Article Index

Preparations and context of the exhibition

by Cornelia E Nauen

The countless festivities of the Bicentenary of Latin American independence from former colonial powers are a great reminder of how much our histories are intertwined and cast long shadows until today, even when we now look at some of those relatively recent developments through different glasses. There is certainly more to be recorded than political and economic developments, important though they are for the course of history and our contemporary lives.

We (Mundus maris) were asked by CERCAL, the Centre for Latin America Studies at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), to develop an exhibition that would strengthen the interdisciplinary character of an international colloquium, they were organising in collaboration with the Belgian Federal Public Service for Foreign Affairs and supported by the Spanish Presidency of the European Union and others, to commemorate the Bicentenary of Latin American independence. The title of the Colloquium was "¡Libertad! Latin America/Caribbean and Europe - From Common Roots towards an Alliance for the 21st Century" and was scheduled to take place in the Egmont Palace II in Brussels, Belgium, 11 - 12 February 2010. The event was also a contribution towards the 175 anniversary celebrations of the Free University of Brussels.

The colloquium was intended to explore historical, political, socio-economic perspectives and looked for new cross-fertilisation between different fields of enquiry. The environmental dimension of past and future relations between Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe were only addressed in passing. The exhibition in response to the invitation can not come near towards filling this gap. It can only be an opportunity to signal that it is necessary to pay attention to the all-encompassing nature of which our societies on both sides of the Atlantic are part. As Mundus maris, we naturally place particular attention to the Seas, to which we owe our lives and which were also the route by which the European explorers first met Latin America. It was in this context that the poster exhibition was displayed in public for the first time.

The development of the exhibition centered on being an unassuming reminder that the physical, biological and social world of 200 hundred years ago holds some noteworthy lessons for us today. At least we believe it does, as we ask ourselves how to turn the corner towards more sustainable ways of living and sharing the one planet we have. We would like to ensure that our children and grand children can still (or again) enjoy some of the beauty and diversity that has been lost to pressures fed by human demography and unsustainable production and consumption patterns.

The International Initiative 'Mundus maris – Sciences and Arts for Sustainability' is precisely focused on bringing different strands of human knowledge and search for sustainable relations with our natural and social environments together. It proposes doing so in ways that recognise us as part of nature and strive to engage schools and young people in this quest. We observe that  doing science without critical engagement with society creates long delays in making scientifically validated knowledge available to societies at large. A strong social and ethical context for scientific enquiry is also the most robust way to avoid or at least reduce negative unintended consequences that can otherwise arise and are already manifest. The painting of Melina Höhn of Helmholtz-Gymnasium Hilden, Germany, is entitled 'Mother Nature cares for her child' and is an artistic reaction following confrontation of results of scientific research.

The combination with the arts, aesthetic education, respect for and interaction with traditional ecological knowledge in different societies and implicit forms of knowledge form a richer and more robust foundation for developing cooperation based on mutual interest, respect and benefit across generational, physical, political and other boundaries.

This exhibition places emphasis on the exemplary qualities of Charles Darwin, who was born in the period marking the independence of Latin American countries. His modern inquisitive and open-minded approach has still much to teach us today. He already voiced concerns that overexploitation may threaten the survival of marine life and humans in the southern cone. Little could he know though how deeply the onslaught of advanced technologies, a bit more than a century on, would affect marine and coastal ecosystems and their human dwellers.

The posters of this exhibition show only some facets of how scientific understanding has evolved 'standing on the shoulders of giants' such as Darwin. It also illustrates that it is possible to take the science outside the expert circles – very much into the public arena, where it was during Darwin's time – and engage artists and schools with their young people.

Engaging here is intended as sharing knowledge at different levels, inviting own critical enquiry and expression. Engaging is also intended not to stop at diagnosis, but cooperate around sustainable alternatives to the profound crisis in nature and society that affects us all. We are not all affected in quite the same way, we are strung together in more ways than most of us realise in their daily lives. This is apparent from the research and also experienced by the young people joining the journey. We are inviting visitors to join as well and contribute their perspectives and active solidarity on the next steps of this journey.