"When we opened at the Forum, we wanted to be the museum of the district"

Anna Omedes
10/01/2022 - 12:17 h - Science Octavi Planells

A biologist specialized in animal behaviour, she has directed the Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona since its creation, having previously directed the Museum of Zoology when it and the Museum of Geology, both in the Ciutadella Park, still functioned as independent facilities.

On the eve of her retirement, we review with her three decades of history, marked by the constant organizational and structural changes of the Museum. We also talk about the social, cultural and scientific impact of this emblematic institution, and we look ahead to the future challenges that the person who takes over from her will face.

How did you start at the Museum?

I did my doctoral thesis in England and came back in 1981. I knew the director of the Zoology Museum, Roser Nos. I went to meet her to propose setting up a sound library of natural sounds, she liked it and took me on as an intern.

Since then, you’ve been at the Museum for three decades. Did you think you’d be at the Museum for so long?

No, because I am a very active and restless person, and I always like new challenges. What has happened to me at the Museum is that I have been faced with new challenges and important changes every few years.

How did you become director?

After three years as an intern, in 1985 I got through a competitive examination and I became a member of the staff of the Zoology Museum, and in 1997 I entered a competition for the management of it as director and I won.

And what did you find in your new position?

When I became director of the Zoology Museum I found a museum that, despite the fact that it was a complicated time for museums and especially for a city council science museum, it was very much alive, having innovative projects and a very committed team. In fact, I was very lucky with the directors who preceded me, Francesc Uribe just before me.

At the end of the 20th century, the City Council carried out what was known as “compacting”, in which small museums of related disciplines were brought together to improve their resources. In the field of natural sciences, the City Council had the Zoology Museum and the Geology Museum (directed by Alícia Masriera), in the Ciutadella, and the old Botanical Institute and the Historical Botanical Garden, in Montjuic. I was asked to begin this process with the joint management of the Zoology and Geology museums, that means, although the two museums would remain where they were, there would be cross-cutting departments such as Collections, Activities, Exhibitions, Communication, etc.

Is that when the Barcelona Museum of Natural Sciences was created?

Not yet. In 2000 the new Botanical Garden had been created by Josep Maria Montserrat, and by 2008 together with the Historical Botanical Garden, was incorporated into the two Ciutadella sites. It was then that the Barcelona Museum of Natural Sciences was constituted, made up of all the natural science institutions of the Barcelona City Council.

And then you made the leap to the Forum.

After a few years, yes. We found that the space in the Ciutadella was not big enough, and we couldn’t offer too many services. On the other hand, the Forum building was not being put to any definitive use, and we were offered to use it and we saw that it was a good idea. We could not move the collections, but we could locate the most public headquarters of the Museum, with a large permanent exhibition, more space for temporary exhibitions, classrooms, an assembly hall, etc. This was offered to us at the end of 2008 and we opened it in 2011.

That means, in all this time, you haven’t stopped experiencing changes.

There have been many adventures, many responsibilities and different objectives. I think that every time I started to think that maybe I had to change my job, something happened and a new challenge and opportunity arrived. It is true that I have not been bored at all.

What did this move to the Forum, to a place away from the center, mean?

First of all, the new location helped to decentralize culture. In addition, with the opening of a new venue and the creation of the Museum made up of so many pieces, we thought it was time to reflect on what and who we wanted to be. It was then that we defined, among other things, the objective of being an inclusive museum, a museum opened to everyone and with a more social side. In this sense, we have worked on many social projects of equity, accessibility and proximity. This has worked very well and, in fact, we are now implementing everything we have learned at the Forum in the neighbourhoods around the Botanical Gardens, and the day we reopen the Ciutadella sites to the public, the idea is to do the same in Ciutat Vella.

So it had a positive impact.

In the Forum, totally, because we already entered with the aim of doing that objective. What we wanted was to be the museum of the neighbourhood, for people to feel at home and to use the space, not only as a Museum of Natural Sciences, but also as a place to meet, do activities, and so on. In this sense, there are many things we do with the neighbourhood groups. For example, during the Night of the Museums, we only do performances by street artists from the Sant Martí district. All this is something that takes a lot of work and is done slowly, as you build this network of complicity and trust that works very well.

Have you noticed any changes with the pandemic?

The pandemic has changed things a bit. Just after the confinement, the Natural Sciences Museum was the museum with the most visitors in Barcelona, because it is a very familiar and very local museum. We recovered visitors very quickly, compared to other museums with a lot of tourist visitors. As for the Botanical Garden, it had a lot of foreign visitors, especially French, but since the pandemic many people from Barcelona have discovered it and have kept coming back.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced during all this time?

I think the biggest change was when we decided to open the headquarters at the Forum and close the two museums in the Ciutadella’s park to the public, which still continued to operate and provide services. This meant completely changing the way we organised ourselves. At the same time, the change implied many things: being able to provide additional services to the public, having to rethink the Museum conceptually, budget and staff increases in order to manage the new project, and so on.

How have you seen the evolution of the Museum in all this time?

We have seen a very positive evolution that is still continuing. Apart from big leaps such as a dinosaur exhibition that temporary attracts a lot of people, this evolution has been the result of an enormous continuous work in the fields of research, management and conservation of a heritage of almost four million pieces, outreach activities, relations with social groups and other institutions, etc. Fortunately, the Museum has a very dedicated team, with many ideas for improvement and very professional. Moreover, we don’t wait to be asked to do certain things, such as a gender plan, but we often take the initiative beforehand and go ahead and do it ourselves. For all these reasons, our team is a pioneering one in many social and scientific issues, and we are a national and international reference in different fields.

What role does a museum like the Natural Sciences Museum play in promoting scientific culture?

A very important role. We address the whole population, young or old, local or foreign, with or without special needs, amateurs or specialists, etc. And the most important thing is that the population trusts the museums, what we explain and what we do. They know that we have no interests of any kind other than to involve them in all issues related to nature, conservation and the future wellbeing of all.

Where do you think we are in terms of scientific culture?

Now is a very good time and an example of this is the Barcelona Science Plan and all that it entails. In any case, I think that getting the Museum to operate and respond has also influenced the adoption of new policies and the creation of plans such as the Science Plan. Moving forward along these lines is a two-way flow.

What does the project National Museum of Natural Sciences of Catalonia consist of?

After a year at the Forum, in 2012, the Consortium of the Museum was created, in which the Generalitat joined. One of its milestones is to promote the creation of the National Museum of Natural Sciences of Catalonia. We have been working on this task for many years, and it is now in the hands of the Generalitat.

Would the recent creation of the Network (la Red) of Natural Science Museums of Catalonia be a step towards this milestone?

The Network will be linked to the future National Museum. Right now, we are the head museum of the Network due to our size and characteristics. The rest are smaller museums, or museums that do not deal with so many disciplines and specialise in a particular thematic area or that place the natural sciences in their territorial context. Today, the Network is made up of 10 registered museums with collections exclusively in the natural sciences or in which these disciplines are very relevant: Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona, Darder Museum of Banyoles – Interpretation Space of l’Estany de Banyoles, Museum of Natural Sciences of Granollers, Museum of Arenys de Mar, Museum of the Ter, Museum of the Catalan Institute of Palaeontology Miquel Crusafont, Museum of Isona i Conca Dellà, Botanical Institute of Barcelona, Museum of Alcover and Museum of the Terres de l’Ebre.

The Network works through commissions to share knowledge among all the museums and to advance projects together. For example, in our Museum we have the exhibition “(In)visibles i (O)cultes”, to make visible women scientists who have been silenced and overshadowed during history. Well, we have now created a travelling version of the exhibition funded by the Network, which will be shown in its different museums and then the Network will offer it to others.

What other dimensions of the Museum would you highlight in addition to the social and informative ones?

We have been talking a lot about the social and informative aspects, since these have been the ones that have benefited most from the opening of the new headquarters at the Forum. But the Museum has always been dedicated to curating and studying its collections. In recent years, the resources dedicated to preventive conservation, documentation and restoration of heritage have increased substantially. We have a good team in this area, which is a reference for many other museums. In terms of research, in addition to several lines of research, some of which are related to heritage, we have a pair of very competitive and well-established research lines in evolutionary ecology that we carry out with other institutions at an international level. To give an example, we are in the top 2% of world research on birds, and this shows that, despite not having many lines of research, we have very powerful ones.

We have also worked on the issue of sustainability. For example, the Botanical Garden has many species with a Mediterranean climate and, therefore, very well adapted to the local climate. And it has a seed bank, an essential tool for the conservation of Mediterranean flora. More recently, we have created the green roof of the Forum building, with autochthonous species. And in relation to education, we are at the forefront, as we have our own very ambitious educational model, which after 10 years in operation, we are now revising.

In general, I am happy because I see that in the different areas of the Museum there has been this desire to innovate, to move forward, to make the most of the opportunities and to always be useful.

What would you recommend to whoever takes over the management of the Museum?

I think that now is a very good time that will give the new management the opportunity to take on new projects and make their own mark. Whoever takes over can build on what we have done so far, not necessarily continue the same identical work. Some of the challenges he or she will face are creating the new strategic plan, setting up the new National Museum, starting up the new Ciutadella site (the Martorell Museum), redefining and pushing the new site of the Castle of the Three Dragons, opening new spaces in the Botanical Garden, etc. Therefore, I would recommend that you take this opportunity not only to improve the Museum, but also to innovate.

Are you retiring with peace of mind?

Yes, my main concern since I agreed to open the Forum’s headquarters has been to be able to work on the restoration of the two buildings in Ciutadella, because neither the people who work there nor the collections are now in the right condition, nor are they open to the public. I was afraid of retiring and leaving this issue hanging. Now it is underway. One building, the Martorell, is already being rehabilitated; as for the Castle of the Three Dragons, the executive restoration project is already being defined. So, I am very reassured.

What is the best thing you have taken away from all this time?

One thing that I have really enjoyed during these years has been the possibility of being able to devise, work and fight to make projects possible, to follow them and contribute from their initial idea until they have become a reality. Moreover, each project involves many people, from the Museum and from outside, with their ideas and their work. In fact, I believe that people are always the best. Although you suffer with people, you also learn every day and suddenly you have some wonderful surprises. With the pandemic, for example, they have shown this, everyone has redoubled their efforts and no one has lost their enthusiasm. What I take away with me is this, having seen the capacity, strength and professionalism of the people who work in and for the Museum.

And from a more personal point of view, I have learned many things, both within the Museum and in its institutional environment, both nationally and internationally. I’ve worked hard and I’ve ended up knowing how far I can go and how important the team is. I can say that I have had a very full professional life. I think I leave a good legacy in Barcelona and to the citizens. I look back and think: “well, that’s not bad”. I hope that whoever comes after me can have as good time as I did.