The downstairs section of Micropia, loosely focused on the 'use' of microrganisms, disappears into what can only be described as industry propaganda.
Want your child to grow up to be a scientist? Want to feed their interest in the natural world and its history beyond dinosaurs? Or even have a budding young artist who’s going to find diatom “skeletons” absolutely bewitching?
Then this summer you could head over to Amsterdam, where what’s billed as the world’s only museum of the microscopic world, Micropia, will welcome them with open arms. And, it has to be said, rather lighten your wallet – in Amsterdam you really realise the benefit of Britain’s free museums policy.
You might come away with a real soft toy talking point, a many times life-size water bear (tardigrades) – I did, and I don’t even have the excuse of a child for the purchase.
But the stars here are real, live animals and plants – albeit it ones that you need technical help to see.
Peering down a microscope into the depths of a flask of common garden pond scum, you can see the multiple algae species in it, with the museum explaining the crucial role they have in the world – producing more than half of our oxygen.
And you really can see it – the museum does a remarkably good job of providing easy-to-use equipment and technology that isn’t always the outcome when such institutions go high-tech.
A whole body scan allows you to point to parts of your body to learn about the microbes on it.
A wonderfully Heath Robinson assemblage of ropes, bowls, funnels and glass boxes allows you to watch parasol leaf-cutter ants at their industrial farming of Leucocoprinus gongylophorus, a fungi which feeds them and their young in return.
Even though I studied microbiology at university I learned much, as well as being reminded of much that I had forgotten. And knowledge has come a long way in recent decades:
- The common slime Physarum polycephalumcan learn its way through a simple maze and chart the most efficient route between two cities on a map (it uses mucus to store the route).
- When in danger, the copepod Cyclopos strenuous can swim 35 times its own body length in a second, the equivalent to a human running 225 km/hr.
There’s also some good ecological tales, such as how human waste in water can promote the growth of algae that obscures the view of pike of their bream prey. The bream multiply, eating all of the water fleas that would keep the algae under control. Then they die, and only algae, potentially poisonous, is left.
Such tales don’t dominate however, for there’s much here to delight and amaze about the natural world.
But there’s also disappointment, for this is a museum that’s only a fraction of what it could be, severely lacking in the educational value and critical thinking that adults can really get stuck into.
Unlike the Troppenmuseum just up the road, which is appropriately critical and questioning about colonialism and modern-day racism, the downstairs section of Micropia, loosely focused on the “use” of microrganisms, disappears into what can only be described as industry propaganda.
The use of a third of the US corn crop to produce ethanol is celebrated as a triumph, as is the conversion of sugar crops and even wheat for the same purpose. There's no hint of a question – or indeed extremely heavy criticism, that “big biofuel” has come under, nor questions about how in an increasingly food-insecure world this can conceivably be justified.
Similarly, its suggested that algae – in ponds or tubes – could soon supply much of our fuel in the future: “someday airplanes might fly on algae” and “the possibilities of genetic modification are endless”.
This is all without consideration of land use, pollution, or safety implications. The museum gushes about plastics made with microbes, without even a glance towards the complexities of what “biodegradable” actually means.
Having been sophisticated and intelligent upstairs, it almost seems that the museum’s critical faculties are checked in at the steps.
What’s also entirely lacking – across the whole museum – is the explanation of the crucial role of microscopic life in the soil – and the way we are trashing those incomprehensibly rich ecosystems (one million organisms in a teaspoon of soil).
A couple of giant models of tardigrades – as fun as they are – do not an education about soil make.
There’s also information about the commercial use of microbes in food production, but nothing at all of what could be highly useful information about home fermentation. The shop sells a couple of recipe books, but why not have have samples of lactofermentation in action and recipe sheets in the museum proper? Maybe even tastings?
It would be great to see a museum like this in Britain – but one that lives up the Micropia in entertainment value, while doing far better in critical thinking and consideration.
Natalie Bennett is a member of Sheffield Green Party and former Green Party leader.