This year sees 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. To mark the occasion, Able Magazine was invited by the German National Tourist Board to visit Berlin. Their ‘Barrier Free’ program is showing how places can become truly inclusive and disability friendly. In so doing they’re enabling more disabled travellers to visit this great Capital.

Here’s another postcard from our visit:

We sometimes forget that we live on an extraordinary sphere. The Phaeno science centre reminds us that the Earth is full of phenomena that we can experience every day.

The awe and wonder which visitors will find in spades at Phaeno starts as you alight from the Deutche Bahn train in Wolfsburg. The Phaeno science centre is right next door and its intriguing curves and angles are genuinely striking. In fact, what may be architect Zaha Hadid’s masterpiece has been named as one of the 12 most significant modern buildings in the world by the Guardian newspaper.

The building sets the tone for the amazing things you’re about to see: balls that roll uphill, objects that move under the influence of your brainwaves and other whizz-bang stuff are all part of the package.

Lots of museum-style attractions are currently trying to catch the prevailing ‘interactive’ wind but few succeed without alienating at least a portion of their audience. It’s a very difficult thing to balance between making something interactive and fun without turning it into a mindless collection of toys.

Designing Experiments

Speaking with Christophe and Davy, the two scientists responsible for engineering the individual experiments I was able to understand how they preserved the integrity of the message without making it either too dusty or too whacky. “We all behave like a child if we discover something” says Davy; in other words the focus isn’t on making the exhibits fun it’s about helping people to gently discover phenomena for themselves – which is fun in itself – or satisfying, or amazing or exhilarating – all things that we like to enjoy. It doesn’t always go to plan from the start and modifications need to be made as Christophe points out: “We never know how the public will deal with the exhibits.”

Phaeno is not the place for ‘dumbing down’ where science is reduced to silliness. Rather, it is made accessible by yes, broadening the appeal through experimentation but allowing people to follow their own path. To a certain extent, even the accessibility is thought out along similar values. A table top experiment that’s out of the reach of very small children is not placed on a low table; rather, there is a block for children to stand on. The gentle message here is to ‘step up’.

Some of the exhibits are certainly fun and from time-to-time it’s difficult to suppress a yelp of surprise such as when seemingly, the entire ‘Witches House’ pitches and rolls whilst you sit inside – it doesn’t, of course; it’s a test of the eyes – and of the stomach. The ‘Crazy Saloon’ similarly plays with senses of perspective and our judgement of vertical and horizontal and Davy tells me that these two installations in particular are the ones that every visiting school kid wants to try out.

Safe but Exciting

Bottling up excitement is a dangerous experiment in itself so I also asked the director of the centre, Michel Junge, how he deals with dangerous phenomena – without putting the public in danger. Curiously, even the answer is somewhat experimental in that it’s based on what he has experienced before: “If it looks safe, people behave like idiots”. In other words, with boring and safe come the catalysts known as frustration and stupidity – a cocktail that really does spell danger when the experiments and equipment are abused.

Junge allows visitors to bring their own responsibility to the experiments and this seems to work, although there are plenty of staff milling around to help out and keep experiments running properly. In any case, we aren’t talking about toxic or deadly stuff in the main – just things that could injure, if you really put your mind to it!

Speaking of which, one of the big set pieces is the fire whirlwind. This six metre display of hot flame is ignited by staff every half hour or so at which point much of the centre seems to turn to watch as the flame spirals up through a porthole. It’s an amazing and appropriately dramatic finale to any visit.

New Understanding

The entire design of Phaeno is such that everybody can discover the satisfaction of understanding something new. The building and different areas within it are all perfectly accessible and indeed the experiments are all very well thought-through and put together so that different needs are covered (regarding sensory and physical impairments).

In fact, thinking along these very lines, Davy recognises that the centre can be pretty frantic and is slightly concerned about older visitors or those that tire more frequently. He asked me if he should build in resting spots for them even though this wouldn’t necessarily fit in with the dynamic and intriguing nature of the environment.

Whilst it’s true that there are few really quiet spots in the centre I suggested that the science continue, with perhaps visitors taking part in that age-old activity: ‘people watching’ and forming an experiment around a quiet five minute rest stop.

A final point I raised with the director, was that as somebody with a very systematic nature, I was in some way frustrated by not having one single, directed route, guaranteeing that I would ‘see’ all of the experiments. Mr Junge explained that this was a deliberate policy and that visitors are guided simply by their curiosity, usually triggered by a movement or sound. Fair enough, I thought, although again in some ways, it’s almost as though the visitors are the real experiment here.

I finished my own tour of Phaeno knowing a bit more about the world we live in and having had my eyes opened to the wonders I simply walk past every day.