Molecular biology in museums

By Grant Jacobs 09/03/2010

The past fifty years has seen the rise of molecular biology. Many museums have little to represent molecular biology and it’s impact on medicine, perhaps because the objects studied in molecular biology are usually visualised indirectly, whereas museum visitors traditionally go to view objects with their own eyes.

Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand. Note the early power poles. (Source: wikipedia.)

While on blogcation,1 biologist-artist Jessica Palmer continues to write posts to her blog, bioemphemera.

Recently she pointed out a conference on presenting modern modern science in museums, quoting from the call to contributions.

It’s a lengthy ‘call’–almost a treatise!—so I will present only the initial portion (interested readers should read read the full account):

The 15th biannual conference of the European Association of Museums for the History of Medical Sciences (EAMHMS) will be held at the University of Copenhagen, 16—18 September, 2010.

This year’s conference focuses on the challenge to museums posed by contemporary developments in medical science and technology.

The image of medicine that emerges from most museum galleries and exhibitions is still dominated by pre-modern and modern understandings of an anatomical and physiological body, and by the diagnostic and therapeutical methods and instruments used to intervene with the body at the ‘molar’ and tangible level – limbs, organs, tissues, etc.

The rapid transition in the medical and health sciences and technologies over the last 50 years – towards a molecular understanding of human body in health and disease and the rise of a host of molecular and digital technologies for investigating and intervening with the body – is still largely absent in museum collections and exhibitions.

As a consequence, the public can rarely rely on museums to get an understanding of the development and impact of the medical and health sciences in the last 50 years. Biochemistry and molecular biology have resulted in entirely new diagnostic methods and therapeutic regimes and a flourishing biotech industry. The elucidation of the human genome and the emergence of proteomics has opened up the possibility of personalised molecular medicine. Advances in the material sciences and information technology have given rise to a innovative and highly productive medical device industry, which is radically transforming medical practices. But few museums have so far engaged seriously and in a sustained way with these and similar phenomena in the recent history of medical sciences and technologies.

Several number of years ago the Canterbury Museum, pictured above, was seeking a new director.


Diorama of white herons (kotuku). The birds in the front are mounted taxidermy specimens, the background is painted. I recommend viewing a larger-scale image to better appreciate the detail. (Artist: Raymond Jacobs. Source: Canterbury Heritage.)

My grandfather, Raymond Jacobs, worked at the Canterbury Museum. My association with the museum through him and others in my family is part of why I eventually became a scientist, a story I may relate some other time.

For a few days I had fun daydreaming that I would apply for the position, succeed (you never fail in your daydreams) and revitalise the place I remember and explored as a kid.

The call for papers bioemphemera pointed to reminded me of older thoughts I had about how you might present ’modern’ biology in museums, given that you can’t see things at a molecular-sized things directly, and how you would place these exhibits alongside the existing, older, material. It resonated with me that these same questions appear in the call for papers in the conference bioemphemera points to.

It’s an interesting challenge to think about.

For things that are physical–mounted insects, artefacts from earlier cultures, samples of phosphorescent rocks–you can’t go past having the ’real thing’ in front of you. Museums are great for that. You are seeing the thing (or a decent replica) for yourself, not looking at a photograph or image on a computer.

Is that true for the science of the last 50 years?

Compacted DNA within the cell is packaged into dense fibres (the 30nm fibre). Here are several models of a fibre using different repeat lengths derived from physical experiments and mathematical modelling. (Image source: wikipedia.)
Compacted DNA within the cell is packaged into dense fibres (the 30nm fibre). Shown are several models of a fibre with different repeat lengths using data derived from physical experiments and mathematical modelling. (Image source: wikipedia.)

You can’t see directly, with your own eyes, the DNA sequence of a genome, the atomic structure of enyzme, or even the detailed structure of parts of a chromosome, like that in the illustration above. You can indirectly visualise them, as researchers do, but not in a way that the public could ’see for themselves’: they’d be looking at images that they’d have to take other’s words that they represented whatever they said they did.

Understanding things by indirect observations or measurements is a large part of modern science as our senses can’t directly record what we typically want to observe today as was more often the case for scientists, say, 150 years ago.

I wasn’t satisfied with the idea of ’just’ setting up computer screens for people to interact with. While some of these exhibits are now excellent (like those shown on the WWW from the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the [American] National Academy of Sciences), it bothers me whether there is there enough difference compared to what someone might do from their computer at home.

There is scope for interactive screens (e.g. touch screens) and other display technology that most home users don’t have, but perhaps the days that these are a point of difference may be ending. What bothers me, I guess, is that for some of these exhibits of modern science it’s the presentation technology that is the point of difference, not the thing on display itself. Perhaps this doesn’t matter? In one philosophical sense, perhaps elaborate display technology is the modern-day diorama, like those my grandfather made.

Large-scale model of Tobacco Mosaic Virus. Originally from the Franklin group, Birkbeck College, London. (Source: LMB website.)
Large-scale model of Tobacco Mosaic Virus. Originally from the Franklin group, Birkbeck College, London. (Source: LMB website.)

I like models, like those from the Laboratory of Molecular Biology such as the model2 of tobacco mosaic virus to the left, but I wonder if they mean much to the public and they can feel dated.

Everyone has seen structures of DNA for decades and structures of proteins I suspect more often bewilder with their complexity than educate.

With physical models you can walk them, inspecting them from different sides. They also take up space.

A bigger disadvantage is that they are static: it’s hard to convey that molecules move and are parts of dynamic processes if you present them as static exhibits.

Worse still, these models by themselves don’t connect well with the larger settings they work within.

Then there are molecular interactions. High-throughput genomics, proteomics and all the other ’omics.

In parallel to this are the technologies used; these I think aren’t such a problem: they’re gadgets in the end and can be explained like most other gadgets.

Part of my concern is the same as the organisors of this meeting: I suspect that most of the general public doesn’t have a particularly good idea of what modern medical biology is doing. (And the limitations, too. I confess to getting a little exasperated fans of ‘omics, for example, that don’t seem to want to consider the limitations honestly.)

Hooking conceptual elements onto topics that the visitor can relate to is an obvious way to try make a ’connection’, just as I might for a reader of my blog. Visitors might be expected to have a vague notion of the genome projects, perhaps the gist of personalised medicine, tracking human migrations, neuroscience, or other topics that have been in the media.

(Source: Koshland Science Museum.)
Visitor looking for patterns in the human genome. (Source: Koshland Science Museum.)

For more detailed molecular interactions, I wonder if presenting the larger three dimensional structures within the cell, for example chromosomes, nuclear pores, photosynthetic reaction centre complexes, or the whole nucleus would provide a framework for the public to identify with. They’re more holistic in a sense and might provide a framework to relate the more detailed elements and convey some of the complexity without visitors having to grapple with the minutiae.

A theme in much of this is that so many of the ’discoveries’ (findings is more modest) are conceptual. Concepts are less easily demonstrated in a physical way.

Displays, ideally interactive, that illustrate the principle of a technique or concept (say, DNA sequencing or determining a model of a protein structure) through a simpler conceptualised equivalent, along with material that relates that a bit closer to the actual process appeal to me. There’s a point, though, where I worry that the simplified version can be too patronising for adults or too distant from the reality.

I’d be interested in hearing about examples you have seen that explain molecular science well in museums. Give it a go, even if you don’t know much molecular biology.


1. While bioemphemera is still writing articles, she is avoiding comments and writing much more than pointing at interesting articles elsewhere.

2. Although the scale is not clear from the image, the model of TMV is quite large. Each (polystyrene foam!) ’blob’ representing a viral coat protein is roughly 70cm in length (possibly larger), from memory. (Not that I trust my memory that well!)

Other articles on Code for Life:

Royal science

The inheritance of face recognition (should you blame your parents if you can’t recognise faces?)

Tracking disease and human migration through genetics

Positive encouragement for vaccination

Rubella, not a benign disease if experienced during early pregnancy

Map shows New Zealand with lowest death rate on earth in 1856, over 11 in 1000 dying

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals

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