A venue for exhibitions, mediation, and more generally scientific, technical and industrial culture, La Rotonde is a Mines Saint-Étienne center with a difference. Its role is to share knowledge with different audiences, young and old, who are fans of science or simply curious. For its director, Guillaume Desbrosse, this involves first and foremost encouraging an interest in science, and allowing each individual to apply the investigatory process. For this purpose, La Rotonde bases all its mediations on experiments.
“I never should have come here“. These are words that no cultural center mediator wants to hear from the public. Guillaume Desbrosse, director of the La Rotonde Center for Scientific, Technical and Industrial Culture (CCSTI), in Saint-Étienne, aims to inspire the opposite reaction. “We want visitors to feel included, and to realize that they have an important role at La Rotonde, regardless of the level of their scientific expertise” he advises.
Therefore, in order to be as inclusive as possible, the CCSTI focuses on experiments. So, out with traditional signs and their captions and in with a more hands-on approach. At La Rotonde, no exhibition is set up without experiments for the public to carry out, or without mediators to guide the public in understanding the results obtained from any interaction with scientific tools. Besides more direct contact with science, experiments also make it possible to instate a scientific approach and develop critical thinking. “We place the public in the same position as a researcher in a laboratory” summarizes Guillaume Desbrosse.
The hands-on approach is recognized as an asset at La Rotonde. “It is part of our identity, and appeals to the public” he confirms. Perceiving science as something to be enjoyed is an essential component of the vision of the Saint-Etienne CCSTI. Therefore, discovery is a very strong theme in the activities on offer to the various audiences. Moreover, Guillaume Desbrosse insists that “curiosity never killed the cat, quite the opposite!”
La Rotonde, a laboratory of ideas and innovation
The team of nine at La Rotonde is not afraid of taking risks. In 2012, the center devised the “Mondo Minot” exhibition for very young children, returning for a second time between February and November 2016. Open from two years of age, this exhibition is a real gamble. “The cultural activities on offer for preschoolers are scarce enough, but in terms of scientific culture, you could even say it’s a wasteland!” points out Guillaume Desbrosse. He goes on to say: “Nobody opens an exhibition from that age. The minimum age for admission is generally three years, but we have worked on offering inclusion from two years of age.”
In the case of this exhibition, particular thought has gone into the surroundings. The team called on the services of scenography designers to devise an elaborate graphic and immersive environment. A yurt has been set up, and the children can pass from one module to another through a somewhat unusual closet. The narrative and the experiments are constructed based on the five senses, offering a fun and educational introduction to science, suitable for such a young audience.
Therefore, La Rotonde is not hesitant about innovating and developing novel mediation methods. In this regard, it fully warrants its status as the center for scientific culture of Mines Saint-Étienne, the school which is also host to the La Rotonde exhibition area. This proximity with the world of research is “a real asset” according to the director of the CCSTI.
Bringing the public and researchers closer together
Devising experiment-based scientific popularization programs with mediator guidance is no mean feat. Each practical experiment, each module is developed in close cooperation with researchers. “We are experts in popularization, but not experts in science” Guillaume Desbrosse admits humbly. Scientists are even requested to talk to the public about their specialty. “We want to create a link and interaction between science and society, our job consists of devising cultural mediation models and creating the conditions for this encounter” he continues.
Therefore, the team at La Rotonde prioritizes direct contact between researchers and the public, with in-depth consideration on how they can interact. For, behind all this, the aim is also to break the many stereotypes still used to depict scientists. “It is a long-term undertaking, because there are a lot of preconceived notions out there. In the collective unconscious, a researcher is male, generally older, reserved and has little interaction with the outside world” says the director of La Rotonde regretfully.
Restoring the image of science
These misconceptions can be combated by bringing female researchers or young PhD students, for example, to the La Rotonde center, but also involving them off-site programs conducted by the CCSTI for schools. The team thus conducted an experiment. Before a researcher came to talk to students in schools, they asked the children to draw how they imagined a researcher to be. Many had the stereotypical view described above. The students then produced another drawing after the scientist’s visit, for a more realistic result. “Meeting a male or female researcher shatters the myth, and offers an opportunity to broaden the scope of possibilities particularly for girls who find it difficult to see themselves in scientific professions” observes Guillaume Desbrosse.
La Rotonde and its team have set their hearts on building or rebuilding an awareness of research and those involved. Guillaume Desbrosse hopes above all to bridge the gap between science and society: “There is a resistance to science, and innovation. My goal is to develop a cultural habit in all audiences, and encourage interest in science.” Behind this aim lies a wish to build a society based on rational thought. This objective can only be achieved through collective effort, in which La Rotonde very much hopes to play its part.
La Rotonde, a CCSTI with an active role in society and the region
The movement of Centers for Scientific, Technical and Industrial Culture (CCSTI) started in 1979 in Grenoble with La Casemate. It was followed by the Cité des Sciences in Paris in 1986. More CCSTIs subsequently emerged, including La Rotonde in 1999. This center is the only one to be incorporated in a school of engineering: Mines Saint-Étienne. It offers engineering students a glimpse of the promotion of scientific knowledge and sharing with society.
La Rotonde, like any CCSTI, seeks to play an active role in social and economic development by offering citizens the tools to understand major scientific issues of our times. Its local roots allow it to extend its influence particularly throughout the scientific culture network of its region. La Rotonde heads the network in the French department of the Loire for organizing the “Fête de la Science” science festival, coordinating all the activities in the department associated with this event. In addition to its exhibition area within Mines Saint-Étienne, La Rotonde organizes a large number of off-site activities, for schools, cultural centers, and associations, and receives 40,000 annual visitors.