Jeter Bertoletti

Jeter Bertoletti: Builder of collections

Rio Grande do Sul museologist discusses the challenges of balancing research with science communication and organizing interactive exhibits

Jeter BertolettiFernanda ChemaleThe personal collection of a young student was the seed for the collection now held by the Science and Technology Museum (MCT) at Pontifical Catholic University in the state of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), housed in a stately 22,000-square-meter building on the campus of that southern Brazilian university. Biologist and museologist Jeter Bertoletti enrolled at that institution in the 1960s to study Natural History, bringing with him an immense interest in science. In the basement of his home was a collection of rocks, minerals and small animals, including spiders, scorpions and snakes, which he had accumulated since the age of seven. That collection gave rise to the Zoology Museum at PUCRS, the precursor to the present-day MCT, to which Bertoletti devoted his life’s work until he retired in 2007. Over a period of more than four decades, he expanded the museum’s holdings through acquisitions, collections and donations of materials and objects from the fields of archeology, paleontology, zoology, botany and mineralogy. He also helped design many of the more than 700 chemistry and physics experiments available at the museum.

The time he devoted to science communication did not keep him from doing research. There were projects organized at the MCT to breed fish, shrimp and crabs—a research activity that he helped to develop in Rio Grande do Sul with the same enthusiasm he devoted to museology. One of his most widely influential initiatives was the Mullet Project, which selected environments suitable for sustainable fish breeding. Concurrently, he studied morphological features of fish, and even described a new species, Trachelyopterus lucenai.

Bertoletti supports the idea that science museums and centers should be places for scientific production. “The collections have scientific appeal and serve as a support structure for training people in curation, for example, or taxonomy,” he says.

Natural History, Museology and Aquaculture
PUCRS (undergraduate, PhD and associate professorship)
Scientific production
More than 150 scientific papers and 17 books and book chapters. Advisor for 163 undergraduate and graduate projects

In 2007, the museologist was awarded the 27th José Reis Science Communication Award by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). That recognition was credited in part to his pioneering efforts in creating PROMUSIT, Brazil’s first traveling museum, transported in a specially designed truck. It was inaugurated in 2001 and became a model for such exhibitions. At the age of 76, the researcher now divides his time between two houses he designed as his residences, in the cities of Porto Alegre and Canela.

How did you become interested in the natural sciences?
I studied at the Nossa Senhora do Rosário Marist School in Porto Alegre, where the subjects gravitated towards nature. Some of the Marist Brothers were working on natural history, and that attracted my attention. When I was seven, I went out with some schoolmates looking for precious stones in Porto Alegre, which is located in a granitic region. We excavated hills and found things like quartz. I started collecting. We had a big basement in our house, where I kept these minerals and crystals. Besides rocks and minerals, I kept a few creatures, like spiders, scorpions and snakes.

You became a collector….
I already had that tendency. Over time, I started identifying species. My collection was growing, without any guidance from teachers. My parents encouraged me to study medicine, but I ended up pursuing Natural History at PUCRS. That undergraduate degree no longer exists in Brazil. It offered a much broader concept of nature. Since I had put together a large collection of minerals and animals, I already had in mind that I would work on science museums.

So you’ve had the desire to create a science museum ever since childhood?
It started becoming clear to me when I entered college. The program at PUCRS did not have a museum, although it was well-equipped with microscopes, for example. In my first year there I started organizing the program’s collections on my own. Between 1960, when I started, and 1967, I organized a wonderful collection with the support of then-President José Otão and Professor Jacob Kuhn that later became the PUCRS Natural History Museum. Part of the mineral collection had been acquired from Germany by Faustino João, a Marist Brother who was then the university’s science director. He spoke several languages, so he could easily order those minerals from Europe.

Were you inspired at the time by examples in other countries?
I had no knowledge of experiences abroad then – I was just a student. In 1961, while in the second year of the program, I started working at PUC as a mineralogy guide, a complex subject area. Later I was a guide for zoology and plant physiology. In a way, that helped further my enjoyment of science communication. But I followed what was happening in the world by way of international journals. I read about museums, mainly in European countries and the United States. They were large museums, but very static. The concept of interactivity, with dynamic activities like we have nowadays, is more recent. As a result, I started to think then about doing something new in Brazil—a museum that could house not only collections, but basic and applied research laboratories as well.

Bertoletti (center) presenting the Mullet Project to authorities in Rio Grande do Sul (RS) in the 1970s

Personal archives Bertoletti (center) presenting the Mullet Project to authorities in Rio Grande do Sul (RS) in the 1970sPersonal archives

How was the museum organized initially?
It had 220 m2 of exhibits, with about 7,000 objects from fields such as archeology, zoology, botany, paleontology, geology, etc. There was a replica of a three-meter-tall mastodon. We had several marine and freshwater aquariums and about 30 interactive devices that I made to explain concepts of physics and chemistry. I think it’s important to point out that in the 1970s I worked as a mathematics teacher and biology coordinator for two schools in Rio Grande do Sul: the Nossa Senhora do Rosário Marist School, where I studied, and the Júlio de Castilhos State School. I created science museums at both of them. They had highly qualified teaching staffs, laboratories, libraries. So I started introducing practical classes to the students at those schools.

Some students get to college without ever having set foot in a laboratory.
Yes, and I was concerned about that at the time. I saw that the exchange of scientific information and the popularization of science should have a presence in every school. In the capital, in municipalities, at the state and federal levels. Even now there is still a dearth of practical classes for teaching subjects like microscopy, morphology, or animal anatomy. For example, microscopy of micro-organisms, living or on slides. I was an advisor on an amateur film with students, about the anatomy of an ailing stray dog. There were so many roundworms in that animal and throughout several of its organs, such as the liver and pancreas, that it would certainly die within a few days. The film was distributed in several cities, including Brasília. The problem is that our teachers are generally unprepared to teach in that way. And that’s not to even mention the lack of resources and infrastructure. The Júlio de Castilhos State School, for example, had infrastructure and laboratories during my time. Now, much of it has been scrapped. There’s just a small museum, but it’s not very functional.

The museum later became known as the Science and Technology Museum?
Yes. The name changed later on for one simple reason: I saw that chemistry, physics, technology and other fields of knowledge had no presence at the Natural History Museum. Space was needed for those fields. The museum was already drawing many visitors; one month, it attracted more than 2,000 students. At that point I started expanding it with content from other fields. The word “technology” wasn’t added until 1993. Today the PUCRS Science and Technology Museum has 22,000 m2, with a distinctive architectural design, and sits in a prime location on the university campus. The building has five floors and two mezzanines that house the exhibit area, the scientific and educational collection, the research and teacher-training laboratories, as well as workshops and administrative offices. There are also adjacent spaces, such as machine shops, art workshops, storage rooms, a serpentarium, space for aquaculture, and garages. All in all, there are more than 700 experiments in about 20 thematic areas, such as the Universe, Electricity and Magnetism, and Man.

How did the museum arrive at its current configuration?
We were spread out over several buildings until the mid-1980s. In 1985, Norberto Rauch, then the president, asked me for a design. In 1988 I handed over a flowchart that harmonized with the curriculum in schools, exploring biology, zoology, botany, chemistry, geography and history. Later, with help from Fundação Vitae, headed by Regina Weinberg, we familiarized ourselves with other international experiences in Mexico, the United States and Europe that have a configuration very different from ours.

Which science museums do you find most fascinating, that serve as international reference points for our times?
Each one has its own characteristics that arose through tradition or innovation. Attractiveness, interactivity, teaching and learning all vary. With my knowledge of more than 50 museums, I can name a few. To be sure, the best museums are in the Northern Hemisphere and the more economically developed countries. The American Museum of Natural History in New York, for example, is very well-known for its vast fossil collection. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington has over 120 million objects and is very strong in research, especially on fish. The Museum of Science in Boston is very interactive and dynamic, and covers several areas of human knowledge. It has a great director, David Ellis, with whom I worked in Porto Alegre, Minas Gerais and São Paulo. Physics and mathematics are well represented there. It also has attractions on dinosaurs and the shark from the famous film Jaws. The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is one of the largest examples of a modern museum. It is a masterpiece of architecture, with interactive areas, specialized exhibits and outstanding biology research. There’s also the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris. It’s an enormous and famous science park, not to mention a post card for the French capital, along with the Louvre. I also have to mention the Deutsches Museum in Munich, one of the largest and most traditional museums in the world. It has a high profile in technology and natural sciences. And the Natural History Museum in London, with important collections in life sciences and the Earth.

In the 1970s, you created a graduate program offered by the museum. Should a science museum also be a training center?
In 1972, I headed a project for Capes [the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education] to create a program in osteology, the science that studies bones. I got a lot of criticism at the time. Many people told me a museum cannot be a teaching or research institution. The president’s office told me that having a graduate program was not one of the museum’s functions. So I canceled the program and the students were accepted into the graduate program in paleontology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, where they could identify femurs of fossilized animals, for example. The collections have scientific appeal and provide support for training in curation or taxonomy. Today there are three graduate programs ongoing at the museum – Zoology, Archeology, and Science and Mathematics Education – that have hundreds of students.

Expedition organized by Bertoletti in the 1970s to select fish for research

Personal archives Expedition organized by Bertoletti in the 1970s to select fish for researchPersonal archives

The work of the museum was supported by a science communication journal. What is your assessment of that experience?
I created and was editor of two scientific journals at the museum, Comunicações Científicas and Divulgações do MCT-PUCRS. Unfortunately, PUC did away with them at the end of my tenure in 2007. There must have been about 40 issues. They achieved good circulation worldwide. They enabled us to engage in robust international exchange, sending our journals to some of the world’s principal research institutions in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, England, Russia and the United States, and receiving copies of publications from those institutions. With the journals we received, I set up a library of more than 40,000 volumes. I left those materials at the museum, but PUCRS, which has one of the largest libraries in South America, incorporated those volumes into its main library.

You started your work on fish in the 1960s?
Besides my work with museums, I also did research, with support from CNPq. I studied fish collected in Guaíba Lake and Laguna dos Patos. The objective was to learn about the fauna in general and identify species. The research began inside the museum, and I had help from students in the Natural History program who were interning at the museum and received a certificate when they finished. During that time, I described and published findings on a new species of fish, Trachelyopterus lucenai. In all, I probably have over 50 papers in that area. At the same time, I was also an environmental consultant. I was hired by entities including the National Consortium of Consulting Engineers of São Paulo, the company Hidroservice and other large Brazilian and foreign companies to coordinate environmental impact studies for hydroelectric power plant construction. This involved a complex environmental survey that included fauna, flora, geology, archeology, etc. I coordinated teams of over 100 people, researchers who went into the field.

You worked in São Paulo, right?
Yes, in the 1960s I interned at the Zoology Museum at the University of São Paulo, which was headed by Paulo Vanzolini, one of the world’s greatest researchers of lizards. He gave me all the structure needed to do research and wanted me to stay with him, working on fish. After some time, I got a copy of the key to the museum and would go there on Saturdays and Sundays too. Vanzolini set me up in the home of a family near the museum, and they rented me the master bedroom. During that time I also got a lot of support from the zoologist Heraldo Britski of the Zoology Museum, whose field is ichthyology, the study of fish.

In what ways has your work in identifying fish species benefited the museum at PUCRS?
In my view, science museums and research should go hand in hand. Today, most museums in Brazil do not do research. There are, of course, bibliographic and collection inventories, but there’s no interest in investing in actual scientific research. In my case, I was focused on maintaining some 50 researchers there at the museum, who spent their time exclusively in the ichthyology, herpetology, paleontology and ornithology laboratories. We even organized an edition of the International Ichthyology Conference at the museum, with over 300 researchers from all over the world. Our laboratory was an international reference, and because of that I received invitations to visit laboratories in the United States.

Early days of the Science and Technology Museum: students take part in a practical class

Personal archives Early days of the Science and Technology Museum: students take part in a practical classPersonal archives

In 1974 you created the Mullet Project. What was that like?
Shrimp and fish production in Laguna dos Patos was declining rapidly at the time. Fishing communities were in crisis, and the fishing industry in Rio Grande do Sul was also doing poorly. I started leading oceanographic expeditions, partnered with the state government, to look for fish. The idea was to collect species and expand the scientific collection for research, and at the same time identify marine fish in Rio Grande do Sul. The state agriculture department had a working group dedicated to developing the fishing industry. I proposed that the department modify the way fish breeding is structured in the municipality of Osório, as a way to introduce economic pisciculture in several parts of the state, and to implement an environmental selection project in estuarine and marine waters to establish breeding grounds for economically important species such as mullet, sole, shrimp and crabs.

How did that project work out?
We introduced mariculture in the city of Tramandaí, for breeding mussels. We also introduced oysters at the mouth of the Tramandaí River, but it didn’t work out very well. Some of my students then took the idea to the state of Santa Catarina and even some states in the Northeast. And we took the project to Saco do Justino, an estuary in Laguna dos Patos. Between 1976 and 1978, the region produced 70,000 kilos of shrimp and more than 100,000 kilos of mullet. The major local processors—who buy and process the fish—were astonished. With the project in place, 30 shrimp now weighed nearly one kilo, for example. They wanted me to help them, but my objective was always to benefit the fishermen most in need. What I did was to create natural feeding zones, and introduce chemical fertilization for the fish farms. These areas attracted fish, shrimp and crabs. I got rice bran and scattered it around every day. In all, I did 19 aquaculture projects in Rio Grande do Sul.

You pioneered PROMUSIT in Brazil—PUCRS’ traveling science museum. How did that idea come to you?
I was attending a documentary about Questacon, Australia’s traveling exhibition project. A researcher there obtained funding and purchased a cargo truck, which was then adapted and turned into a museum on wheels that held several scientific experiments and attractions. The truck still travels the Australian countryside and visits underserved locations that have never seen physics and biology experiments. Something inside me clicked! A desire to do something similar in Brazil. I set up the project at home and it started to become functional in 2001. The project was submitted to Vitae for evaluation, and they approved funding for the whole thing. The initial objective was to serve just Rio Grande do Sul, but over time the truck started traveling to other states. Between 2001 and December 2007, when I left the museum, there were 92 exhibits serving a total of 1.7 million people.

Demand grew over time, and we were unable to serve everyone. There were 138 unfulfilled requests in Rio Grande do Sul, 10 in Santa Catarina, five in Paraná, and three in São Paulo. In addition to 60 interactive experiments, on average, there are also educational workshops. It’s not just experiments. The offerings include science theater, talks, 3-D films, and microscopy with living specimens as well as laboratory-prepared slides.

You also created the School-Science Project (Proesc). Tell me about that.
Unlike PROMUSIT, Proesc uses a bus that travels around serving students and teachers in schools that are demonstrably disadvantaged. Another goal is to serve those with special needs, street kids. The bus brings children and adults to the MCT from different locales. At the museum, they spend the day under the guidance of teachers, and free refreshments are served at PUCRS restaurants. With Proesc, the bus goes looking for the kids.

One of the functions of these traveling projects is to go to places where there are no established museums, right?
Yes. The number of science museums in Brazil is clearly insignificant, considering the fact that there are over 5,500 municipalities and a population of 205 million. We should have many more science museums in Brazil. We’re far from that, and there is justifiable need for each city to have at least one science museum or center. We are living in a special time that demands we all mobilize to raise awareness about the importance of science and technology, not just for students, but for all of society.

In addition to numbering few—about 272 according to the Guide to Science Museums and Centers in Latin America and the Caribbean—the museums are also concentrated mostly in the South and the Southeast.
Precisely. The cultural index or measure of a people is proportional to the number and quality of its science museums and centers. In Brazil, these institutions began to actually emerge as a cultural activity only three or four decades ago. And this is not something that should be envisioned only to serve students. It’s for all of society. A museum is a tool for improving educational quality and presenting knowledge in an entertaining, interactive way. The presentation of any science activity is a complex task; it calls for precisely defined content. A captivating presentation becomes essential in order to facilitate assimilation and learning. Every teacher should be given the opportunity to seek training through coursework, technical meetings, lectures, symposia and internships. Schools should have appropriate physical and architectural infrastructure, including laboratories and virtual libraries, as well as essential and current works, and space for meetings and discussions of educational issues, and for lectures, conferences and interactive exhibits produced by the students, along the lines of student fairs.