GERM THEORY: Smithsonian Exhibit Puts Microbes under the Microscope

Article excerpt

Bacteria are all around us. There are germs that help us live and fight disease, and there are some that threaten our health.

That is the message a new Smithsonian exhibition called "Microbes: Invisible Invaders . . . Amazing Allies" is trying to convey to children. The exhibit, which opened May 22 in the International Gallery at the S. Dillon Ripley Center, aims to teach school-age youngsters that learning about germs can be fun.

"We wanted to find a way to bring microbes to life," says Randall Kaye, a New York pediatrician who served as a consultant for the 5,000-square-foot exhibit, which is in Washington through Sept. 6 as part of an 11-city tour that ends in 2001. "It is hard to understand and appreciate what microbes are because you can't see them. Children should have fun at this exhibit, and maybe a few will be so interested they will become microbiologists."

The organizers of "Microbes" teach the science of germs through interactive areas where visitors can play a video game that fires ammunition (antibiotics) at invading bacteria or pit white blood cells against microbe invaders in a game of virtual reality that mimics the immune system.

"What is exciting about `Microbes' is that it is child-based," says Elly Muller, spokeswoman for the Smithsonian's Traveling Exhibit Service. "Most of the Smithsonian's exhibits are for general audiences. This is incredibly interactive and definitely lots of fun."

The visit to "Microbes" begins with a historical perspective of bacteria. Visitors walk through a replica of a skull-filled Paris catacomb, where a robotic guide explains the bubonic plague epidemic of 1400. The robot wears flowers and herbs, which were used then to protect people from disease, which they believed was caused by poison rising from the earth.

From there, visitors go to a replica of an Egyptian tomb and a photo of the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses V that shows pockmarks from smallpox, which is believed to have killed him in 1151 B.C.

"This part of the exhibit is to show that disease is nothing new," Dr. Kaye says. "It has been with us a long time."

The exhibit moves into modern times, starting with "Main Street North America," which chronicles the epidemics of polio, flu and tuberculosis that swept North America during the first half of this century. This section also features an iron lung, which was necessary for many polio survivors but is virtually obsolete today, and a video about the discovery and mass production of penicillin. …