Bacterial Worlds

For my third and final post in my series on my trip to London and Oxford (read about my other experiences of the trip here and here), I will discuss the exhibition called Bacterial Worlds that was at the Oxford Natural History Museum. The exhibit focuses on uncovering the impact of the hidden worlds that we have only recently begun to realize. It claims that the smallest worlds are the key to understanding ourselves and some of our biggest questions. It included embroidered petri dishes, glass microbes, and many informational graphics.

Embroidered petri dishes [Photo credit: Sophia Charuhas; Oxford Museum of Natural History, March 2019]
I learned of a group of bacteria called Leuconostoc, also known as the food-fermenters. They were first discovered living in vats of bubbling syrup in sugar factories. These bacteria play a role in creating the fermented foods of many traditional diets, including but not limited to sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and sourdough bread. Leuconostoc converts the sugars in the food into lactic acid. Lactic acid acts as a preservative and gives fermented food its signature sour taste. The holes in certain cheeses appear because Leuconostoc convert lactic acid into carbon dioxide gas.

sliced cheese on brown table top
Photo by NastyaSensei Sens on

The exhibit covered much of the same information as did Dr. Burnet’s lecture – such as the differences between probiotics and prebiotics, and the studies of germ-free mice. It also included some artifacts of microbiome research, like a sampling kit that can be sent off to a lab for testing. Such a kit can aid in research as no one yet knows exactly what combination of bacteria ought to exist in a healthy gut (if such a particular combination is to be found), and a fecal transplant tube.

Display of artifacts [Photo taken by me; Oxford Museum of Natural History, March 2019]
As an art-science collaboration exhibit, I thought Bacterial Worlds leans heavily toward the science side. Although many of the points were illustrated, they were not illustrated for the most part in any artistically inventive way (save perhaps the embroidered petri dishes). It was not demonstrative art, as can be seen in Spare Parts, and the artwork did not invite visitor interaction for the most part, with the exception being some screens that could be tapped for more information, or to watch a short video. A writer from New Scientist wrote that Bacterial Worlds was “a tremendous exhibition, punching way above its tiny weight.”

I am afraid I did not feel the same way. Although Bacterial Worlds contained more content which was directly relevant to my current research, I found that Spare Parts to be more visually and intellectually compelling. While Bacterial Worlds was arranged in a line down a single hallway, with much of the visual interests posted flat on the walls, Spare Parts was arranged in several interconnected rooms, with the visual interests standing alone in the centers of the rooms and taking many forms (as opposed to poster presentations). Spare Parts was more tactile – Bacterial Worlds did not include much that was hands-on.

What are you experiences with art-science collaborations? Do you feel engaged by such installations? Please comment below.

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