New formula and new decor
The new decor in Merlin’s Laboratory – inaugurated on 21 June 2016 – kept the main ingredients that originally made this place such a success. Fun and communicative science is the main focus there, thanks to experimental and observation games, in an environment made to look like the Brocéliande Forest, so dear to Merlin the Enchanter. Jules Verne-like decor, with a steampunk touch, a mixture of wood, metals and colours…
“Touching science with your fingertips”
The principle remains the same, and about 30 new experiments are now available for children and their parents. “Merlin’s Laboratory is an iconic place there you can touch science with your fingertips thanks to an experimental approach: carry out a scientific experiment, observe what happens, issue hypotheses, doubt and understand a scientific phenomenon”, explains Michel Cabaret, the Director of the Science Centre, whose know-how in terms of scientific popularisation has been unanimously recognised. (Read Christopher Couzelin’s portrait, the exhibition manager of the Science Centre).
From miniature tornadoes to special effects at the cinema
When carrying out their scientific experiments in the laboratory, the children are helped by two mascots – a knight and a dragon. During the interactive activities, children play with shapes, air, images and movement to understand such things as how a tornado is formed, why a hot air balloon rises, what a thermal camera can see or what hides behind the special effects in movies. The experiments conducted by scientists in the amphitheatre complete the process, awakening the children’s curiosity, as well as that of adults who are children at heart.
400,000 visitors in 10 years
400,000 visitors and close to 10,000 activities in ten years…The success of Merlin’s Laboratory is amazing, even for its creator. “At first we thought it would be appropriate for children aged 7 to 12, and were surprised to see whole families coming, children with their parents and grand parents”, says Michel Cabaret. The key to our success is mostly due to the laboratory’s establishment in the Champs Libres, right in the heart of the Science Centre that holds a planetarium, the Earth room on biodiversity, temporary exhibitions and a great deal of conferences. The laboratory can be seen from the street, it serves as a window into the Science Centre, which makes people want to come and have a look.
“When explained properly, science is an extraordinary public success”
But for Michel Cabaret, the laboratory’s success lies in the thirst for knowledge of all their visitors and the powers of interactivity. “Science can sometimes be a bit scary, many think it’s inaccessible and doesn’t concern them. Yet every day we live in a scientific environment and feel the need to understand it, touch it with our fingertips to be able to promote this rational way of thinking, which makes up our culture and leads it towards understanding the world we live in. At a time when social networks are thriving, direct contact between the public and scientist is necessary, now so more than ever. When explained properly thanks to our staff, science is an extraordinary public success…” Proof of this is that Merlin’s Laboratory is the most visited Science Centre in France, right after the Palais de la Découverte in Paris.
Merlin and the “magic of knowledge”
What link is there between science and Merlin the Enchanter, who lived in the mythical Brocéliande Forest, not far from Rennes? Michel Cabaret spent several years studying the area with a scientist’s eye, trying to elucidate the mystery. “I did research on the Brocéliande Forest, regarding soil biology; I studied worms in the wonderful site of the Val sans Retour. Merlin accompanied me during my research in the 80’s”, reminisced Michel Cabaret. When put in charge of the installation of a laboratory in the Science Centre, as part of the New Cultural Equipment (former Champs Libres), he quite naturally thought of placing it under the aegis of the Breton Enchanter.
“Merlin was a magician, but he also had great knowledge about nature and the stars. According to the stories of the Round Table, he lived through good and bad times…which is why I thought the laboratory should be his. I created an imaginary forest, making for an enchanting setting for children who have come to find out about science”.
Michel Cabaret, a “scientific guide”
Michel Cabaret, the Director of Rennes’ Science Centre, is an enthusiast, recognised by his peers. In 2012, he was awarded the Grand Prize for Scientific Information from the Science Academy. A legitimate reward after 30 years devoted to scientific popularisation. A fantastic career path for this farmer’s son, now a Doctor in science, who started his life in scientific information in the 80’s when the Science Centre was established in Rennes’ Colombia shopping centre. Nowadays, “his” Science Centre attracts 200,000 visitors a year, employs a team of about fifty people, and his passion as a “science guide” has never dwindled.
“Science is only worth it if it is shared”
“Science is only worth it if it is shared. It is always a marvellous discovery. You can of course live without knowing how a plasma ball works, what Bernoulli’s Law is or how a hot air balloon goes up, but it would be a shame to deprive yourself of that knowledge”, reminds Michel Cabaret. “Our pleasure stems from discovery. When visitors leave the laboratory and Science Centre with a little science in their minds, it makes them more confident. It is a marvellous adventure and a great success”.
A trademark that has caught on
The Science Centre also has a trademark that has been exported well outside Rennes. In the words of Lavoisier, “nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”. The Laboratory is going to be recycled in an old tobacco manufacturing plant, soon to be a branch of the Science Centre in Morlaix. Other activities will be deployed in Toulouse’s Knowledge Centre. This seems like a logical development for Michel Cabaret: “The Science Centre is radiating out, it’s a simple physical principle…”
Merlin’s Laboratory is located in the Science Centre at the Champs Libres, 10 Cours des Alliés.
Information available on www.espace-sciences.org