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A visit to Micropia - a new museum of the invisible in Amsterdam

If I were to ask you where in the world you would expect to find a museum dedicated to microorganisms, you would probably guess Holland since that is the country of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. He is known to most every school student as the Dutch lens grinder who discovered what he called animalcules, and is considered the ‘father of microbiology’ in introductory biology texts.

Arriving at Schiphol airport, I made my way to the baggage hall and there on the wall was a massive advertising poster beckoning me to visit the new museum showing the invisible, Micropia. As I awaited my luggage, I quickly connected to the WiFi and visited their website. “That’s where I’m going to spend my day in Amsterdam” I declared.

From the airport, an easy train trip to the historic centre of Amsterdam, followed by a tram trip to the zoo area put me within 500 000 000 micrometres of Micropia. The museum is located in the 1870 building called de Ledenlokalen, which was restored and upgraded for the 21st century in 2014. Inside, the museum is more modern and cutting edge than many I have visited. You begin on the ground floor with the attendant handing you a Petri dish-shaped card. You are invited to collect microbe stamps as you investigate the variety of displays. Then the elevator door opens and you ascend slowly as a video on the ceiling zooms you into the invisible world.

As you leave the elevator a modern phylogenetic tree representing the web of life is revealed. Much of the hall is in near darkness, with many black light illuminated displays popping out at you. Super-expensive and sophisticated microscopes are placed behind protective transparent boxes. You control the focus and position of the slide using a joystick. Rather than looking through the eyepiece, you examine the specimens either through a viewfinder-like structure, or projected onto a screen embedded near the microscope. Other microscope displays were set up in such a way as to reveal a 3-D view. Micropia has a wide range of very inviting interactive display types. I was amused watching the reaction of some small children when their parents participated in the kiss-o-meter. I found myself totally engaged when I did the ‘scan yourself’. I can’t even imagine the technology involved in this live-action display that follows your movement as you move your arms and head.

Other intriguing displays include:

I was mesmerized watching leafcutter ants in action in a clever display about 2 metres/side. The ants were contained by a moat. They could get to the leaves by hiking along ropes into an opening which took them into their nests. You are able to see into the nest where the leaf pieces serve as the medium for fungi, and you could see the ants actively transporting the leaf pieces from the plant. The sign warns you not to reach in: they bite!


                    

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The maintenance of this living museum is done by microbiologists working in a lab visible as one of the displays. They take special pride in maintaining a very large repository of Tardigrades aka water bears. A technician comes out and explains the process in various languages at specified times.

Having spent a great deal of time at the museum, sadly, it was time to descend the DNA-like staircase and check out my Petri dish stamp collection. I nearly got them all! A popular travel site lists over 260 things to do in Amsterdam, including world-class museums if you are interested in art or history. With the addition of Micropia, it now has a unique museum for those of us with a keen interest in science. If you are travelling through Schiphol and you have a day, I highly recommend you put Micropia on your list.

                                       

You can follow the links I have provided to see the photos that correspond to the text, or you can view the entire photo album using the i to see the photo description.

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A visit to Micropia - a new museum of the invisible in Amsterdam

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