This week, the Michelin restaurant guide attributed its coveted stars based on rigorous criteria that most food critics call bread and circus. Similarly, when evaluating cultural venues for accessibility, I look at both the environment and its content. For example, if a restaurant appears convivial and its menu appetizing the dining experience is usually positive. There is always the exception where excellent food is served in a place, as the french say, ” ne paie pas de mine “. In other words, all effort went into the kitchen rather than the decor. So it follows that some cultural establishments build a ramp to meet disability requirements without considering what visitors might do inside or even understanding that all handicaps are not physical or even visible.
The Palais de la Découverte in the west wing of the Grand Palais, built for the Paris universal exposition in 1900, is a lovely example of Beaux Art architecture. The majestic staircase leading to the main entrance is not inviting to people with reduced mobility and impossible for wheelchair users. While we stood outside on the steps with our autistic son, waiting to go through security, winter’s wind swirled around us. I grew cold and negative. If they did not take care to remove the museum’s physical barriers, how can we expect its displays to be accessible? My husband did not share my concern. He enthusiastically recounted his best childhood memories of “hair-raising” experiments. Their planetarium ignited his life-long love affair with Big Bang theory. Once inside, I have to admit being blown away myself by the sumptuous ornamental detail from the glass-domed ceiling to the mosaic ceramic tile floor.
One doesn’t normally equate art with science but that is an error the STEM to STEAM movement aims to correct. The creative approach of artists and designers propels innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Evidence is in the work of the artist and inventor Leonardo Da Vinci. Art and architecture have always been a factor at the Palais de la Découverte. The ticket agent gave us a schedule of presentations and a floor plan that reminded me more of a theater than a science museum. Each day there are about 50 demonstrations of scientific experiments scattered throughout the museum in six domaines: astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, mathematics and physics. During the summer there are presentations in English. Fundamental principals as well as recent discoveries are spectacularly staged by a passionate research team. Also, like a participatory art installation, visitors are compelled to create their own experiments through interactive exhibits or enter into a debate with the mediateurs.
As we moved through the different departments, it was obvious that our son was intrigued by the interactive experiences. I noticed that the information was in three languages and braille. The videos had subtitles for visitors with hearing impairments. The explanations stated the purpose of the display or experience rather than impart knowledge. Draw your own conclusions. The amphitheater seating around the oral presentations was quite full but my son was pleased to squeeze in among the young adults. As he sat quietly listening, his expression the same as the neurotypical audience, it occurred to me that the statistician’s enthusiasm for game theory was as contagious as the bacteria we just saw in the life sciences display. It is ironic that, just as willing research participants don’t know if they are taking medicine or placebo, those presenting don’t know who among the youth will just acquire a taste for science or who will discover a vocation. The scientists treated everyone the same, including our son.
I had been too quick to judge the lack of material support for autistic visitors but left appreciative of the human interaction. Universcience‘s objective is to make science, the laws of the universe, accessible to everyone through hands-on experiences and oral demonstrations. Its goal is to inspire curiosity about the world around us. The encounters between scientists and non-scientists, neurotypical and differently-abled has the potential to unlock minds. While I believe there is room for improvement, if we had turned away from the entrance we would have missed out on both celestial stars and star-worthy bread and circus.
The Palais de la Découverte is in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. The entrance is on Avenue Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is not wheelchair accessible so visitors with reduced mobility must call ahead, or email, and ask to use entrance B at 3 rue General Eisenhower. An “agent d’accueil” is also needed to use the elevators to go from the ground level to the upper level. Admission is free for people with a disability and one companion. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01 40 74 80 70
The accessibility page on the website is in English but not as detailed as the French version. Both invite visitors to call or email to organise a tour adapted for specific needs and interests. In French, there are categories according to disability and suggestions for themed exhibits and demonstrations particularly suited and accessible with appropriate supports for example to reserve a French sign language interpreter.
When to visit: Closed on Mondays and certain holidays. Open Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am to 6:00pm. Sundays 10:00am to 7:00pm. The best time to avoid lines is during the week and students pay only 3 euros after 3:00pm. We went on a Saturday, however, and waited in line to get in but once inside did not feel crowded except during presentations. It is possible to reserve your seat at the live demonstrations.
Restrooms : Wheelchair accessible restrooms are on the ground level behind the cafeteria.
Food and Beverage : On the upper level there is a café that sells “healthy fast food” meaning over the counter sandwiches, salads, sweets and beverages. You can eat at one of several bistro-style chairs overlooking the circular entrance hall or take-away. There is a lovely garden on the Grand Palais grounds. Open 10am-5:30pm
Bus: Lines 28, 42, 52, 63, 72, 73, 80, 83, 93
Metro: Champs Elysées-Clemenceau (lines 1 and 13) Franklin D.Roosevelt (lines 1 and 9)
RER C: Invalides across the bridge
Which option is best suited to your needs? Checkout GlobetrotTED under ViaNavigo!