Animals with backbones (vertebrates) make up only 4% of the species on our planet. Yet when you walk into a natural history museum, they’re all you see. The dinosaur skeletons stretching across a ballroom? Vertebrates. Dioramas starring posed buffalo, lions, or zebra? Vertebrates. The endless cases of delicate stuffed birds? You guessed it: vertebrates.
“It’s a real tragedy: far and away, most of the animal kingdom is tiny,” said Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London. “Natural history museums really only ever put big animals on display. That’s not very representative of nature.”
A new permanent exhibit at the museum, called the Micrarium, tries to fill the gap by displaying the smallest organisms. Microscope slides containing cross-sections of insects and other invertebrates are stacked wall-to-wall in a small room, lit from behind. Visitors can see the detail of the eye-level slides—but the point is larger than any of the individual animals.
“All these specimens around you and above you make the point visually that this is what the diversity of life is,” he said. “What I wasn’t prepared for is how beautiful it would look.”
To give credit where credit is due, museums definitely try to show more than just the back-boned animals among us. But it’s an incredible challenge. Soft-bodied animals rarely leave fossils behind worthy of display. Many invertebrates shrink up and become unrecognizable if they’re not preserved in liquid, but keeping a specimen intact while putting it in public view is difficult. The Smithsonian (full disclosure: my full-time employer), for example, has a giant squid on display in the Sant Ocean Hall. But it’s kept in an air-tight tank holding some 1,500 gallons of preservative fluid, which is not a sustainable solution for smaller, more cash-strapped museums.
And then there’s the issue of size. How do you put bacteria or other microbes, invisible to the human eye, on display in a museum? Some curators will build blown-up models of single-celled organisms to at least give them a place in the exhibition hall. But when you choose to blow up a handful of microbes, you do it at the expense of portraying their biodiversity.