Life & Science

Life, Science and Intelligent Birds - An Interview with Auguste von Bayern


Auguste von Bayern is scientist at the Zoology Department of Oxford University, specialized in comparative cognition and the mind and intelligence of crows and parrots. The goal of her research is to unravel the mental abilities of these species which are very distantly related to humans, but yet so intelligent. In 2011 she founded an initiative for the establishment of a Natural History and Life Sciences Museum Bavaria.

Let’s talk about the museum “Mensch und Natur” and how you want to turn it into Europe's leading Life Science Museum.

Auguste von Bayern: The current situation is that we have no presentable Museum of Life Sciences in Bavaria. The Deutsche Museum focuses only on innovation and new technologies. The whole life science area is merely represented by a tiny museum in Munich, the Museum of “Mensch und Natur” (= Man and Nature), which was originally set up as a temporary institution. This museum opened in 1990 and has hardly changed ever since. However, it’s still a loadstone and shows how strong the potential demand is. Each year they have to reject around 1500 school classes.

Right now, a whole wing of the Nymphenburg Castle, next to the existing museum, is vacant and could be convert it into a large Life Science Center. This is the opportunity to create a truly great Life Sciences Museum of Bavaria or the whole of Europe. The Ministry of Science would like to build the life sciences museum, but to initiate this project politically and publicly, and to ensure its implementation, it takes civic commitment. We have to prove that the museum would be really appreciated with a citizens' initiative.

Mensch und Natur Museum

Floorplan and potential expansion of the Mensch und Natur Museum.

I was there with my school class when it was opened in the 90s. I remember how the museum really created a stir. However, science is rapidly advancing and, as you said, the current museum is hardly updated. On the other side, the success story continues apparently. Doesn’t the steady demand indicate some sort of satisfaction with the current museum? Why is this visionary project so urgent?

AvB: At that time it was one of the most modern educational museums that existed. It was incredibly interactive, a new idea at the time. We now need a new museum, especially because many new topics have emerged and others are only touched or not treated at all. Life Science is a huge area. As it deals with all processes of life, it’s a topic that constantly and directly affects us all. It’s about understanding ourselves and life around us, it's about health and illness, about your diet, how a person is structured, how our bodies work and also how our ecosystem works.

Could you walk ous through the virtual museum?

AvB: Life Sciences are a huge field of subjects ranging from Genetics, Microbiology to Ecology and Brain Research. Environmental sciences that deal with how mankind influences its planet Earth along with forecasts and what we need to do to ensure life on this planet. Then there are biotechnologies, which deal with how we can use our knowledge and life science research in order to keep the planet more viable, e.g. modern agriculture and techniques for developing sufficient food for the incredibly growing population. You could spend hours talking about various topics that are highly relevant and forward-looking. Exactly these issues will be addressed and explained in our museum, in such manner, that the average citizen of any age, regardless of their educational background, can go there and can be brought up to date on a specific topic. At the same time it creates a new generation of museums, where one no longer just passively walks though, but where you really get involved, making it a platform for discussion on topics relevant to the future. Thus you can get informed about state of the art science, such as stem cell research, genetic engineering or environmental issues like our climate change. You will be able to discuss these topics and hear other opinions, instead of only hearing about these topics in the tabloids.

You would think that such a project meets fertile ground, particularly here in Munich. where there is an economic focus on this field. Is that true or is it still difficult to mobilize the different parties? After all, it bears the potential to create a monument for life sciences in Munich.

AvB: The idea itself always fell on fertile ground: However, a museum for life sciences still presents a yawning gap in the museum landscape. The Bavarian Government has spent an enormous amount of money to promote biotechnology, cluster excellence as well as to update life science research. We have magnificent universities; Bavaria is definitely a leader in this field. It seems, however, as if young academics are dying out here. The link between schools and universities is missing. Another important purpose of the museum is to make research and life sciences exciting for the public. Many have reservations against them and don’t dare engaging with such matters. In Germany, we often discuss the lack of a specialized workforce in the STEM subjects – it’s because people are afraid of them. A museum would be the ideal place to inspire children and young people for natural sciences. By doing that, we could advance research again in an indirect way, because we are introducing a new generation. This is important, as these subjects will be decisive in the future. And you’re right, at the same time it could be a wonderful symbol. A bio center would be of interest to some professionals, but it doesn’t mean anything to the general public. A vivid life science museum and public platform, where current research is implemented, that’s something people can identify with.

Raven in Lab

You’re a scientist yourself – has your research pulled you into the museum project?

AvB: Yes, absolutely. I co-created this initiative, because I am a scientist and because I am convinced that it’s very important to take away people’s reservations and fill them with enthusiasm for research. My own background is intelligence research, which is a relatively new field. It’s about examining the thoughts of animals to demonstrate what capabilities they have and how complex their thought processes are. We are working with an Oxford research group on the intelligence of birds. We have been able to show that ravens and parrots, which are the most intelligent birds according to their brain size, have the same level of intelligence as anthropoid apes, our next of kin. The fact is astounding: we discovered that animals, whose last common ancestor with us died 310 million years ago, have a capability of developing similar intelligence levels as anthropoid apes. That is the most fascinating aspect of this field of study: we can learn about the evolution of intelligence in general.

Auguste von Bayern will speak at the upcoming DLDwomen conference, taking place in Munich July 15 - 16, 2013. Apply for a ticket to this exclusive conference, tune in on the beat of our community on the DLDpulse and find regular updates on the DLDw13 programme and speakers here.