Microbes in the museum

Biology Cinema Denison Museum Denison Museum
September 25, 2014

Museums are full of objects that are usually kept behind glass or in sterile storage areas — not the type of environments that we typically associate with bacteria, fungi, molds or yeasts. But biology major Hannah Roodhouse ’16 is a curious person. And she thought it would be interesting to examine some relics in the Denison Museum to see what microscopic stowaways may have been hitching a ride.

“Typically students might want to know about the historical or cultural aspect of these objects,” said Roodhouse. “We’re taking these artifacts and objects that were used by people for hundreds of years and looking at them in a new light.”

The museum has more than 8,000 objects to choose from, so the Cincinnati native enlisted the aid of curator Anna Cannizzo to help her select an intentional array for her experiment. Together, they put together a motley assemblage of items made of different materials, originating from different locations and dating from different ages.

“We’re taking historical artifacts and objects that were used by people for hundreds of years and looking at them in a new light.”

Dry test swabbings were taken from Pre-Columbian terra-cotta ollas from Mexico, a metal teapot from China, a 20th century Balinese boar’s mask (made of wood and animal hair bristles), Roman papyrus from Egypt that dates as early as 1500 BCE, and more. The initial results were disappointingly anticlimactic.

So permissions were granted to try a wet swab technique, dipping the sterile cotton swabs in water before swiping the surfaces of the objects—with much more interesting outcomes.

“When we did a wet sampling, we found a lot of microbes,” says Roodhouse. “And after doing all the samples, I realized that there is definitely more bacteria and fungi growing in the more porous materials, such as terra-cotta, than in painted wood or metal.”

At the moment, Roodhouse is isolating the different microorganisms that were present in the samples, but she’s interested in taking this a bit further – maybe even using them to help identify if the objects were used in ways that we weren’t aware of before, furthering the available scholarship for these objects.

“This has opened my eyes to the different types of work that biology can be used for – not only is it helpful in understanding theoretical questions but also understanding of what’s around us,” says Roodhouse.

Cannizzo is enthusiastic about the partnership and its results. “Faculty and students can look at these objects critically from their academic perspective: biology, chemistry, history, anthropology — even economics students can examine the money in our collection.”

Note: The video you see here is the work of Ori Segev ’14. Segev, a cinema major from Needham, Ma., collaborated with Roodhouse and the museum staff to document the process. Currently a freelance videographer and editor in Columbus, Ohio, Segev is parleying his film-making experience into a new venture. He has plans to collaborate with several of his classmates to launch a small company, Loose Films Production Company.