The exhibition. A tiny exhibition for animalcules, if we use the name we once gave to microscopic critters. This is what the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac offers, in Paris, with “Micro worlds”. Rather than an exhibition, its curator, Frédéric Keck, CNRS research director at the Laboratory of Social Anthropology, prefers to speak of “an experiment, which crosses the history of microbiology with anthropology and contemporary art” . Arriving in the modest space dedicated to him, the visitor is thus immediately confronted with a painting by Hervé Di Rosa where bubbling and colorful microbes scrutinize us with wide eyes, but also with a termite trap. from China and under the microscope of Louis Pasteur…
What reactions do the different cultures of the world have to the proliferating tiny beings that infest us, microorganisms or insects? In these times of pandemic, fear seems the most obvious answer. The first electron microscopy photo of the Ebola virus, old newspaper pages on the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s, the first representations of HIV (to be compared, today, to those of SARS-CoV-2… ) nevertheless suggest that by becoming an image the invisible pathogenic agent becomes more familiar, less frightening. Blown glass sculptures, created by the British artist Luke Jerram and representing the flu, SARS or avian flu viruses, are almost reassuring with their translucent elegance.
Control of the microscopic by humans
But humans have also captured, controlled the microscopic, even hijacked it for their own benefit. Here are cricket boxes from Indonesia or China, whose occupants were kept to be heard singing. These are objects used for the fermentation of beer, which remind us that alcohol, yoghurts, cheeses and leavened breads do not exist without the collaboration of micro-organisms. But the strangest thing is this small mat made by the Wayana people (Guyana) in the fabric of which living stinging ants were caught. During ceremonies, it covered the chests of adolescents who, under the effect of the venom, could have hallucinations or even faint, the insect serving here as an agent of initiation.
The – short – visit ends with an astonishing “Requiem for xylophages”, a recording where we hear three species of wood-eating insects feeding: the beetle larva of mastic houses, the termite of Saintonge sizzles and the big beetle bangs its head. Why end this museographic “experimentation” like this? Because these xylophages are among the greatest enemies of a museum full of wooden works, such as that of the Quai Branly. And Frédéric Keck recalls that at one time musical instruments were contaminated on display… near the museum’s cloakroom. Human visitors were the vectors of infestation.