Science is disseminated to the public through a number of ways with some being more commonly used than others. One method that isn’t used or talked about as much are science exhibits at museums and other public places. Exhibits are one of my favourite ways to show science to groups as they allow the public to become fully interactive with the chosen topic. I have attended a number of science exhibits over the years, and even helped coordinate one or two as well, but the exhibit on Mental Disorders at La Villette in Paris was by far one of my favourite exhibits I’ve visited in my life.
I was fortunate enough to visit Paris, France for a week in September 2016 and, between going to various bars and drinking copious amounts of wine, my host Lucie took me to visit one of Paris’ Science Museums. Cité des sciences et de l’industrie (City of Science and Industry, also called La Villette based on the museum’s location) is the biggest science museum in Europe. The museum consists of an astounding 11 permanent exhibits, 4 temporary exhibits, a planetarium, aquarium and a greenhouse spread over the five story building. ‘Mental Disorders’ is one of their temporary exhibits running from Tuesday 05th April 2016 to Sunday 06th November 2016.
The exhibit consisted of 19 different activities designed to not only educate the public about mental disorders, but also designed to place the public in their shoes. This ranged from classic activities showing the history of how mental health is treated and understood and quizzes on mental health to the weird and wonderful such as a large shredder to ‘destroy’ depressive thoughts and placing yourself in Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’.
One singular aspect of the exhibit has stayed with me more than any other which was an activity designed to how your perception of reality changes during a psychotic episode commonly seen in schizophrenia. It was a very simple but effective way to show how metal illness changes a person’s thought process. The room was set-up like a barber’s shop and featured an internal monologue of not only what the person thinks, but also what they see. Throughout the monologue you see how the reality we know is distorted into something terrifying yet realistic. The monologue begins relativity tame but quickly ramps up intensity. Before long you’re hearing that this is ‘their’ hideout and everyone at the barbers is out to get you. This is accompanied by faces turning to stare at you and bottles of hair product flashing to reveal hidden bottles of toxic chemicals. You leave the room with a better understanding of reality can be distorted to show a dangerous and frightening scenario in all locations. More information on ‘Mental Disorders’ can be found here.
While I was in Paris, I was introduced to Leo, a friend of my host. Our conversation turned to what I saw that day at the exhibit which was when Leo told me he had experienced a similar distortion of reality after taking drugs, specifically hallucinogenics. He describes his experience in that state-of-mind below:
My first experience in dealing with this new state was an attempt at buying pizza. We arrived in the restaurant and my friend asked me what I would like. I looked around me and realised my mind made no logical connection whatsoever between the question and our presence here. No connection between the man at the counter and pizza. No connection between the menu and the act of eating pizza. I left the restaurant in a hurry and, somehow managing to use my old voice half-successfully, instead of the monotone one I’d recently acquired, explained I needed sleep and left.
Leo has kindly agreed to write about his experience in more detail which can be found here.
Exhibitions are a fascinating way to show science in an interactive and novel environment to the public and an outlet that I believe is currently not utilised to its fullest potential. The reason I found this exhibit so memorable was the interactivity aspect did not treat the visitor as a child and put everything in a kid-friendly manner. Instead, it tried to show the brutal truth of what having a mental disorder might be like and for that I must applaud the designers of the exhibition.