SECRETS, SECRETS ARE NO FUN UNLESS YOU SHARE WITH EVERYONE!
While this playground chant might have made you cringe at the thought of revealing your crush in elementary school, the American Museum of Natural History is changing the stigma behind sharing secrets and, well, ‘germs.’ At the museum’s special exhibit, The Secret World Inside You, co-creators Susan Perkens and Rob DeSalle take visitors on an interactive journey through the wonderful world of the microbiome.
THAT’s the mission of the exhibit – to educate people, young and old, on the benefits of having a diverse microbial community from the surface of your skin all the way to your GI tract. With over 100 trillion (yes, with a T) bacteria living on and inside of us, they surprisingly remain under the radar and rather unappreciated. We use all of these fancy words like ‘Immune system’ and ‘Digestive tract’ and seem to think that it refers purely to a system of large organs and nothing else. However, just as a car cannot run without gas, these organs cannot function without living bacteria.
Our own mothers – from whom we develop and live our first 9 months inside of – lay the foundation for our unique microbiomes through childbirth and breastfeeding. Going along with this theme, good bacteria and a strong microbial community ensure our own survival just as we ensure theirs thanks to our (hopefully) health conscious choices. This ‘bacteria-ception’ concept is as old as time and yet remains the future of which our entire population must survive. This is where the exhibit begins – the very start of human life.
Despite the fluidity of the exhibition, the beginning scene remains my favorite. Why? After wandering through a magically lit hallway of suspended lights and chasing after their children, mothers, fathers, and expecting parents slowed down to soak in what seemed like each and every word and visual about the development of a baby and its microbiome. That was the ‘Eureka’ moment for many – the realization that everything is so interconnected. From your own DNA, to the foods you consume, the antibiotics you take, the pets you have, where you live, how often you clean your apartment, and so on – it all plays a role in creating a community of microbes. This community of microbes is then passed on to our children, determining the strength of their immune systems and setting the course for their overall health for the rest of their lives, and their children’s lives…and so on.
As with every AMNH exhibit, the display was both very visual and interactive. However, unlike the dinosaur and African Mammal sections of the museum, “The Secret World Inside You” contains zero specimen in glass cases. We are learning about an invisible world here, so getting such a huge message across involves even bigger models and visual effects. With the help of ultra-magnified images of different bacteria strains, enormous statues depicting body organs and cells, a foot bacteria station where you get to actually sniff bacteria (and think to yourself, ‘wow, feet really do smell like stinky cheese”), a life-size statue depicting the different “environments” on your body, such as deserts, forests, and riverbeds, in which certain =bacteria are able to inhabit, and illuminated tunnels of information, exhibit curators Perkens and DeSalles clearly and beautifully get their message across to museum-goers.
Some technological ingenuity was also present within the exhibit as seen with the large, touch screen activity tables. One of them allowed you to explore the microbial world and its happenings within a virtual body in real time. The other consisted of a pinball machine plunger and three different games: “Feed your Gut!,” “Cure Your Infection!” and “Reboot Your Biome!” Children (and grownups) were given an overall score based on their ability to correctly pick the right foods that are beneficial to the microbiome (avoiding sugary and unhealthy foods), picking the right antibiotic to cure an infection, and finally replenishing the microbiome with the right amount of probiotics and a fecal transplant.
At the end of the exhibit, children and adults alike are seated around a stark white table equipped with different colored buttons. A scientist walks onto the scene and asks the audience questions about the world of bacteria as participants press the buttons they believe are the correct answer (surprisingly, many people knew that their pillowcases contained more bacteria than their toilet seats…). Then the scientist called up a volunteer. The volunteer gets his or her “bellybutton” (really, a blue light) swabbed and put into a petri dish. The end effect, which was prepared in advance, fully displays the bacterial bellybutton friends.
As gasps of surprise and awe emerged from all of the children in the room, I realized that not only does this exhibit inform, it also inspires. Children will walk away from the exhibit with these amazing images in their head and a newfound understanding of the importance of bacteria. Instead of seeing bacteria as their enemies, they will be more aware of the oft misunderstood and overlooked microbiome. Thanks to various researches that have been published over the years, the secret world inside us is becoming more transparent and, paired with the power of probiotics and a balanced diet, more and more people are beginning to embrace their bacterial friends. With children learning about the benefits of having a thriving microbial community at an early age, I only have high expectations for the overall health of future populations as well as for the health and wellness industries that cater to gut health.