In Autumn 2017, with colleagues from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, I visited the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), on a knowledge exchange visit. We were introduced to the relationship by colleagues from the The Great North Museum: Hancock (part of Newcastle University), which has been working with the Museum of Science and Technology at PUCRS on a funded knowledge exchange project to collaborate on parallel exhibitions on evolution. Both being science museums within a university context, they were natural partners for our Museum of Natural History. We visited PUCRS with our colleagues from Newcastle to see the exhibition, and learn more about how museums in Brazil engage with the local community.
When we arrived we took time to explore the museum. The museum is more like a ‘science centre’ than museums in the UK. It is populated with ‘scientific experiments’ that demonstrate scientific theories. The museum is manned by many, many ‘explainers’ who help the (mostly) young people visiting engage with the experiments – sometimes it didn’t look dissimilar from operators at a theme park!
The exhibition on evolution that the museum developed with Newcastle is one of the few displays in the museum that feature objects from the collection, reflecting the influence of the collaborative relationship.
As well as the museum itself, we were also very excited to learn more about PUCRS’ Traveling Museum Programme (PROMUSIT), which we had heard a lot about. The mobile museum takes versions of the interactive scientific experiments on display in the museum at PUCRS out to communities that would struggle to access the museum. The experiments are transported in a truck specially designed for that purpose, and four men construct over 70 experiments, arranged in a tent area of approximately 600m2. PROMUSIT has delivered more than 140 events since its inception in 2001, engaging more than 2 million members of the community. Of course, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to take some pics behind the wheel!
We were also treated to a behind the scenes tour of the excellent natural science collections that the museum holds – but anachronistically are not represented in their displays. The fish collections were the highlight, and the museum has some world leading experts in this area. I was personally particularly interested in the inline collections database that the museum uses, SpeciesLINK. The system is used by over 400 collections across the country, creating a national database. Considering how siloed collections are within their individual museums in the UK, I was impressed and quite envious!
We also visited the PUCRS library, which is state of the art. All the books in the library have RFID tags that contain data about where they should be shelved. Library staff then scan the shelves with a special machine, that will indicate if a book hasn’t been re-shelved in the right place. I wish academic libraries were using this when I was a student, I can’t count the time lost trying to track down ‘available’ books that weren’t where they were supposed to be!
Our time at PUCRS culminated with a conference ‘Connecting Museums’ to ensure that the knowledge exchange that was developing between our museums was shared and accessible with the broader PUCRS community.
The morning saw the Directors discuss the strategic aims of their respective organisations, and how they foster innovation. Melissa Guerra Simoes Pires, the Director of the PUCRS Science and Technology Museum opened the proceedings by introducing the home museum and its strategic aims. She also spoke about the huge success of their Traveling Museum Programme. Caroline McDonald, Director of the Great North Museum Hancock, spoke about how the museum has been working with PUCRS to develop parallel exhibitions on the topic of evolution, ‘Bones’ in Newcastle, and ‘Traces of Evolution’ in Porto Alegre. Caroline discussed the process of sharing knowledge and approaches to engagement between the two countries. Finally in the morning session Professor Paul Smith, Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History focussed on how museums can embrace innovation. He shared the example of the Dodo Roadshow, an award winning campaign that saw museum staff take their iconic dodo on a road trip from Land’s End at the far south of the United Kingdom to John O’Groats at the most northern tip of Scotland in just one week, visiting with local museums on the way for the Dodo to ‘meet’ with star objects from other museums for a series of Q&A articles on the museum’s website.
The afternoon session focussed on education programmes within the museum. The session was opened by Jose Luis Ferraro, the coordinator for Education for the PUCRS Science and Technology Museum, speaking about the development and success of their education programmes. He was followed by Janet Stott, Deputy Director and Head of Public Engagement at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History who shared insights from her museum’s learning programme, with a particular focus on engaging young people outside the formal education setting. Adam Goldwater, Learning Officer at the Great North Museum then discussed his work with local schools to better embed museum learning into curriculum teaching in the classroom. Finally I gave a short talk about some of the ways that Oxford’s museums are using mobile to enhance their onsite visitor experience.
Of course the trip wasn’t all work. Our amazing hosts from PUCRS insisted on always showing us a good time, from tours of the city, to an all you can eat pizza joint (with some very interesting dessert pizzas). The highlight for me was an amazing barbecue restaurant Churrascaria Galpão Crioulo that served ‘Gaucho’ style barbecue, Gaucho being a general term for people from Argentina, Uruguay and the South of Brazil. Gaucho’s claim to do the best barbecue anywhere, and it was good! The colour of the skewers in the meat indicate the colour of the meat inside – delicious!
And there were more than a few caprinhinas…