RIO DE JANEIRO -- The Olympic city’s new, $54 million science museum opens on Saturday. It sits waterside in a port area that was left abandoned for decades, and is now being renovated with new office blocks, apartments and restaurants.
Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has designed an eye-catching, futuristic landmark whose big theme is the environment. It uses sound, video and interactive exhibits to ask big questions about the origins, the present state, and the future of humanity.
But it neglects the shocking pollution in the Guanabara Bay it sits on.
Not that the museum lacks positive aspects. It meets sustainable architecture standards, has a full program of educational outreach, and even recycles water from the bay in its air conditioning systems. Its $2.60 entrance fee will make it affordable to culture-hungry Brazilians who already flock to the nearby Rio Art Museum, the MAR.
And it features plenty of big ideas.
“The essential concept of the museum is that tomorrow is not ready,” said curator Luiz Oliveira. “Tomorrow will be a construction. We will participate in this construction as people -- Brazilians, citizens and members of the human species.”
To explain “where we came from,” one room shows a film by Hollywood director Fernando Meirelles, a Brazilian, that crams billions of years of history into eight minutes. In an interactive exhibit in the Tomorrows that asks “where we are going,”visitors can calculate their own environmental impact based on their lifestyle. A section focused on the present day has towers of video screens showing environmental disasters.
One day this past week, Oliveira pointed to a brief video clip on one tower that showed mud and mining waste spilling from a ruptured dam in Mariana, Minas Gerais state. Millions of gallons of waste were released into one of Brazil’s most famous rivers in the Nov. 5 disaster, causing what has been called the biggest environmental disaster in its history.
It was one of the few examples of Brazil’s own environmental problems on show in a museum concentrated on the universal.
The Earth area has an exhibit of images of ecosystems in the Guanabara Bay. Visitors can press a screen and see which species depends on which others. But a photo of a mangrove swamp resembles an image from a glossy travel magazine – in stark contrast to the mangrove swamps in the Fundao Canal, a few miles away in the same bay, which are carpeted with refuse and are situated beside a stinking, rotten canal that bubbles with toxic gasses.
The 147-square mile Guanabara Bay is inundated with raw sewage and tons of garbage every day from low-income communities around it. Rio has had to build a fleet of ‘eco-boats’ to pluck debris out of the water so that Olympic sailing races can take place. On a recent day, one was docked outside the museum, where garbage floated on the water.
Oliveira, the curator, said that the impact of pollution on certain species was referred to in the exhibit. He said the museum will also start exhibiting a monitoring system from local universities which is accompanying work to clean up the bay.
“We will specifically have this content,” he said.
Officials admitted that other Brazilian environmental questions could feature more – like deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, which appears in video clips and is included in interactive games in the Tomorrows area.
“We are going to work on this,” said José Roberto Marinho, president of the Roberto Marinho Foundation, a non-profit group that developed the museum and is named after his father, who founded Brazil’s Globo media group and television network.
“We are going to have an intense program of debates" and programs on the Internet about Brazil's environmental challenges, he said. “The question of the Amazon, this will be on the site.”
Marinho quoted an old joke: that Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be. “But not the museum, it has something more immediate, it shows that tomorrow is the result of what we are doing today,” he said.
Brazilians really want a better future. But to get there, experts say, they not only have to address serious structural problems, like the lack of sanitation and and garbage disposal that contribute heavily to pollution in the Guanabara Bay. They also need to acknowledge them.