Micropia: the Museum of Small Things

(March 31st, 2015) They are all around you, even if you often cannot see them: microbes! And now, they also have their own museum. Alejandra Manjarrez checked it out.

In the 17th century in a small city called Delft in The Netherlands, a Dutch cloth trader enjoyed spending his spare time designing and producing glass spheres allowing him to magnify whatever he observed through them. His name was Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek and his mastery and curiosity led him to discover bacteria, spermatozoa and other microscopic life forms  humans had suspected to exist, but were never able to observe before.
More than three centuries later and less than 70 km from Delft where Leeuweenhoek conducted his observations, a museum about the microworld was inaugurated last September. Located in Amsterdam, as a subdivision of the Natura Artis Magistra, the oldest zoo in The Netherlands, ‘Micropia’ complements the surrounding experience of appreciating the natural world. But in contrast to the more conventional organisms that we find in the neighbouring zoo and aquarium, Micropia feels like stepping inside a magnified version of a less familiar world, one that, even though it is here in our everyday life, we cannot see with our naked eyes.

The Micropia exhibition is distributed over two floors. The journey starts upstairs, in a dark hall where we are first introduced to the microbial diversity all over the tree of life. Bacteria, fungi, algae and even tiny animals: the microworld has it all and the museum portrays this diversity. Many microscopes occupy the dark room, each of them showing different microbial lineages and everywhere around we find mind-blowing micrographs of all kinds of minuscule living beings. The quality of the high resolution images is definitely one of the highlights of the museum.

“There are trillions of microbes inside our body,” is a common reminder we receive in Micropia. The goal is not only to make us aware of the overwhelming amount of small things surrounding us but also of those living inside us. The interactive spirit of the exhibition helps to achieve this goal. There are, for instance, two body scanners replicating our movement in a mirroring human cartoon. By pointing at different parts of the body with your hands, you get the details of the microbial life that can inhabit us: in the skin, on the eyelashes, inside the intestine, in the genitals or anywhere else. If we are in a curious mood, it is a never-ending story: one goes from one organ to another until realising the glance of people around waiting to get the chance to have some fun there, too.

The tour ends on the ground floor, showing the impact of microbes on our life, from causing mortal diseases to helping us in the industrial production of food or biofuels. There is also a fun section showing time-lapse movies of all types of food decomposing, not McDonald’s burgers, of course.

If you are a microbe passionate, you will most likely enjoy the visual, didactic and entertaining possibilities Micropia offers. If you are not, you will probably become one.
So next time you go to Amsterdam remember that, in addition to enjoying Vermeer and Van Gogh, you can also visit Micropia and learn more about the most abundant living beings on Earth and inside your body. The museum is open daily from 9 am until 6 pm, Thursdays through Saturdays until 8 pm. Tickets cost €14 for everyone older than ten years, or €7.50 for students. If you don’t have plans to visit the city soon, you can partly enjoy the adventure by entering the Micropia website, which has a lot of interesting information, including a section of updated ‘microbial’ news.

Alejandra Manjarrez

Photos(2): Alejandra Manjarrez

Last Changes: 05.08.2015