On a recent afternoon at the Central Library of the Brooklyn Public Library, curious visitors were exploring a six-foot-tall white tower by the entrance. A young girl investigated a hologram of a cuttlefish near the floor, while her father read some text higher up about the amount of slime a snail would need to cross the Brooklyn Bridge (one liter!). An older man carrying a tote bag of books paused to look at an array of mollusk shells that have clues to their causes of death, whether pierced by an octopus or smothered by invasive mussels. Some only stopped by for a few moments, perhaps reading quickly about Ming the clam who lived 507 years; others made a methodical loop around the compact displays of text, video, and objects, each highlighting some aspect of invertebrate biology.
Called the Smallest Mollusk Museum, it was launched in 2017 as the first project of the New York-based MICRO, a nonprofit working on a fleet of such freely accessible, mobile museums. “We knew from the start we wanted to place these in places like hospital waiting rooms or the DMV, where they are just in the middle of daily errands,” Amanda Schochet, who co-founded MICRO in 2016 with her partner Charles Philipp, told Hyperallergic. A Smallest Mollusk Museum was previously at the New Museum, and on December 12, MICRO unveiled another at the Ronald McDonald House in Manhattan.
“Kids spend the majority of their time not in the classroom, so if you’re peppering their daily landscape with additional opportunities to learn, and especially to learn in a fun way, their lives just become so much richer, and the information is way more sticky if their parents are learning, too,” Schochet said.
Schochet’s background is in science, having worked as a computational ecologist. Mollusks, a phylum that includes such spineless creatures as sea worms and octopuses, may seem a strange choice for MICRO’s debut. Yet from the alpine snails that live high in the American Rocky Mountains, to leopard slugs that have both male and female sexual organs (a 3D visualization of their mating looks like the twist of a soft serve ice cream cone), the Smallest Mollusk Museum celebrates how they experience our shared Earth so distinctly.
“We show how all these aliens and monsters that people have feared through the ages are based on mollusks, but the things that have made them that way are really understandable systems, and we can use these species to understand ourselves, and understand that they’re not alien at all, they’re just like us 700 million years ago,” Schochet explained. “We can begin to understand life at large by looking at a very different form of life. We wanted to provoke people to imagine being something so different from what they are.”
Text by a series of human figures morphed with tentacles and valves notes that “tasting with your hands and feet would make riding the subway a very different experience.” The museum is designed so visitors of varying ages can explore in diverse ways, where the kids may be drawn to the nautilus hologram that taller adults might miss, while they can delve into how human changes to the world have caused major extinctions of mollusks. The museum’s mini monolith has 15 exhibits, featuring objects such as a 3D print of an octopus brain, and three tiny movie theaters playing videos.
“We take great care to make the museums in language that isn’t too juvenile, it’s definitely geared towards adults for the most part who can read this and not be bored, and feel like we’re speaking to them, and giving people a chance to learn something they might not have before,” Schochet said.
MICRO hopes to install more refrigerator-size museums in public locations that are underserved by museums. Museums tend to cluster in New York City, particularly in Manhattan, and high admission costs mean few people may stop in on their everyday routes. The Central Library, however, is quite close to the Brooklyn Museum, but after February the Brooklyn Public Library will rotate the Smallest Mollusk Museum to other branches throughout the year. Alongside, librarians made a list of books for kids and adults to check out on octopuses, snails, slugs, and other topics.
“One big push for the next year is we are updating the material design and the manufacturing processes so we can make more of these with greater ease,” Schochet said. “We’ve already scaled up in a nice way — we have four now — and want to ramp that up even more.”
Their next project is the Perpetual Motion Museum, which they plan to launch sometime in 2018. Schochet described it as a “brutalist temple,” with their prototype including a rear-projected sun and displays on the ways humans have harnessed its energy, and tried to build machines that could generate free energy. The museum will consider physics and the history of invention, with a perpetual motion machine built into its architecture, and a zoetrope visualizing energy consumption in its base. A third museum is planned to highlight a subject related to chemistry, and future MICRO museums may expand into the humanities.
“We don’t want these museums to feel like someone is just vomiting information on you, but that you can come by and get what you need and find what you’re interested in,” Schochet stated.
There are also portals to continue this science education following a MICRO museum visit, such as recommended actions for protecting mollusks, an accompanying book by science writer Ruby J. Murray, MICRO’s head of content, and an audio tour voiced by WNYC/Radiolab’s Sean Rameswaram that will be available online. And if people or institutions would like to see a MICRO museum near them, there’s a page on the site to write in a request.
“We like the idea of being community driven in that way,” Schochet said. “I want people to feel like this is for them.”
MICRO’s Smallest Mollusk Museum is on view through February 2018 at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library (10 Grand Army Plaza, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn). It will be rotated around Brooklyn Public Library branches over 2018.