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But what is the difference between a virus and a bacterium?

Epidemic! The World of Infectious Disease

An exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, through the exhibition’s serpentine
New York City, NY, U S A .S h owing until Sept 6, 1999. layout.
( Less successful are the interactive
computer displays that attempt to lead
the viewer through complex biological

hen the venerable American cast fleeting images and interrupted s e q u e n c e s. One computer game
Museum of Natural History newscasts from epidemics past. In the requires that macrophages, T cells,
in New York City surveyed first display, projected mice eerily and B cells be dragged across the
its museum attendees, an screen to activate an
overwhelming majori t y immune response. B u t
were interested in infec- baulky touch screens,
tious diseases, but only s o f t ware glitches, a n d
10% knew the difference unintuitive design baffle
between a virus and a bac- even the 13-year-olds. No
terium. The disease they such problems plague the
were most concern e d t e c h n o l o gically ancient
about? Ebola. Education m u t o s c o p e s. Children
on infectious diseases and adults crowd around
seems to be coming more the 90-year-old machines
from television news and for their chance to drop
newspaper headlines than in a penny, crank the han-
from the family physician. dle, and peer through the
The museum responded viewfinder at a simple
with Epidemic! The World of morality tale about
Infectious Disease, a distil- disease wrought by sex,
lation of information on b l o o d , f o o d , or skin
microbes and men, t h e Installation of bacteria and viruses contact.
b o d y ’s defences, and The subsequent dis-
epidemics. scurry across a dusty cabin floor. plays on disease epidemics are vivid
The entrance to the exhibition sets Outside, a thunderstorm soaks the and well-researched stage sets. An
the stage as large video screens broad- desert, while inside a man in silhou- a i r-conditioner blows air into the
ette sweeps. His televi- Legionnaires’ hall, and a tubercular
sion crackles to life; the tenement house is horrifyingly
s t o ry of the 1993 realistic. John Snow’s pump stands
Hantavirus outbreak in across the aisle from disembodied nee-
Four Corn e rs , N e w dle-sharing arms and a plague-infested
Mexico, is told in clips merchant ship. Children hurry past
from the nightly news. these scary exhibits and into the per-
Further on lies a cham- ve rse comfort of panoramic video
ber decorated with screens showing the 1918 influenza
f o o t-long microbial pandemic and the world war that
models. Children stroke facilitated it.
the textured surfaces of Epidemic! The Wo rld of Infe c t i o u s
viral part i c l e s , a d u l t s D i s e a s e uses media strat e gies and
read the brief but infor- modern technology to promote the
mative text, and micro- p rinciples of a natural history
biologists marvel at the museum. The result is entertaining
ve risimilitude of the and artful, and conveys the marvel of
300 or so models. biological dive rs i t y, the wonder of
The scientific accu- scientific discovery, and the myriad
racy of the models bor- interactions between human beings
ders on the obsessive: and the natural world. At the exit, I
the paramecium is ani- asked 12-year-old Nick about the
mated by 2500 individ- exhibition. He loved the show, but he
ually positioned cilia, c o u l d n ’t quite remember the
the surface of an difference between a virus and a
influenza virus is stud- bacterium.
ded with haemagglu-
tinin tri m e rs and
neuraminidase tetra-
mers, and the nearby Farzad Mostashari
shigellae conjugat e , Centers for Disease Control and
p r o p e r l y. S u s p e n d e d Prevention, and New York City
overhead, a microbial Department of Health, 125 Worth Street,
Interactive scan of the human body trail guides the viewer Box 22A, New York, NY 10013, USA

THE LANCET • Vol 353 • June 12, 1999 2081