Cathedral of Now

Installing the Micrarium. Photo: © UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology/Robert Eagle

Installing the Micrarium. Photo: © UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology/Robert Eagle

There’s a good post by Hannah Waters over at Scientific American on the Micrarium, a new museum installation at the Grant Museum of Zoology at the University College London (UCL). The Micrarium is a large collection of invertebrate creatures,, suspended on microscope slides, displayed on backlit walls in a small room like so many stained glass creations. Invertebrate animals, everything from worms to squid to butterflies and snails, make up over 90% of all animal life on earth. Most museums focus on the variety of life among our fellow vertebrates, the birds, fish and mammals, partly because their remains are easier to preserve and display, partly because we humans tend to find them more appealing. And possibly because we remain eternally impressed by size. Even though invertebrates make up the vast majority of animal life on the planet, most of the hundreds of thousands of species are smaller than 5 cm / 2 inches.

Zoos, natural history museums, botanical gardens – all are instrumental in giving us a glimpse of the diversity around us. Ms. Waters calls them ‘cathedrals’, a lovely way of saying that they are places which inspire an appropriate humility and awe in the face of the vast manifestations of life. The Micrarium is an inventive and important addition.

Natural history museums often take the long view. They offer displays of life that once was and is no more in the form of the ever-popular large dinosaur skeletons, which duly impress viewers with their magnificence while offering a whiff of relief that our ancestors weren’t directly competing with these beasts for food and territory. There are usually displays of animals which existed at the same time as humans, but which are now extinct. The animals of Before: The dodo birds, the passenger pigeons, maybe a Javan tiger here or a quagga there, none of them very far from the displays of animals of Now, the ones still (for the moment) roaming.

A long representation of millions of years of evolution that offers the impression that life was diverse, is diverse, and will somehow remain diverse no matter how bad the news is on the science and environment pages of the newspapers and online news sources.

Presenting invertebrates as a well-lit place for meditation and discovery is a wonderful idea.

I’d like to propose a variation on this idea: It could be expanded into a cathedral sized space, illuminated solely by life-size back-lit representations of currently living mammals and plants, along with as many invertebrate species as we have discovered and named. They could be ordered in proximity to the other species they most affect, either via food chains or environmental symbiosis. To inspire a different kind of awe, species would be only as brightly lit as their survival chances indicate. The closer a species comes to extinction, the more its back light would be dimmed and possibly extinguished.

Each light lost dims the light just a little bit for those who remain. I still hope a museum of this kind could be a Cathedral of Now, instead of a Cathedral of Before.