Friday, February 20, 2015

The making of an exhibition

Three years after the exhibition "the making of biodiversity" was inaugurated, the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN) is finally publishing the exhibition's catalogue. The presentation of the catalogue will take place on the 25th of February 2015 at 7 pm in the "Salón de Actos" of the Museum in Madrid. As scientific curator of this exhibition, I wrote the following introductory text that I share with you. 

My first memory in life is that of being overwhelmed by the presence of animals while visiting my grandparents in Africa. Shortly after, I visited one of the natural history museums in Europe, and my memories of this visit are so vivid today that I still remember the stairs leading to the main hall of the museum. Why would these events have such long lasting imprint in my memory? Is it that I am particularly beset by animals? Or is it that all of us share an innate emotional affiliation to other living organisms?

One of the most famous biologists of our times, Edward O. Wilson, proposes the latter. In 1984 he wrote a book, Biophilia, which sought to provide understanding of how the human tendency to relate with life might be the expression of a biological need, one that is integral to humans’ developmental process and essential in physical and mental growth. In the words of Stephen Kellert, “the biophilia hypothesis proclaims a human dependence on nature that extends far beyond the simple issues of material and physical sustenance to encompass as well the human craving for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction”. In other words, if the biophilia hypothesis is right, our love for nature and for other living organisms is a need. If the hypothesis is wrong, it is still a fact that many of us have an innate tendency to be fascinated by other organisms.

As with other types of love, however, the love for life needs to be nurtured. Nurturing biophilia means promoting sensorial contact with the diversity of shapes, textures, colors, and odors that constitute life in our planet (thus creating the emotional connections and interest to learn more), providing the opportunities for observation and for acquisition of knowledge regarding the variety of life and the mechanisms that maintain and promote its evolution (thus providing the intellectual capacity for understanding the complexity of the natural world), and, finally, providing information for understanding the current state of biodiversity, our role as major drivers of change, and the consequences of the current changes for the future of biodiversity and for our own survival (thus providing the attitudes required to contribute for the right decisions).

The exhibition “The Making of Biodiversity” launched in 2012 at the National Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC) in Madrid seeks to provide each one of these three essential elements for full appreciation of biodiversity. In the first part of the exhibition, the visitor will be exposed to the diversity of life as captured by our collections. This is the most beautiful part of the exhibition and one that aims at stimulating the interest and curiosity of the visitor. The second part of the exhibition seeks to provide knowledge about the mechanisms of evolution and diversification of life, which includes both speciation and extinction. This part of the exhibition is the one delving deeper in current ecological and evolutionary theories. The third and last part of the exhibition will provide information about the current status of biodiversity, the strategies required to mitigate some of the most important threats, and some of the projects that researchers at the museum have been engaged to in order to contribute for the conservation of biodiversity in the Iberian Peninsula and beyond.

My ambition, though, is that the visitor, especially the younger visitors, will wander through the exhibition finding sufficient sources of wonder for stimulating their creative thinking and, perhaps, for remembering this visit in many years to come.

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