Creating Context to See the Unseen: An interview with Jasper Buikx of Amsterdam’s microbial museum

Jasper Buikx, microbiologist at the Micropia Museum, in Amsterdam.How do you design a museum around microbes, a subject that is all around and ON us, yet still remains out of sight? How do you design a space to enable visitors to see the unseen? To find out I spoke with Jasper Buikx, microbiologist at the Micropia Museum, in Amsterdam.

Jasper, Welcome to Mooshme. What is Micropia, and what is your role there?

Micropia is officially the first and only microbe museum in the world. I, as microbiologist, am responsible for the content that we produce and that we show our visitors in our schools. I make sure that everything we say is correct, which is quite important of course for a scientific museum.

So, yeah – it’s a really cool job.

Is Micropia more like a natural history museum with specimens on display that represent the natural world or more like a zoo with live animals?

That’s what we have been wondering ourselves. A traditional museum is often what we call a dead collection; its objects are deceased organisms that are on display. Micropia is in that sense special, because we have over 300 different species of microbes there, alive, that people can actually see with their own naked eyes. So in that sense it’s kind of a new type of museum, a combination between micro-zoo and the museum. It’s something new.

The wall with Petri dishes containing different micro-organisms. Photo Micropia, Maarten van der Wal

The wall with Petri dishes containing different micro-organisms. Photo Micropia, Maarten van der Wal

How did Micropia come about and why do you think Amsterdam is the city that is hosting the first microbial museum?

If you look at the history of microbiology, Netherlands have always played a big part in microbiology. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was a cotton trader from Holland, and he was the first to actually discover microbes and make them visible. So in that sense, Netherlands discovered the microbial world and has played a big part in microbiology.

We have been designing Micropia for about 12 to 13 years, which is a lot for a museum that’s not that big. It was mainly trying to find out how we can make these invisible worlds visible. It kind of sounds simple – researchers have been doing this for centuries with simple microscopes – but that is not simple to the general public. So we have to find a way to get them to use such a complex instrument in a way that feels natural to them. So most of our design time, if you call it that has went into kind of making a exhibit that makes it visible in a smart way.

Of course we still use the microscope, but their microscope is about 50,000 Euros, and has to be handled with care by the lab techs and professors, not by the general public. So we’ve designed complete exhibit around a 3D viewer with which you still have the same 3D view that you would normally have through the microscope but you now have a simple joystick. You can operate the entire machine with a simple joystick opposed to the 20 – 30 different knobs and buttons that you normally have on the microscope. Plus we’ve added a nice interactive screen next to each microscope so that not only you but your entire family, your colleagues or whomever, can also join in to see what’s under the microscope.

I am hearing that one of your approaches is to take what are typical tools of science and adapt them so they can be used by visitors in the museum.

Yeah, that’s true.

Are there other tools of science that you’ve also made user-friendly to help the visitors see the invisible world around them?

We understand that if you have 40 microscopes in a row, of course it’s going to be boring by microscope number five. We get that. So we show the microbial world in different ways. We have a lab – all those different kinds of microbes have to be cultivated (I mean they don’t live as long as one of our elephants, so we have to cultivate them). And a lab, to a lot of people, is something that they only know from CSI or a Hollywood movie; they rarely see an actual lab themselves. So the lab in our case is also a part of the experience. It had a lab assistant telling stories, explaining what they do in the lab.

Discover your own microbes with the body scan. Photo Micropia, Maarten van der Wal

Discover your own microbes with the body scan. Photo Micropia, Maarten van der Wal

We also have lot of interactive exhibits where, for instance, we have a body scan where you stand in front of a big screen, it scans your body, and then you can kind of travel through your own body and find out that it’s completely filled with microbes. Then you can actually get to know yourself in a new way.

I presume this is a simulated scan. It’s not actually looking at the real microbes in your body, right?

We get that question a lot. It’s simulated. We find people expect us to give them a small sheet of paper at the end of their visit saying, “You should visit a physician because you have this and this disease.” No, it’s a simulated scan of course, but based on actual scientific facts, It gives a general story about what kind of microbes lives on and in you, based on your size and your width and your age.

Some of the things that people experience are actual real data using digital tools of science, while others are simulations to help the visitor understand things that they otherwise wouldn’t understand.

Yeah, exactly.

Is there anything the Museum does to make science data visible to the public?

One of the more interactive parts with Micropia is that you can collect microbes, kind of like you collect microbes on a day to day basis. I mean, if you touch something or you kiss or you eat or whatever, you collect microbes, and you can also do that in Micropia. You collect them on a stamp card, which sounds very simple but the idea is that you put your stamp card with your microbe collection on a special table with a scanner and it scans your collection and it enlarges it on the elevator wall. We have a big elevator and we have about 12 or 14 meters of elevator wall where your microbe collection is then shown. When we tell people about microbes we say they are microorganisms which are too small to be seen by the naked eye, but there is such a huge variation in size between microbes. We needed a special exhibit to show people how microbes differ in size, so they can see that a fungus is 10,000 times the si ze of a bacteria and the bacterium is a thousand times the size of a virus. So in that sense we try to make data about size visible in a more understandable way.

Can you give me an example of an unexpected challenge you have had with Micropia since launch and how you responded to it?

If people see an elephant, they know, “Oh, this is an elephant.” But if we show them a bacterium or a fungus, you have to tell a lot. Because it’s invisible, it doesn’t have context. It’s way too abstract for many people. So you have to first bridge the gap between what people know and what they see. You have to continuously create context, which in some cases is very difficult because for some people the context is completely different than to others. I mean, if you talk to students which are six or seven years old, you use completely different language than you use with adults. So finding the right context for the right audience has been a big challenge. Look around – you there are many examples of microbes in your day-to-day life, so you have a lot of possible contexts to choose from. But then making the translation to your specific audience, it’s quite difficult. I mean nobody knows microbes, at least out on the streets. So that’s been difficult.

What are you hoping the takeaway will be from visitors who come to the museum?

I hope that people kind of get the understanding that there is more than they can see and that it’s not always negative. If you ask a hundred people out on the streets, “ What do you think of a bacterium?”, 99 people will give you a very dirty look and will try to walk away, because they think bacteria are dangerous and disgusting and they want to get rid of them. But they rarely know that if you look in your own body you have 10 times more microbes than human cells.

Your body is more microbe than it’s actually man.



About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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