – Jorge Wagensberg concentrates his scientific work on the interdisciplinary borders of biophysics, a field which brings him face to face with the complexity of matter, living organisms and their evolution. When, 15 years ago, the Museu de la Ciència asked him to become involved in its activities his first reaction was to say: 'No thank you, I am too busy with research and teaching.'
Stimuli and suggestions Yet the art of communicating science is a subject which has always interested him, as indicated by the titles of two books he published back in the 1980s: Science and Us and Ideas on the complexity of the world. After a trip to the United States (organised by the Barcelona museum as a means of tempting him), where he visited several science museums, Jorge Wagensberg became increasingly fascinated by the scope for innovation in this field. He subsequently agreed to take up the offer. In 1991, the non-profit La Caixa Foundation, which finances the museum, offered him the job of curator.
This gave Jorge Wagensberg full powers to develop his concept of a science museum which is anything but conventional. 'The primary task of a museum is neither to teach, nor to protect a heritage, nor even to inform or educate. Of course these aspects can be present but I believe that, much more fundamentally, one must seek to 'stimulate' the visitor – especially through sensory stimuli and experimentation – causing surprise, provoking a questioning reaction, and providing food for thought rather than ready-made answers. The aim is to draw on the public's curiosity about the world, nature and knowledge, the result being that people do not leave the museum exactly the same as they went in.'
And after the visit? The ambition to act as a 'trigger' that will spark the lasting interest of the visitor is something that, as a good scientist, Jorge Wagensberg is keen to test for its presence and effectiveness. The golden rule for the team at the Barcelona Museu is to monitor and evaluate the impact produced by the thematic presentations they organise. 'We walk around the exhibition rooms and we look and listen. How is the public reacting? Where do they stop most frequently? What do they say to each other? We also interview visitors when they leave. Surveys are carried out among some visitors during the months following their visit to establish whether or not they have continued to show interest in the subject we presented, perhaps by buying books for themselves or their children, surfing on the Internet or watching television.'
A museum which does not have a ´target public´ but has exhibitions which can be of interest to all kinds of people, at different levels.
All kinds of people This desire to be sensitive to public reaction does not mean that the Museu is seeking to choose popular subjects guaranteed to draw the crowds. 'We do not go for fashionable topics designed to please. Our criterion is not "audience figures". What counts is interesting people in discoveries which they often knew nothing at all about.'
This does not prevent the Museu from setting itself the primary task of being a meeting place where people can come together to discuss the ongoing evolution of knowledge. In addition to its museographical vocation, it also seeks to be a platform for exchanges between scientists, students, children, the general public and politicians. Jorge Wagensberg sees the communication of science as an inherent part of democracy. 'The parallel activities we organise – seminars and debates – are designed to permit the expression of opinions and to "take the temperature" of various opinions in society.'
This commitment to a museum as a place where all kinds of people can meet and interrelate is a fundamental principle for Jorge Wagensberg. 'Whether you are a scientist, doctor, philosopher or writer, adult or teenager, when you take a walk in the forest you may have different perceptions, but you share a common space. A visit to a science museum must permit a similar communion. I believe it is a mistake to approach the job of communication by reasoning solely in terms of a target public. A good exhibition is one that is able to adopt a creative approach which addresses all kinds of people.'
So what does Jorge Wagensberg think of the much bemoaned loss of interest in science among young people? 'In a world where the model presented to young people is the businessman, it is not really surprising. But this disastrous trend can and must be countered by stimulating the motor for knowledge: curiosity. In terms of human development and the organ that is most specific to man, namely his brain, curiosity is a stimulus which plays a role comparable to that which hunger represents biologically as a motor for nutrition in the living world. It is particularly active during childhood but, as with hunger, it should not stop with progress to adulthood. Curiosity is the reason science exists at all...?
A model patronage
Barcelona's Museu de la Ciència is housed in an industrial building typical of the late XIXth century Catalan style. It was founded in 1981 by the Fundacio la Caixa, an important non-profit organisation active in the educational and ...
Barcelona's Museu de la Ciència is housed in an industrial building typical of the late XIXth century Catalan style. It was founded in 1981 by the Fundacio la Caixa, an important non-profit organisation active in the educational and social field and set up by the prestigious bank of the same name. The growing reputation of the Museu – which, besides exporting its temporary exhibitions throughout Spain and abroad, also organises numerous conferences, workshops and courses-means that today it is possible to fund a new architectural infrastructure. 'We have opted for a vast project on several floors built at below ground level. A cathedral of science must not tower above its inhabitants robbing them of light,' says Jorge Wagensberg.