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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - November 2005   
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SCIENCE CENTRES AND MUSEUMS
Title  Cultivating curiosity

RTD info takes a close look at the Brussels Museum with its natural history collections featuring specimens dating back over 30 million years, and its 100 researchers. This ‘traditional’ institute has opted resolutely for a policy of interactive exhibitions, original educational activities, highlighting its scientific work, and a user-friendly virtual site to showcase it all.

Behind the scenes, the reserve collections © Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique
Behind the scenes, the reserve collections
© Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique
It is a real museum, large and of the kind that has housed natural science collections since the 19th century, with its exhibition galleries, classification areas, research laboratories, reserve collections, flasks and labels. It is located just a stone’s throw from the European Parliament, in Brussels, and has two official names: the Institut royal des sciences naturelles de Belgique and the Koninklijk Belgisch Instituut voor Natuurwetenschappen. But in Brussels it is more familiarly known simply as ‘the Museum’ and a glance at its (trilingual) website soon reveals just how effectively it has combined the rigour of traditional scientific research with the dynamism and conviviality which typifies the contemporary presentation of science. “The development of science centres, which are interactive by their very nature, has given a new impetus to museums which have become acutely aware of the benefits of attracting interactive visitors – visitors who can construct their own intellectual model of the phenomenon they activate, observe and come to understand,” explains Gérard Cobut, biologist and museologist.

The museum’s 100 researchers all provide input to the exhibitions, each according to his or her speciality. It is they who establish the scientific background and approve the final scenario. “We make it a point of honour that the elements presented must be scientifically beyond reproach,” continues Gérard Cobut. “As to the scenario, the messages and the texts, these require other skills, communication skills. This is one of the key roles of the exhibition development team.” 

Mussels by Night exhibition, summer 2005 © Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique
Mussels by Night exhibition, summer 2005
© Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique
Michèle Antoine, who heads this team, knows that it is a question of satisfying visitor expectations while never forgetting that exhibitions must be in a field that can hold its own in an increasingly competitive context but remain viable in a climate of shrinking budgets. “You must therefore opt for prudent programming, including a number of guaranteed ‘successes’ which are going to generate the revenue to finance more risky projects,” she explains. For example, the new dinosaur exhibition gallery – presenting a collection which is one of the museum’s proudest possessions – will open in 2007 and is guaranteed to attract large numbers of visitors. The Museum is also launching an appeal on its internet site (“adopt a dinosaur”) to win sponsors for the acquisition of Stan, a cast replica of Tyrannosaurus rex (12.30 metres long) that roamed South Dakota (USA) 65 million years ago.

This summer’s crowd-puller, launched to mark the 175th anniversary of the creation of Belgium, was entitled Mussels by Night. "This exhibition is rooted in the institute’s scientific expertise, as our invertebrates department is a very dynamic research centre,” explains Michèle Antoine. “It was a marvellous exercise in communication to start with a species that is not initially particularly attractive and then seek to reveal its surprising facets through a multidisciplinary approach. It is a way of showing that casting a scientific eye on the world around us can reveal it to be a much more magical place than one ever imagined and full of hidden meanings.”

Visitors are also invited to understand what lies behind the very eye-catching exhibition designs as, since 2004, the museum has offered ‘Tours behind the scenes’. Every month, one of the scientific departments opens its doors and laboratories to the public, presenting its collections while the researchers explain their work. “These visits shed a great deal of light on research and highlight the underlying science in an institution such as our own,” believes Wim De Vos, Head of communication. “They also provide a communication platform for researchers who want to discuss their work with an interested public. While these visits do not attract the same numbers as the exhibitions, they do attract other groups than the usual families and schools.” 

The work of the Museum’s researchers and their teams, as on this paleotrip to Russia. © Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique
The work of the Museum’s researchers and their teams, as on this paleotrip to Russia.
© Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique
The team at the museum’s Educational Service is also very active. They produce didactic materials – a term they prefer to teaching materials – natural science activities on the earth sciences and zoology, and also run one-day courses designed for future teachers and writers of popular works of science.

The recently revamped website provides a glimpse of life at the museum in all its forms – current exhibitions, science news, research projects and expeditions, new acquisitions, access to the collections of 30 million specimens, including insects and beetles that can be viewed on-line – as well as a wide range of documentation and links through electronic mail and a text messaging service. As Wim De Vos explains, “the number of visits to the website does not necessarily have a big impact on the number of visitors to the museum. The web is an additional channel of information and promotion and is useful to visitors in giving them a very clear idea of what to expect. In providing a direct showcase, the site helps the museum and research institute to be present in society. It enables the creation of quality links. The many e-mails we receive from just about everywhere are proof of the increased dialogue with people interested in the subjects with which we are concerned. Instructive and quality leisure activities are almost inconceivable today without the support of the internet.”


Printable version

Features 1 2 3 4 5 6
  Understanding disenchantment
  Revealing science through history
  The Kutdiak effect
  When research becomes child’s play
  Cultivating curiosity
  Hoaxes, frauds, and the like

  READ MORE  
  Science museums and how to get the most out of them

By Jorge Wagensberg, Director of the CosmoCaixa in Barcelona*

A museum provides more questions than answers.   One way of assessing the effectiveness of a museum would be to note how many new questions the visitor leaves with.

A good exhibition cannot ...
 
  Ecsite

(European network of Science Centres and Museums)

Ecsite is a network of Europe’s science museums and centres as well as a virtual window where you can discover all about exhibitions, current projects and possibilities for co-operation, new scientific communication tools and teaching aids. ...
 


   
  Top
Features 1 2 3 4 5 6
  Science museums and how to get the most out of them

By Jorge Wagensberg, Director of the CosmoCaixa in Barcelona*

A museum provides more questions than answers.   One way of assessing the effectiveness of a museum would be to note how many new questions the visitor leaves with.

A good exhibition cannot be replaced by a book, a film or a conference. A good exhibition creates a desire for books, films or conferences. A good exhibition changes the visitor. A good science museum is above all an instrument for social change.

To experiment   is to engage in dialogue with nature. To think is to engage in dialogue with oneself. A successful museum exhibition generates dialogue between the visitors.

Mental interactivity makes it possible to prolong the museum experience and to make a connection between ideas and everyday life, between other situations of the same kind. The pleasure of recognising these convergences lies at the basis of the emotion experienced. A good science museum excites the sense of the world’s intelligibility.

* Excerpts from the journal Alliage, No.44 

  Ecsite

(European network of Science Centres and Museums)

Ecsite is a network of Europe’s science museums and centres as well as a virtual window where you can discover all about exhibitions, current projects and possibilities for co-operation, new scientific communication tools and teaching aids. The site provides a direct link to other useful addresses and has many downloadable documents. A quarterly newsletter provides the latest news on the world of science centres and museums.

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