Tucked into Paris’s upper right-hand corner, situated within the Parc de la Villette, a landscaped park once home to the city’s abattoirs and cattle markets, is the largest science museum in Europe, the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie. Away from the hustle of Paris’s main attractions, the museum, as vast and modern as an airport terminal, has welcomed more than 70 million visitors since it opened in 1986 – though on a Friday afternoon in winter it feels pleasantly quiet with only the odd school group passing by to interrupt the tranquility. In front of the building squats La Géode, a silver reflective dome housing a cinema which, along with the wide ponds and clean lines of the park speaks of an area spruced up from its blood and meat-caked past. The museum’s sister, the Palais de la Découverte, located in the Grand Palais near the Champs-Élysées, could not be more different. There, high ceilings and ornate details provide a grander, more historic setting for scientific musings.
Cité des Sciences et de L’industrie’s latest exhibition, which runs until 4 August 2019 (when it goes on a tour of other European cities), is called Microbiota and is based on a book by German authors Jill and Giulia Enders titled Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ. The exhibition takes an in-depth look (in some cases literally) at the human digestive system and the thousands of bacteria, viruses and fungi (collectively called microbiota) that live in the gut. At every turn it encourages awe in our bodies and a deeper respect for those underrated intestines, dubbed the ‘second brain’ by some scientists.
Though Cité des Sciences et de L’industrie has a strong focus on science for children, the Microbiota exhibition is aimed at an older audience of 10+ due to its sometimes complex subject matter. That said, with its entrance – a giant mouth emitting funny sounds – its big, pink models and its demonstrative toilets (visitors are encouraged to take a seat and try out favourable sitting positions), the exhibition would draw in any child with a healthy scatalogical interest.
Section one features a walk through the digestive system from top to bottom, brought to life by the insertion of numerous curious details that beg to be inappropriately shared over dinner. Interactive displays (the exhibition is a dream for anyone who likes pressing buttons) explain how the villi of the intestines work (small, finger-like protrusions that help digest food), why it is easier to burp when lying on our left side, what saliva is (filtered blood, sieved by the salivary glands) how faeces should look and the difference between intolerances and allergies. Alongside these are displayed X-ray videos of digestive processes; a real stomach and intestine cleaned-up using plastination (made famous by the Body Worlds exhibitions); and, most intriguingly of all, a video featuring the pulsating insides of one willing volunteer as filmed by a tiny ‘pill-camera’, providing a look at our most everyday processes in remarkable detail.
From here, a luminous tunnel, framed by soft pink protrusions (villi), leads visitors to the microbiota section. A range of displays provide an introduction to these bacteria which perform thousands of different functions in our gut, ensuring our body’s healthy balance by communicating with the immune system, the brain and the nervous system. While we might be used to startling statistics about the length of our intestines, our bacteria are here proved to be equally astonishing – on average, an individual’s gut flora weighs 200 grams and there are more bacteria in a single gram of excrement than there are human beings on Earth.
Studious visitors can also read more about the techniques used by the scientists who research these bacteria, including the use of axenic mice – bred to be entirely free of all bacteria and characterised by a huge appendix, stunted intestines, no villi and few immune cells. Others may prefer to simply run back and forth through the soft fronds of villi that line the walls. Finally, there are some simple tips on gut health and a short documentary examining faecal transplantations, a new but promising treatment for people with severe gut problems.
Because of the sheer abundance of microbiota, scientists are still far from understanding all their secrets. This could be why some aspects of the second section still feel a little unexplained, though this might also reflect the difficulty of condensing detailed research into simple terms – something that the exhibition succeeds at in the main. As Dorothée Vatinel, the curator of Microbiota explains, this is an exhibition that will require constant updating as scientific knowledge progresses. For now, Microbiota provides a fascinating introduction to this complex topic.
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