Meet Brooke Ciardelli, Director of Cambridge Science Festival
August 22, 2022
Tasked with taking the Cambridge Science Festival to bold new heights, Ciardelli’s route to Cambridge practically defines ‘portfolio career’ with an entrepreneurial track record of leading start-ups in the arts, program design and the events/entertainment industries. We caught up with Brooke two months out from her first Cambridge Science Festival, dipped into her fascinating past and found out exactly which events not to miss this October.
Interviewer: So Brooke, you haven’t exactly taken a direct route to the Cambridge Science Festival. Can you tell us a little about your career so far?
Ciardelli: I think the first thing to know is that my background and training is in the Arts, which is a helpful context for everything that’s happened since. For a lot of industries the ‘career ladder’ metaphor works well – the idea that you work your way up as your experience, knowledge and talent develops. But in the Arts world this model doesn’t always apply; there’s a lot more lateral movement between jobs, which goes some way to explain the variety of projects I’ve worked on. In the modern workplace I think there’s a lot more scope for this sort of parallel movement – people often restrict themselves to the field they’re already in when looking for a new position, but in reality employers are looking for fresh ideas and energy which can come from a more diverse set of backgrounds or experiences.
I: You’re talking about prioritizing skills over knowledge.
C: That’s right. There’s always a balance of course but project management skills are almost universally transferable and I’ve had the opportunity to apply these skills across the arts sector, on projects in sub-Saharan Africa, in Europe, and more recently in commercial real estate. Of course, this is a huge oversimplification – the point is, there are certain themes, ideas, competencies that run through every project I’ve worked on, regardless of the industry, and many of these fit perfectly into my new role at the MIT Museum and Cambridge Science Festival.
I work best in environments of big ideas, untested concepts, aggressive timelines – any situation where there’s the possibility of ‘moving the needle’ within a given community or group of people. Taking on the challenge of an established festival with a 15-year track record and hundreds of thousands of yearly attendees would be a challenge at any time, but a particularly important one in our semi-post Covid world. We’ve seen the social value of live, in-person experiences increase dramatically over the last few years, and I believe people are hungry for human connection and engagement that is both relevant and revelatory.
I: Just briefly circling back: what took you to sub-Saharan Africa?
C: I was lucky enough to be directing the opening ceremony of HIFA, an international arts festival in Zimbabwe, and one of the companies performing at the festival was Circus Zambia, an extraordinary, essential project which uses circus to engage young people living on, or at risk of living on the streets. Once engaged, the company provides mentorship, teaches life skills, provides school scholarships and free circus training. This troupe effectively provides family and community for children who are extremely vulnerable. It’s an astonishing organization and I’m honored to have been able to work with them to build a permanent home in Lusaka – a 250-seat theater, the first independently built in the country in the past 75 years. Since then, we’ve collaborated on cultural exchange programs with American circus performers and I continue to support the company however I can. As we all know, the best work happens when you have the opportunity to marry your abilities with your passions or interests – this was very much the case with Circus Zambia, and I feel lucky to have the same opportunity now with Cambridge Science Festival.
I: Has science always been an interest of yours?
C: I’ve been asked that a lot since arriving in Cambridge, and my answer is always the same – people have to realize that science is everything. At high school we separate the world into classes – history, math, science, literature – and children often say things like ‘I’m no good at history’, or ‘science is boring’ but what we need to understand and what needs to be taught is that these distinctions are completely arbitrary. There’s no boundary between science and history – or science and art – you can’t understand one without the other, you can’t get a complete understanding of math without knowing how it’s evolved over the centuries, you can’t teach the history of America without going into the linguistics of the constitution: everything connects, everything overlaps. And so when people ask if I’m interested in science, it’s like asking if I’m interested in the world around me. Science is everywhere, and this year’s festival celebrates the overlaps between science and the arts in particular.
I: I notice this year the festival has grouped events by theme, and by day.
C: Yes, we’ve taken three central fields to explore over three consecutive days – SCIENCE+CLIMATE on Thursday October 6, SCIENCE+FOOD on Friday October 7 and SCIENCE+FASHION on Saturday October 8. There is no doubt that the biggest issue facing the world today is climate change, and the solution we hear most often from politicians is ‘science will find a way’. I want to give ‘science’ the opportunity to respond, so we have a full day of talks, panel discussions, interactive workshops and more, each addressing the relationship between science and climate from a new angle. As you know, Cambridge is fortunate to have world-leading thinkers and innovators in a variety of fields and I’m delighted with the line-up for SCIENCE+CLIMATE in particular. We’ll be announcing the full festival program in a few weeks so I’m afraid I can’t reveal anything just yet, but I guarantee this will be a fascinating, enlightening day.
I: I like the sound of SCIENCE+FOOD…
C: There’s so much to understand about the science of food, whether from a nutritional perspective or flavor dynamics, or the role science plays in our food production industries. I hope festival-goers will leave with a new appreciation of the impact that science has on food sustainability, as well as an appreciation of what’s next in food – how innovators are pushing culinary boundaries. Let’s find out what the future tastes like.
I: And what about Fashion?
C: We’re partnering with Boston Fashion Week for this celebration of the twin worlds of science and fashion, and this is one day you absolutely won’t want to miss. We have runway shows throughout the day, exhibitors, designers, engineers, technicians, we have manufacturers of futuristic fabrics, the next generation of wearable tech innovations and a chance to meet the teams and individuals designing the looks of tomorrow. Traditionally the worlds of science and fashion haven’t always gone hand-in-hand, but you only have to spend a day in Cambridge to know that’s no longer the case. We’re fortunate to live in a world where what you do no longer defines how you look, and where brands understand that usability and practicality are just as important as aesthetics. It’s possible to design something at the cutting edge of technology and fashion – and we’re inviting you to come and see the progress.
I: That’s three incredibly different days. Are all the events spread out across Cambridge?
C: Yes and no. This is one big change we’ve made for this year. Although we do have satellite events going on around the city, the majority take place in the Kendall/MIT Open Space where you’ll find our festival hub. We’re bringing the whole plaza to life with exhibitors, displays, hands-on workshops, interactive experiences, the Festival Main Stage and some surprising and eye-catching pop-up installations. The MIT Museum looks out from one corner of the Kendall/MIT Open Space, and we hope festival-goers will stop in to see the brand new space, which opens on October 2.
For anyone looking for a family friendly STEAM experience, we’ve got the traditional Cambridge Science Festival Carnival on Sunday October 9. This is a much-loved Festival tradition and we’re excited to have so many returning partners and collaborators. Carnival is very much for the whole family and I guarantee whatever you’re interested in, whatever your child or children are interested in, you’ll find plenty to entertain and educate this year. Science should be fun and we’ve worked hard to curate the most engaging and diverse program of events yet. It’s going to be the best possible kind of smash-up of science + arts and I can’t wait.
I: Fantastic. Last question – is there any element of the festival in particular that you’d recommend?
C: Once the program is announced we’ll be highlighting specific experiences and events across our social channels but for now I can tell you about our fabulous headliner – BOREALIS.
We wanted to make a big statement, to announce the Kendall/MIT Open Space as the festival venue for the foreseeable future so it felt important to lead this year’s festival with a Big Idea. And BOREALIS is certainly that. Dan Acher, who’s a visionary Swiss installation artist, creates vast spectacles within cities, and BOREALIS recreates the Northern Lights right here in Cambridge.
I: I– what?! How?
C: The artist uses particle clouds and specially designed lasers to create an artificial aurora – it looks like the Northern Lights, with its huge shifting patterns of color, the incredible vibrance of these ethereal, moving shapes, but amongst sky-scrapers rather than glaciers. The sky becomes a sort of canvas, and between 8-11pm from October 6-9, you’ll be able to visit the festival hub and enjoy this mesmerizing installation for free. It’s truly a spectacular experience, with a beautiful soundtrack by French composer Guillaume Desbois.
I: Thanks for your time, Brooke – I look forward to catching up with you again during the festival.
C: Can’t wait! I’ve been encouraging everyone to follow us across social media or sign up to our mailing list as we’ll be announcing other events and partnerships over the coming weeks, and although all our events are free, some do require booking as we have limited capacity. Sign up and find out first.