“It’s impossible to know everything,” Hélène Alonso said. Alonso is the director of exhibit interactives and media for the American Museum of Natural History. It was a week and a half before the opening of the museum’s newest exhibition, The Secret World Inside You, and she was discussing the process by which the museum creates its temporary exhibits.
When you first pass through the glass doors and enter The Secret World Inside You, you’re greeted by a mirrored room filled with mutli-colored lights that seem to float and flood the room. Those lights represent all the microscopic organisms that make up the human biome. It’s a simple idea that is the result of years of work.
“The physicality is important to us because otherwise, why are you here at a museum?,” says Brett Peterson, one of the developers in the Interactives and Media department. “You could see it on a website or a tablet. There’s nothing you need to be in a gallery for.”
Immense as the museum is, its stone edifice is no match for the ever-expanding body of scientific knowledge. So along with the established monuments of the natural world, the dinosaurs and the blue whale, its galleries must find a way to accommodate fresh discoveries, on a rotating basis.
The Secret World Inside You, which opened November 7, tells visitors one particular fact again and again: If you somehow managed to suck out all the microbes that live in and on your body, the resulting mass of microscopic organisms would weigh three pounds. Roughly the size—and not far from the importance—of the human brain.
The exhibit also testifies to the existence of AMNH’s own secret world: hundreds of researchers spread across the 27 interconnected building, doing work most visitors are unaware of.
AMNH started conceiving of The Secret World Inside You three years ago, in a process they call “incubation.” A committee of museum employees from the marketing, exhibition, science, and education divisions of the museum isolates single topics that could make for interesting and educational exhibits. Ultimately, only five survive the initial discussion, when focus groups are then asked to rank them on how likely they would be to come see a show based on them. In 2012, the human microbiome made that list.
Public health topics are part of AMNH’s history. “One most popular exhibitions the museum ever held was on tuberculosis in 1908,” explained Dr. Rob DeSalle, co-curator of The Secret World Inside You at the exhibit’s press opening. “And we’ve done other human health exhibitions in the last couple decades that really got the public interested in public health.”
In her office, located in the state-of-the-art genomics lab that sits on top of the museum, Dr. Susan Perkins, the other co-curator of the new exhibit, went into depth on how the committee landed on the microbiome as its latest public health topic. “Even three or so years ago, things were trickling in the popular news,” she said. “So we were realizing that people were hearing bits and pieces about microbiome stories but maybe not necessarily understanding the background of it.”
A casual Amazon search was not going to answer the public’s questions in a meaningful way. The books are either tomes by scientists for scientists or diet books with unknown scientific provenance. “So we felt like this was a really important thing that we, as a natural history museum with working scientists, could give that background information and bring it to the public,” concluded Dr. Perkins.
In the finished show, the urge to share that background information comes in a number of forms. Video interviews with dozens of experts are played throughout. Placards with text cover topics like why your left and right hands have vastly different microbes on them. There are giant neon sculptures of these organisms. There are interactive displays and games. And a live demonstration of DNA sequencing caps the whole thing off.
The staff who worked together to make all of those things begin their work as ignorant as anyone else.
“When we have to find ways to reinterpret information and make engaging, and visual, and experiential, which is what we try to do here, you have to fill your head with everything,” said Alonso. “So we have a period of soaking ourselves. We become like a sponge, and then we squeeze. But you have to get the sponge fully loaded first.”
The task of educating the exhibition staff fell to the co-curators. For a year, Perkins and DeSalle pulled relevant papers on microbiomes and sent them to the museum’s team of three writers, who have to become experts on different scientific topics with each new show.
“When you are reading all these papers and books and hearing people that know more than you, you start having some ‘wow’ moments,” Alonso said. “So you use those things to create metaphors or reproduce those ‘aha’ moments in experience. So each department in exhibitions explains things in a different way. Their ‘aha’ moments are different. The editorial department likes to explain things. When they get it, they explain it in words and create narratives. In the design department they visualize things. ‘Oh, I imagine this as a sculpture. This is how the structures of the neurons are.’”
For the Media & Interactives team, their “aha” moment was realizing that they could use the human body as a microbe map. “Because the body is already a map,” Alonso said.
The interactives team filmed Alonso herself to prototype a touch-sensitive map of the human microbiome, to decide what body parts would be clickable. When you touch the place where the kidney is, an animation based on real electron microscope images of a kidney stone plays. It looks painful even in that form.
The result is a 14-foot-long “body table” that is the centerpiece of the second room of The Secret World Inside You. The table lets a number of people reach out and touch one of a number of glowing circles that are mapped onto the giant form of an actress projected there. A touch to the face shows you how acne bacteria can actually help keep a new wound clean. “The cut is one of my favorites!” Alonso said.
Particular details reflect the things that excited the museum staff who were working on the exhibit. One of the copywriters, Perkins said, became “obsessed” with the information that fiber is more than roughage—that microbes inside humans can convert otherwise indigestible fiber into short-chain fatty acids, which are critical for health. So a simple account of that conversion is in the exhibit, augmented by a giant sculpture of the molecules.
That model was built inside the museum, in an airy top-floor workshop lit by skylights and filled with blasting music. Despite the modern tools and soundtrack, the whole place has the feel of a Victorian cabinet of curiosity. On one table, shortly before the opening of The Secret World, were the remains of some molecule models that didn’t make it the show. On another was a half-completed dinosaur nest, which visitors will get to sit in March of 2016, when Dinosaurs Among Us opens. In a back room a full-sized dinosaur model was being painted and covered in quills.
Along with what will be physically inside an exhibit, it’s also the job of the exhibition team to plan a layout. In a conference room, there stood a full miniature version of the Secret World exhibit: the light-filled entrance hall, a figure-eight holding the body table and a pinball machine, a final live demonstration room.
“It helps us to understand if the exhibit looks like it’s going to work,” Melissa Posen, the senior director of Exhibition Operations, explained. “Others see it—education, communication, development. They bring donors. It’s a selling tool, it’s a marking tool, it’s an advertising tool.”
Just like the body table in the floor below, the models on the table were the result of months of trial and error. The operations department gets one and half to two years to plan, starting with a series of meetings about what the show will look like, just to get to a floor plan. It starts a simple bubble diagram, which is enriched as each aspect of the show is developed. Then, two to three paper models based on initial floor plans get mocked up so that any problems with the design can be spotted. “Even that will show us that we have to start again,” Posen said. “By the time we get to something as detailed as these, we’re in pretty good shape. Because these take weeks.”
The final room in the model was strikingly bright white with colored dots on the walls, where the other rooms were mostly black with LEDs for the microbes. In person, the contrast isn’t so stark. The colored dots in the model represent stickers of microbes that visitors get to decorate the gallery with.
That last room is the result of a discovery the team made while conceiving of the show. “One of the topics we thought people should know—and we did not have a good place anywhere else—is: We keep telling you that you have this microbe and you don’t have that one, how do we know?” said Lauri Halderman, the senior director of Exhibition Interpretation.
In that white room, a presenter in a lab coat goes through a prepared script using the microbial makeup of the bellybutton to explain how varied the composition of the human biome is and how scientists use DNA to discover that.
The script, Halderman said, was in constant flux: “It’s almost like theater, we have a script and we have a show and we start to go through it and we go, that part is great and that other part is not so great. And then we refine, and refine, and refine. And we start testing in front of live audiences to see.”
At first, the audience was supposed to press buttons to respond. The first test with a group of kids showed that they would just yell out answers. That’s something that’s going to have to be taken into account by the presenters watching Halderman. “If we look out and the room is full of kids, we can skew our talk one way. And if it’s full of graduate students, which it sometimes is, we can skew it another way.”
There’s also constant back and forth between the curators and the exhibition department to make sure that the way the science is being presented is both accurate and understandable. “Some of it was [our writers] picking up the phone and calling the authors [of the papers] saying ‘I want to make sure I’m explaining your work correctly if I phrase it in this way,’” said Perkins. “Cause when you boil things down into simple language, sometimes you are losing the nuances that would be in scientific paper.”
Most of the curators’ scientific reviews produce surprisingly few edits. One of the interactives did cause a bit of trouble. It’s a video game activated by both touch and a mechanical pinball plunger—the remains of the prototype were still in Alonso’s lab, cannibalized for the actual show. In the finished product, the plunger shoots antibiotics into a representation of the gut microbiome. To illustrate the damage antibiotics do to good microbes, each shot of antibiotics explodes and eliminates both disease microbes and healthy ones, represented by color-coded dots.
But, since Secret World Inside You has real life health implications, Dr. Perkins said they went round and round, balancing the science and the practicalities of the equipment.
“From a game designers’ and engineering perspective, because we use a pinball-like plunger, every use is wear and tear. And we don’t want to build too many of these,” said Dr. Perkins. So the initial plan had visitors shooting off only a few antibiotic doses. “But then we got worried that people would think they should only take three or five pills. So we called in a physician. These are trade-offs that we make.”
The completed game sorts out the problem with four game stations, each with a plunger. You can choose between two kinds of medicine: One is low-dose but with many more pills to shoot; the other is high-dose, with fewer pills, and a warning that you’ve killed a lot of good bacteria. In the next chapter of the game, the pills don’t even work. So the game teaches you about fecal transplants and you get the experience of aiming a poop emoji with a pinball plunger and firing it into a stomach.
Three days before The Secret World Inside You opens to the general public, a group of reporters and children saw the exhibit for the first time.
In the first room, Alonso was smiling—right up until one of the sensors on the body map and the animation failed to activate. Then she was off trying to figure out how it happened.
Further on in the exhibit, DeSalle was gleefully using the pinball plunger to fill a stomach with junk food, overwhelming the healthy blue/green/yellow microbes with bad grey ones. And Perkins was giving a TV interview in front of one of the giant microbe sculptures.
In the last room. Lauri Halderman, in a white coat, gave the oral presentation, as two of the presenters who will take over for her when it opens took notes for final fine-tuning before the general public would in.
“My goal,” Perkins, “is that everyone comes out of here kind of knowing what’s in and on them and has an appreciation for it and then make their own choices with their healthcare provider. But they’ll be educated at least.”
Illustration by Chris Gash
Full disclosure: My roommate works at the Natural History Museum. She took no part in this story.
Contact the author at email@example.com.