In the historical building of Natura Artis Magistra “Ledenlokalen” (1870) is Micropia, the only museum dedicated to microbes. Making the invisible visible the museum showcases microbes in a variety of ways. Highlighting the importance of our own microbes, to looking at what is around us. Microbiology shows promise in solving global issues. Not only can they create bioplastics and energy, but they can even help with water purification and developing cures for infectious diseases.
Microbes are tiny living things that are found all around us. They can be found in water, soil, and in the air. Many people think microbes only make us sick, but they are in fact very important for our health. Little is still known about the microbial world by the general public, but it is something that is part of our body with the average person hosting around 100 trillion microbes. Setting up a space where people can learn about microbes in a fun and interesting manner takes the stigma out of them. This stigma can be seen as dangerous as this lack of understanding and preconception can stop scientific work, thus halting innovation. The Natura Artis Magistra has been creating a space to show complex science to the general public since 1838. But it wasn’t until Haig Balian was appointed director of Artis in 2003 that Micropia began. He had a vision of encompassing three core principles; more space for animals; more attention to learning about the natural world and a focus on the Artis heritage.
There are three most common types of microbes; bacteria, viruses and fungi.
Bacteria are single-cell organisms. Some love the heat, while others prefer a cold environment. Most bacteria aren’t infact dangerous to humans, with less than 1% being responsible for diseases. Many of them actually live on or in our body and help keep us healthy. For instance, lactic acid bacteria in the bowel help us to digest food. Other bacteria help the immune system by fighting germs. Some bacteria are also needed in order to produce certain types of food, like yogurt, sauerkraut or cheese.
Viruses have no cells of their own, instead they’re made up of one or more molecules surrounded by a protein shell. The genetic information found inside this shell is needed for the viruses to reproduce. Many viruses are responsible for diseases of varying degrees. They invade healthy cells and begin to multiply. But not all viruses can cause illness or symptoms as most of the time our bodies can fight them off, protecting itself.
When people think of fungi they most often than not think of a mushroom on a forest floor, but in fact fungi live in many environments. The most recognisable forms of fungi include yeast, mold and edible mushrooms. But fungi are very similar to bacteria in respect that they can live on our bodies, both on our skin or in our bodies. Although fungi can cause illness and disease it has been found to also be beneficial such as for use in penicillin and antibiotics.
The museum is mainly found in the dark, this is to highlight the microbes and for growth reasons. One of the main parts of the museum is a colourful display of Petri dishes with various bacteria. There is also a collection of everyday objects where you are able to explore what is living on them. There are also lots of interactive displays for people to interact with. These include a body scanner which shows what microbes live on your body and where; a kiss-o-meter which counts the number of microbes transferred during a kiss. As well as the exhibits there is a permanent laboratory which can be viewed through a window. Here the staff keep microbes alive and prepare them for exhibits. One of the newest exhibition pieces is the ‘hand wall’. This commemorates 55 Dutch citizens, including a pizza chef, astronaut and toilet attendant. The microbes collected from their hands were cultivated in Micropia’s laboratory and aim to show how everyones microbiome is slightly different but we all have microbes on our skin. But downstairs you are able to find out how microbes are essential to our lives. This includes how algae is used in various products, and how other microbes are used for food and biofuels.
Micropia is an institution affiliated to the Artis Royal Zoo in Amsterdam, and is housed in the listed building complex and imperial monument “De Ledenlokalen”. A mixture of the historic building and the modern/scientific elements makes the building an interesting experience, with one of the main features being a DNA structural staircase. But one of the hardest aspects to work out was keeping microbes, especially ones that are intended to stay alive. Therefore in cases where this was impossible or dangerous virtual storytelling was used instead, and every microbe cannot be touched by the public.
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