Do consumers make rational choices? It might not sound like the title of an art exhibit, but it’s one of the questions visitors can contemplate at France’s first museum aimed at revealing the arcane theories and systems underpinning the global economy.
But the Citeco, housed in a sumptuous neo-Renaissance palace built by a banker in the 19th century, also takes up a tougher challenge: reconcile the French with a subject often viewed with a mix of suspicion and contempt.
“The idea is for people to better understand and grasp the economy, that its general mechanisms be laid out in one place, because the level of comprehension is not what we would hope,” Philippe Gineste, the director, told AFP at the museum’s inauguration on Friday.
The launch has included an extensive advertising campaign -- “Take control of the economy!” -- and a revamped website urging people to “Dare the Citeco experience.”
It could be a tough sell, despite the 50 million euro ($56 million) renovation to show off the ornate marble and woodwork of the red-brick monument, formerly a branch of France’s central bank.
“I’m a bit sceptical about the project, for one thing it costs 12 euros to get in,” said Emmanuel Feutry, 64, who came from his home in Seine-Saint-Denis outside Paris -- one of the poorest departments in France.
He didn’t have to pay though during the free opening weekend, and said he came mainly to admire the architecture.
“But the exhibits are well done,” he said while browsing the vault, which is still surrounded by the narrow moat built into the heart of the building.
The museum is banking on 130,000 visitors a year, including some 30,000 students as young as seven or eight.
The project was conceived after a visit by the former Bank of France governor Christian Noyer to the MIDE interactive economics museum in Mexico City, which opened in 2006.
Many of the exhibits are hands-on, including a contest where players compete to get to the beach fastest by figuring out how to make or trade for the sunglasses, hats and other things they’ll need.
Another one invites users to calculate the ideal age for retirement, all while spelling out the risks to pay-as-you-go pension systems.
Visitors can also sit down to a negotiating table and try to hammer out a global accord on cutting carbon emissions: “Find middle ground between common objectives and your national interests.”
“When you do things, you retain the information better,” Gineste said. “The idea is to have people do things, touch and handle them, so they can interact completely with the content.”
Despite the effort to avoid lecturing, however, subjects like hyperinflation or financial crises don’t always lend themselves easily to fun and games.
“The Pros and Cons of International Trade,” for instance, lets visitors watch video lessons given by their choice of two French economists -- it’s a safe bet most grade-school students won’t find it riveting.