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Andrés Roldán: Scientific and civic vocation

Parque Explora in Medellín promotes urban transformation

Roldán at Parque Explora, which provides services to third parties as a cultural company

Mário Quintero / Parque Explora

A symbol of social transformation in a city that was once considered the most violent in the world, Parque Explora in Medellín is one of the most visited museums in Colombia and a shining example in Latin America. The municipality, situated in the Andes mountain range, is the second largest in the country and was one of the cities that suffered most from the armed conflict that began in the 1960s and officially ended when the government signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) in 2016. Medellín became the epicenter of the urban violence unleashed between paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug traffickers, and state agents, especially between the 1980s and 1990s.

The museum, created in 2007 near what was the city dump for over 40 years, offers more than 300 experiences to promote the social appropriation of knowledge in science, technology, biodiversity, and innovation. It also has an aquarium and a vivarium that house more than 2,000 animals rescued from illegal trafficking and possession. Parque Explora also functions as a cultural company, providing consulting services to third parties and spaces for events, seminars, and shows.

In an interview given to Pesquisa FAPESP at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ), Andrés Roldán, executive director of the museum for almost a decade, spoke about the institution’s social impacts in a city that has set a benchmark in social urbanism over the last 20 years through the adoption of innovation-focused public policies and projects. In the interview, Roldán, who has a degree in industrial design from the Pontifical Bolivarian University, addressed Parque Explora’s unique business models, which ensure it is financially sustainable and allow it to be run almost entirely without public funding.

How was Parque Explora created?
Explora opened its doors in December 2007. It was the result of significant public investment by the city of Medellín in the construction of the building, the infrastructure, and the first version of the experiences. Medellín receives income from a public utility company called Empresas Públicas de Medellín, one of the largest in Colombia. The company belongs to the city government and even operates overseas on various projects, including sanitation, electricity supply, and solid waste management. This gives the city a more robust budget than other places in the country. In 2004, the city government was led by Colombian mathematician Sérgio Fajardo, who has an honorary doctorate from the Menéndez Pelayo International University in Spain and was formerly a professor at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, the country’s capital. Pelayo believed a science museum would be a strategic investment for the city and began working on development of the major project. The creation of Parque Explora is part of a movement that has been growing over the last 20 years to create cultural spaces, museums, libraries, parks, and sports complexes in marginal and peripheral neighborhoods of the city.

What was the situation regarding violence and armed conflict in the city in 2007?
The most violent period caused by drug trafficking and armed conflict ended in 2002. After that, the city underwent many changes and violent crime fell dramatically. The drop has to do with major investments in social integration, especially in peripheral neighborhoods like Comuna 13, which has a history of transformation and has now become a tourist spot. Parks, libraries, and spaces for recreation, arts, and sports were built in the heart of the slums, which today can be accessed by the modern cable car system, improving their connections to the city center.

What is the region like where the museum was built?
We are located in the neighborhood of Aranjuez. Despite being a relatively central area, we are on the boundary between the planned city and the so-called self-built city—what some people call the slums. Next to us is the region of Moravia, where the city landfill used to be. The garbage was piled 30 meters high over an area of 7 hectares. It reached full capacity and was closed in the 1980s. Later, the neighborhood came to be inhabited by migrants from rural areas, who settled here in search of better opportunities after fleeing from violence and conflict. Over the years it has grown and developed and is currently one of the most densely populated places in the world. Moravia is a small and popular area that 30 years ago was full of cardboard shelters and now has brick houses with three or four floors. The place where the museum is located is part of a large urban transformation project. In the same area as Parque Explora, there is the Botanical Garden, renovated between 2005 and 2007, a planetarium, and Parque de los Deseos [Park of Desires], a public park with trees and water features used for cultural and scientific activities. In 2021, the park was the site of demonstrations and protests against the social crisis faced by the country, which was worsened by the pandemic. It has become something of a battleground between young people and the police.

Parque Explora is part of a broader project by Medellín’s city government to promote social change

What do these spaces have in common?
The primary mission of Parque Explora and these other institutions is to promote and disseminate scientific and technological culture in society. We are near the University of Antioquia and Ruta N, a development hub that focuses on technology and innovation, in an area that also has hospitals and medical research centers. In addition to its scientific vocation, the vision behind the project is to contribute to the city’s transformation and play a civic role, since it is located in a neighborhood where cultural events and activities take place, such as the Book Festival, the city’s biggest literary event.

How is the museum made financially sustainable?
Parque Explora is managed by a nonprofit entity called Corporación Parque Explora, which encompasses educational and communicational organizations, as well as private social foundations. The city government is represented on the board of directors. We receive a small financial contribution from the city to pay for public services such as security, cleaning, electricity, and water, but we need to be self-sustainable, to operate without public money. To achieve this, we have four lines of work. The first is the museum itself, which is the most visited in Colombia. We receive around 700,000 visitors a year just to exhibitions and museum activities, in addition to another 200,000 at events, seminars, and shows. In other words, our first line of business to ensure sustainability is operating the museum, which includes ticket sales, events, conferences, and activities in stores and restaurants. We also receive a subsidy from the local government so that we can offer free admission to residents from the poorest communities. About 100,000 people enjoy this benefit every year. In 2022, 120,000 students from public and private schools also entered the museum with subsidized fees.

And how do you determine who is entitled to these subsidies?
Residents of neighborhoods classified as part of Medellín’s strata 1, 2, and 3 do not pay admission. The inhabitants of these same vulnerable neighborhoods pay a lower amount for their electricity than the tariff paid by others living in higher-end neighborhoods. We can therefore tell from their electricity bill if the person lives in a vulnerable neighborhood. By presenting a bill, they can enter for free with five other people. We also have agreements with social allies, such as the Antioquia Family Compensation Fund, to help cover the costs of these admissions.

In addition to the museum, what are the park’s other sources of income?
Our second source of income is the consultancy services we offer for the creation of museums and exhibitions. We are working on conceptual designs for a natural history museum in Cali, we have just finished designing a visitor center on the Panama Canal, and we are helping develop a cultural center for the Dominican Republic. Our team in charge of projects for third parties involves some 100 people, including communicators, researchers, architects, and designers. We offer consulting services for the creation of itinerant museums, exhibitions, and strategies, from concept to development. The third source of income is from educational projects in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for schools. We are contracted by local and regional governments, companies, and private institutions to create robotics, science, and astronomy clubs and fairs, for example. On this front, we are part of a major international cooperative project with the USA, benefiting 150 schools in five Colombian cities that are home to the country’s biggest communities of Venezuelan immigrants. Our fourth source of funds is educational projects not linked to schools, aimed at young people from communities. These projects are usually contracted out by local governments. In 2022, we created a training program for female leaders from peripheral neighborhoods to teach them how to formulate and organize projects in their areas. To support these activities, we have a space called the Exploratorio [exploratorium], where we design and test different ideas with communities. The Exploratorio also functions as a citizen laboratory for carrying out art and science experiments.

Mário Quintero / Parque ExploraThe museum is based in a neighborhood on the border between the planned city and the self-built cityMário Quintero / Parque Explora

In other words, Parque Explora is a cultural enterprise.
Exactly. Last year, we had a staff of 600. Now we have 450, because we expand and shrink depending on the projects in progress at any given time. We work on a wide and challenging range of activities and we work hard. According to our legal system and our statute, we have to be able to operate without public money. We therefore have to constantly seek out new projects and opportunities.

Are science museums common in Colombia?
No. There are very few museums here the size of Parque Explora. In Bogotá, there is one called Maloka. More common are zoos and other traditional institutions. There is still a long way to go before we reach the ideal level, but I can see a growing interest from cities to invest in science projects and centers. In Colombia, engagement with science is called the social appropriation of knowledge. Our Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation has made a great effort to recognize science centers in the country, such as botanical gardens, zoos, interactive museums, university museums, natural history museums, and other organizations that help disseminate scientific culture. By recognizing these organizations, the ministry allows them to apply for funding through the General Royalties System, which includes royalties from oil and mining.

How did the pandemic impact the institution?
It was a tough period, we had negative years, by which I mean we lost money. Even so, we decided not to make any redundancies. At the same time, we became a digital resources hub for families and teachers, offering free online events and experiences through the Parque Explora en Casa platform. The platform is still in use, but at lower levels than the peak during the pandemic. But we have already recovered from the impacts of COVID-19. In 2022 we recorded the best financial results in our entire history.

Medellín also has the Casa de la Memoria museum. Could you talk a little about this other space of reference in the city?
In Colombia, there are not many people qualified to create and manage museums and exhibitions. Many institutions therefore ask us to act as co-creators of various initiatives. We advise those who have never designed a museum to ask the strategic questions needed to start coming up with the concept, the thematic mission, and finally, to build the space. That’s what we did with the Casa de la Memoria museum. The government decided to create the institution in 2008 as part of the Program for Victims of the Armed Conflict, and it opened in 2012. The Explora team designed the museum’s experience and content based on citizen surveys and consultations, through exercises for the collective construction of memories and symbolic reparation. Its purpose is to contribute to overcoming conflict and violence in Medellín, Antioquia, and nationwide. It is not easy to work with museum-related projects because often there is political will, but not enough money. You thus have to work in stages. The first step is to devise a statement that outlines the project’s mission and objectives, including its target audience and the type of experience it intends to provide. This first document serves as a starting point and supports the search for funding that will make the project viable until the end.