In Midst of Swine flu Scare, Museum Opens Exhibit on the Harms and Helps of Bacteria
By: Catherine Amos
Published: May 18, 2009
The journey begins in a Parisian crypt, circa 1400s. A doctor peers from behind a spooky birdlike mask, surrounded by four walls of bones. The mask, with its long, dark beak and beady black eyes, was once considered required equipment to keep doctors safe from The Plague. By filling it with herbs, it protected them from foul-smelling odors.
The following rooms and panels in the Virginia Museum of Natural History's newest exhibition depict the universe of microscopic organisms, both good and bad. Visitors can learn about the evolution of pandemics throughout the centuries and across the globe, from the bubonic plague to smallpox, as well as the healthy bacteria in foods like yogurt.
The exhibition, called "Microbes: Invisible Invaders, Amazing Allies," officially opened Saturday and features interactive displays for both children and adults. It will run through Sept. 13. Visitors can follow the story of the polio vaccine, the iron lung, penicillin and the post-World War I flu pandemic.
"It's really timely," said Ryan Barber, director of marketing and external affairs at VMNH, "with the swine flu in the news. Another museum cancelled and we took advantage of it, so it was really perfect timing."
Another display, "Rediscovering the Forgotten Garden," also opened Saturday, and details the natural resources and history of Lee Memorial Park in Petersburg.
"Garden" will run through Jan. 10, 2010, and features 80 original botanical watercolors painted by Bessie Niemeyer Marshall in the 1930s as a part of a public works project for Petersburg. Forty paintings are now on display, which museum staff will rotate out in September with the remaining 40 paintings to avoid overexposure to light.
"They're really rare," Barber said. "Really high quality. We just thought it was a good way to emphasize that we're the state museum of natural history."
From colorful cartoons depicting mutating microbes to black lights illuminating magnified 3-D images of viruses, "Microbes" brings to light the mysterious world of microscopic organisms. Giant neon green cells hang overhead hands-on activities. One display compares healthy microbes to the defense of a castle - paralleling mucous to a moat - stopping invaders in their tracks.
"It should be a pretty fun exhibit," Barber said. "It's designed so if someone wants to go through quickly they can. But if they want to linger, there are layers to the exhibit."
The museum also features its permanent exhibitions, "Uncovering Virginia" and the "How Nature Works" gallery. Displays recreate six research sites in Virginia where VMNH scientists work, spanning 300 million years of natural history, from dinosaur tracks to whale vertebrae.
If you go
• What: "Microbes: Invisible Invaders, Amazing Allies" and "Rediscovering the Forgotten Garden"
• Where: Virginia Museum of Natural History, Martinsville
• When: Now through Sept. 13 for "Microbes;" through Jan. 10 for "Garden"
• How much: $9 for adults, $7 for students and $5 for seniors and children. The museum's "summer stimulus program" gives a discount of $2 off each category now through Sept. 13.
w questions: For more information, visit vmnh.org or call (276) 634-4141.