A computational biologist walks into a museum

Field Museum logo

I’ve written parts of HMMER’s code in the shadow of a massive Tyrannosaurus, and this week I’ll get to do it again. I’m on an advisory committee for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, surely one of the few places you can sit in a cafe amongst dinosaurs. We’re meeting this Thursday and Friday at the museum. Getting a backstage pass to one of the great museums of the world is an awesome perk, but we’ve also got a serious job to do. In an age of iPads and ubiquitous information and entertainment, what should the future of a great natural history museum be?

I think that people have a special thing for getting up close to physical artifacts, in a way that an iPad will never satisfy. I get a thrill out of writing code next to Tyrannosaurus Sue, or seeing a mockup of Darwin’s office when the Field Museum had their Darwin exhibit, or seeing ancient maps at the Field’s Maps exhibit, in a way that’s viscerally different than seeing the same things on the Internet. Museums may need to have spiffy computer exhibits and movies too, but I think this needs to be carefully weighed against the ease of getting the same stuff from the net. A museum’s superpower is in its physical artifacts.

So what I’m struggling with is, since I figure I ought to have something to say about it, how should museums deal with modern genomics and computational biology? The Field Museum has a terrific evolutionary biology research program, in association with the University of Chicago, and the work in one of the laboratories (the Pritzker Laboratory of Molecular Systematics) is even visible through glass from the public museum. It’s sort of cool to watch molecular biologists work, but watching people pipette is not nearly as cool as watching fossil curators prep specimens (which you can also do at the Field). The Field has also shown it can nail the personal angle on being a scientist, like they did with a current exhibit (“A lifetime romance with ants”) about one of their researchers, Corrie Moreau, an exhibit about growing up to be a scientist that’s so damned good it will bring tears to your eyes (it did for me, anyway). But one thing about genomics and computational biology, we’re a pretty non-photogenic field. Once you’ve seen a bunch of ACGT’s, you’ve, uh, seen a bunch of ACGT’s.

What do people think? What should the Field look to do in the future, in general or specifically in genetics, genomics, and computational biology (if anything)? (I can always focus more on the research arm of the Field, as opposed to the public face of the museum. The future opportunities in applying genomics to evolutionary biology are much more obvious, though.) The media are full of interesting stories about genomics, and it’s going to affect our lives in unexpected ways. Does any of that important excitement translate to a public museum-going experience? I’d be interested in people’s ideas. I can carry them with me to Chicago this week.

5 thoughts on “A computational biologist walks into a museum

  1. I love wandering down to the T.rex at the Life Sciences Building on campus. Coincidentally, Svante Pääbo was talking here today…

    Rather than exploratorium-type exhibits (which kill me with boredom – kids science museums always struck me as bogus I’m afraid), I would greatly prefer to see an actual historical display of biotech machines (sequencing machines, pipetting robots) and lab gear. The Bletchley computer museum is an excellent model http://www.tnmoc.org/galleries.aspx

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  2. Ian’s suggestion seems like a good one. Sort of a historical retrospective of the field with old (and newer) equipment. Could easily be mixed in with exhibits and such on where we are headed with things like personal genomics, genomic forensics for pathogens, stuff like that.

    Could give Venter some more ego stroking with an exhibit on the human genome project and the global ocean survey.

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