The Mendel Museum in Brno

Gregor Johann Mendel

In this week's edition of Spotlight, join Dita Asiedu as she is given a tour of the Mendel Museum in the Moravian capital of Brno. The Museum is located in the Augustinian Monastery, where Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) conducted his famous inheritance experiments thanks to which he is now known as the Father of Genetics.

"My name is Ivetta Samalova. I am the museum manager and I am responsible for guided tours and that visitors feel well in our museum. The museum houses an exhibition that tries to introduce all activities in Mendel's life - not only his famous experiment with peas but also his activities in meteorology, bee keeping, and also the general life in the abbey.

"We are now in one of the gardens of the Augustinian abbey in Brno and this is where Mendel conducted his experiments with peas. Today you can find some plants that showcase Mendel's laws. You have red and white plants. If you cross the two, you will in the first generation have only red plants and in the second generation you find red and white plants. This is what Mendel did with peas. We also have other plants here for which Mendel's laws do not apply because, for example, some of them do not need the egg to be fertilised. This garden also used to house Mendel's greenhouse. You can still see its foundations. It was quite big for the time and really modern."

Can you tell us what it was like here in the 19th century just to give us an idea of the atmosphere?

Mendel Museum | Photo: Misa.jar,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
"This Augustinian monastery used to be a really intellectual centre in the 19th century because we didn't have a university here in Brno at the time so the education was connected with the abbey. When Mendel entered the monastery at the age of 21 he was met with much support because the abbot who was here when Mendel entered the monastery was himself very interested in hybridisation and agriculture and so on and he said that it would be very useful if someone could find out what is inherited and how it is inherited. So the idea was already here when Mendel entered the monastery.

"We are entering the exhibition in the Mendel Museum. As I already said, this used to be a really intellectual centre during Mendel's time and you can see here modern scientific instruments, the Augustinians also had a rich botanical collection, so you can see the herbarium, and there are also didactic tools because many of them were teachers. You can see a box, for example, containing all parts of the pinus silvestris [pine tree] or something that was used to demonstrate all the different kinds of wood. The Augustinians also had a huge library here so we have a handwritten catalogue as well as some religious books. The library did not only contain religious books but also literature on the natural sciences, social sciences and so on."

This place was indeed a centre for intellectuals. What happened to this place after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?

"The abbey was still very important in Brno but later on when fascism began they didn't like Augustinians and after the Second World War in 1950 the abbey was abolished by the communists. The place was used as a hostel for students, housed a machine-construction company, and later on part of the Academy of Sciences. It was an improvement but the Order and the Abbey did not exist for forty years. It was only after the change in regime in 1990 that the Augustinians got the abbey back and now they are trying to rebuild not only the buildings but the whole place as an intellectual centre and a centre of spiritual life."

I noticed a statue of Gregor Mendel outside. There is a story to that as well, I believe, it not always stood there.

Monks of the Augustinian monastery,  Mendel is standing,  second from right | Photo: Mendel Museum
"Yes. The statue was originally on Mendel Square in front of the abbey. It was made in 1910 and scientists from all over the world donated money for the statue to be made. It was when Mendel was recognised as a great scientist. But in 1950 the Communists didn't like Mendel because he was a friar, a religious person, which was pretty bad and they also did not like Mendel's genetics because Soviet scientists had completely different theories. So they wanted to destroy the statue but failed because the people hid it somewhere in the garden. What is quite funny is that they somehow didn't notice that Mendel Square is also named after Gregor Mendel and they never changed the name of the square.

Photo: offical website of the Mendel Museum
"We are now in another room where we can see things connected with meteorology and astronomy because Mendel was also a meteorologist. He was a founding member of the Meteorological Society here in Brno and he himself conducted meteorological observations. What is also important is that he did not just do measurements but also tried to form evaluations. You can see, for example how he compared the temperatures in Brno throughout the year. He also found that the temperature in the city centre is always a little higher than in the outskirts. He also supported the idea that it would be very useful to make weather forecasts based on his observations and that it could be used in agriculture. That was very modern thinking at that time."

I see a multi-media presentation of Mendel's actual experiment.

"Yes, this is an introduction to Mendel's experiments with peas. He conducted them for nine whole years during which he worked with 30,000 plants, observed seven different traits, and in the presentation you can see two of them - the colour and shape of seeds - and you can also see how many seeds he dealt with. For one trait he used over 8,000 and the other over 7,000 and so on."

In 1865 when he actually made the discovery, how popular was it at the time?

"In his time, Mendel's experiments were not recognised at all. He was known as a teacher, a meteorologist, a bee keeper, and later on as an abbot. He was later on also the president of the local mortgage bank but almost no-one knew of his experiments because nobody could understand them. He evaluated using statistics and mathematics, which none of the biologists understood at the time. He was recognised much later at the beginning of the 20th century.

Photo: offical website of the Mendel Museum
"We are now in Mendel's refectory, which used to be the dining room of the Augustinians. It is baroque space from the late 18th century. The decoration on the walls, though, dates to the beginning of the 20th century so Mendel did not get to see it like this."

And what is the wall decoration portraying?

"The front part is Saint Augustine then there's the Basilica of the Assumption of our Lady, a church that belongs to this monastery, and then there are Augustinians. In 1965 the first genetic conference was held here during Communism and they had a small exhibition about Mendel in this refectory. But it was only possible to call Mendel a scientist and not a priest. To hide the religious motifs at the front they put a wall in front of it. When accidentally somebody mentioned the fact that he was a priest as well, they said it was true but he was very unhappy in the dark church and that is why he was drawn to the brightness of science."