Double interview

Charlotte en Lucas samen op de foto
image: Bas van Hattum

No stone unturned

Charlotte Gentenaar is an educator. Luc Lourens is a scientist. They worked together on the Grondig Speuren (No Stone Unturned) room in the newly revamped University Museum Utrecht. In this room you can see for yourself how researchers look for signs that show how the earth has changed over the centuries. The darker and lighter layers in a core sample, for example, that say something about the climate at the time.

Afbeelding van Charlotte Gentenaar

Charlotte Gentenaar is educator at the University Museum Utrecht. She works on exhibitions and develops programmes for families and schools.

Afbeelding van Lucas Lourens

Lucas Lourens is professor of paleoclimatology at Utrecht University. He researches changes in climate through geology.

How do you actually create a museum room like this?

We talk to Charlotte and Luc at the museum, a few days before the official opening. How do you make this sort of complex research accessible to museum visitors? “Well, you start by asking: what can you see on the core sample?” says Charlotte Gentenaar, an educator at the museum. “They are immediately struck by the differences in colour in the core sample and the length of it and find this fascinating. We take visitors back in time through this core sample. In the Grondig Speuren room of the University Museum Utrecht (UMU) there is a replica of a core sample, a section of earth from under the Mediterranean Sea that was extracted by drilling. In the seven metre long core sample you can see a crosssection of the sedimentary deposits in the earth from the past 200,000 years, like the rings on a tree.”

Paleoclimatologist Luc: “As researchers, we investigate everything: differences in colour, changes in particle size, minerals, fossils of organisms, plants, pollen, spores and foraminifera (single-celled organisms with an external calcium shell, ed.). This provides us with information that we can use to make a reconstruction of the change in the climate over time”. 

Charlotte: “We want to tell people about the content of Luc’s research but, more importantly, we want to show them the research method that he uses, the way he makes connections. What do those darker and lighter layers in the core sample tell us, for example?” Luc adds: “And why do they keep coming back? You want to demonstrate that it is a pattern.” Charlotte explains that when they develop a room in the museum they try a lot of things out on visitors beforehand. “How do they find the level? Do they enjoy doing our activities? Based on their reactions and our own observations, we adjust things accordingly. Initially we tested the core sample with a drainpipe full of sand. During the pandemic, my colleagues made a paper prototype at home and asked people from the local area to come and give their thoughts on it. Sometimes we have to make difficult choices. If we see, for example, that visitors switch off because an activity takes too long. The reaction of the visitors tells us when something is good.” Luc: “What I wanted to do initially, for example, was to make a connection with ice ages, to compare the changes in CO2 over the same period. But that quickly became too complex, so since then we’ve tried to make things as simple as possible. How do you simplify information but still ensure that the message comes over effectively? I found this a huge challenge. I would have never been able to do this on my own.”

Let’s go on an expedition!

Charlotte nods to Luc: “Luc can talk very enthusiastically about his research. That is hugely inspiring for us here at the museum. We then ask him lots of questions to make sure we understand the material properly ourselves. The research is our starting point and, from this, we think about the type of behaviour we want to see and how we can make it happen. We believe that enjoyment, for example, is really important, and a sense of adventure: let’s go on an expedition. The UMU is a family museum, so we want visitors to do and experience things together, to talk to each other: What are we seeing now? What connections can we make? What do we know now?” Luc adds: “When you have to explain something to students you’re also sitting together behind the microscope. You show them how to take samples of material, how to wash soil. It’s a team effort, and that includes the engineers.”

The reaction of the visitors tells us when something is good

Afbeelding van Charlotte Gentenaar
Charlotte Gentenaar

Sense of wonder

“The most important thing for me is that people have a sense of wonder,” says Luc. “That visitors see that core sample and realise that it’s a time capsule. That the fossils in that core sample tell us something about the conditions in which they have been kept, and that that is related to climate. If we can get that message across, then I’m happy. I can’t have a normal holiday any more, because every rock tells me a story. At the end of the day, I just want to convey to people that there are stories everywhere for them to investigate, even in stones.” Charlotte: “Figuring things out is all part of it too, making connections between the different bits as people talk about them and the sense of wonder when they look at those tiny fossils through the microscope.”

“Well, it’s all so normal for me and trivial…” laughs Luc. “I really like seeing people with that sense of wonder that I once had when I looked through a microscope for the first time. I still do that with students. They can wash their own samples and then we look for those foraminifera. Initially it’s just a lump of mud. Once it’s been washed some of that mud has gone, and they then start to see things and I hear their amazement … .”

“…it’s almost like panning for gold,” adds Charlotte, enthusiastically. “It’s that sense of adventure again. And what I find amazing,” she says to Luc, “… is that you show us that even the position of the sun in relation to the earth’s axis has an impact on the climate, and that you can deduce something so big from something as tiny as foraminifera. It’s really fantastic.” Luc nods: “…exactly, it’s those patterns.”

I want people to be amazed

Charlotte en Lucas in het museum. Charlotte wijst iets aan van de collectie.

How does science work?

Why does Luc believe it is important to be involved with all this? “I believe it’s important to teach people how planet Earth works. I want to give them insights into how this research is done, and to let them know that we are still learning in this regard. And that, when we talk about this, we don’t base what we say on an opinion but rather on scientific research.”

Charlotte: “That’s exactly what we’re aiming for here in our museum: to give people an understanding of how science works, so they can appreciate it. I think that’s what sets us apart from other museums. We don’t just show the results of science, we look at the process. If you’re curious and you have a question, how do you research it? How can you get an answer? How do you approach this and what are the various methods available to you?”

Luc: “There will also be a lot of people who go away with more questions than they came in with. That’s how research works: it encourages people to investigate things further.” And, according to Charlotte, that’s great. “We show people that scientists have doubts, that knowledge isn’t always set in stone. We show them that the way people did research before and the way they do it now has changed and that there’s always more research that can be done.”

We regard scientists as part of our collection

Afbeelding van Charlotte Gentenaar
Charlotte Gentenaar

At the end of the interview, we go over to the room where the core sample is located. Luc hasn’t yet seen the room as it is now, ready for visitors. “Don’t those models of the foraminifera look great now!” He points to the replica of the core sample: “That replica is absolutely fantastic. Look, the device that we use to do elemental analysis leaves a trace behind it, you can even see that.”

Charlotte and Luc both look round the room with pride. For Charlotte, the museum is a success if visitors take on the role of researcher, get down to work themselves, see things through the eyes of a scientist and act like a scientist. “And if, as well as visiting the exhibitions, they also research their own questions in our programmes. They can do this in workshops with scientists, for example. So we regard the scientists as part of our collection too.” “Yes,” agrees Luc. “We definitely are!”

Museum for curious people

Afbeelding van het Universiteits Museum, waar skeleten en opgezette dieren te zien zijn
Image: Mike Bink

“The recently refurbished University Museum is the museum for anyone with a sense of curiosity,” says Director Femke den Boer. The newly revamped museum has five new exhibition rooms where visitors actively engage with Utrecht University’s scientific research from both the past and the present. As a visitor, you can engage in research yourself. You can design a heart and lung machine, for example, study the behaviour of apes and humans, experiment with an air pump or take part in various research workshops. Femke den Boer: “We want our visitors to ask questions about themselves and the world around them. Here at the museum, we want to demonstrate to visitors that you can research anything you like if you ask the right questions and, like scientists, apply different research skills. Designing, looking and comparing, experimenting, researching sources and traces in the soil, for example.”

The museum and the Oude Hortus are open from Tuesday to Sunday between 10 am and 5 pm.

You too can help!

How does research work? How do researchers find answers? That’s what the recently refurbished University Museum Utrecht (UMU) wants visitors to experience for themselves, in order to build a bridge between science and society. As visitors to the museum, they themselves become researchers and get an insight into the world of research at Utrecht University. Would you like to help the museum with this? If so, why not become a sponsor or friend of the museum? See (in Dutch)