The history of Micropia began when Haig Balian was appointed director of Artis in 2003. He drew up a wide-ranging blueprint for the Artis of the 21st century, encompassing three core principles: more space for animals; more attention to learning about the natural world and a central focus on the Artis heritage. Balian’s children grew up as the Artis blueprint developed. As adolescents, they had their first romances, experienced their first kiss. But what actually happens when we kiss? The mouth is the entrance to the gastrointestinal tract, but is also the habitat of hundreds of thousands of families of bacteria. There are also the complex flora exchanged during a kiss. The idea of Micropia was born.
The early years
The relationship between human life and the natural world lies at the very centre of Artis. The story is told through the zoo’s animals and plants and you begin to be amazed. You see them, you hear them, you smell them and sometimes you can walk around with them. This idea led to the development of Micropia. At the very centre is the organism and micro organism and that is where the story begins. The story about its relationship with man, about microbes’ special properties, about how we can use them and how they interact with the plants and animals you can see at Artis.
In the end, the recurring themes of Micropia are: where microbes fit in on the tree of life; what is special about them; what impact microbes have on individuals and on animals, plants and mankind – now and in the future. The visitor is constantly brought back to the relationship of microbes to his or her own life.
After a general outline was drawn up in 2005, a team was put together to develop the Micropia project. The idea was a museum situated on Artisplein separate from the zoo and botanical gardens and open to everyone. The team began as a small but diverse group, gradually gaining more members. Its strength lay in the diverse backgrounds of the members: exhibition developers, architects, microbiologists, a project manager and a network of professionals as backup. As time went by, new members joined the team including a specialist microbe photographer, writers, educationalists, lighting, audio, and laboratory technicians and exhibition builders.
How do you actually keep microbes? Artis has 176 years’ experience of keeping animals and plants in a safe and responsible way. But how does that work with bacteria? Or viruses? It was decided that the stories should be told by living organisms as much as possible. When this proved impossible, for example when the organisms in question could cause sickness, a more virtual way of telling the story was chosen. Another bottom line, decided upon together with the experts, was that there would be no physical contact between microbes and the public.
While tackling the issue of how to keep microbes, it was decided that certain principles should be examined and prototypes built. The principles of microbiology which underpinned various displays were tested under working conditions in a research environment, for instance at a university. That was not enough for Micropia, where microbes have to be on display most of the day, seven days a week; and preferably without the need for a laboratory technician to tinker with something every hour.
A collection plan had to be drawn up, just as at every museum. This was time-consuming: the microbes chosen for display had to tell an involved story, had in some cases to be kept alive, had to pose no danger to the public and had to be sufficiently different from the other microbes on show.
A simple laboratory was set up on the top floor of one of the listed Salm cottages at the back of the botanical gardens. Companies, universities and institutions helped to equip the space. Extensive tests were done here to check whether exhibition displays involving specific organisms were feasible. Scientists were regularly called upon to help provide the organisms or to draw up the protocols to keep them alive. This was the decision-making process about how to safely keep various microbes and how to avoid the need for lab technicians to be present at every display.
At the same time, we realised we needed to test the principles governing how we told our stories. Prototypes of a number of innovative media installations were made in collaboration with their designers. The microscope was an essential component. Some organisms, such as colonies of fungi, could be seen with the naked eye but a microscope was indispensable in most other cases. The wonderful thing about a microscope is that its two eyepieces allow you to cut yourself off from the world and dive into the world of microbes. It is a great shame that some visitors are just not up to the job of properly handling this delicate optical equipment. Navigating and fine tuning eyepieces are a necessary part of experiencing and being astonished by what normally is an invisible world.
These experiments resulted in the installation of a 3D viewer attached to the microscope via cameras on the eyepieces. Navigation, a necessary part of exploring the micro-world, has now been made simple. The feeling still remains, however, that you are diving into the invisible world. This method is used in many of Micropia’s displays.
It was clear from the very beginning that Artis Micropia could not be developed by a limited project team. The search was on for partners to collaborate on fund-raising, to provide practical know-how and to create the stories and to carry out research. Scientists from most Dutch universities and institutions have been involved, to a greater or lesser degree, in the development of Micropia. Institutions included: the University of Amsterdam, Wageningen University, Leiden University, Utrecht University, Radboud University Nijmegen; VU Amsterdam University; the CBS-KNAW Fungal Biodiversity Centre; Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO); Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ); Deltares; the Netherlands Genomics Initiative; Royal Netherlands Society for Microbiology (KNVM); and Netherlands Society for Medical Microbiology (NVMM). Many other organisations have helped and supported us: multinational companies, such as DSM which devoted staff to the project; and local institutions, such as the Amsterdam Health Service which provided important practical help with the laboratory and the STD display. The government too helped make the project a reality.
The development of Micropia was also hit by the financial crisis. Originally, the idea was to house Micropia in a specially designed building, but fund-raising results plummeted overnight. We decided to house Micropia in part of the Members’ Rooms, a listed building in need of restoration. We made a virtue of necessity and kept to our core principles and concepts in developing the museum at this location. The building now plays a big part in the Micropia experience.
Just as with the building, we were also forced to take stock regarding content. Over 100 displays had been developed during the years of preparation. Not all of them made it through to the production phase. During the course of 2011, it became clear that decisions would have to be made. Financial considerations, the space available and the feasibility of proposals made hard choices inevitable. The result is a portrayal of the world of microbes. The choices were based on criteria such as beauty, remarkable properties, presentation possibilities, live versus virtual, macro versus micro, importance to people (and to mankind).
Micropia has taken over twelve years to develop into the museum which is now open. There are hundreds of stories and the visitor is able to get to know the “animalcules” as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek described it in the 17th century. He had just discovered these micro-organisms in sperm, ditch water and tooth plaque using his simple, newfangled microscope. Animalcules which we now know are to be found in their billions on every single human body.