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The creators of the world’s smallest mollusk museum have giant ambitions

MICRO opened the world's smallest mollusk museum in New York in November 2017. (Video: MICRO)

When I told my roommate that I was headed to the world's smallest mollusk museum over Thanksgiving, she laughed out loud.

“World's smallest?” she repeated. “I could put some shells in a shoe box, and then I'd have the smallest mollusk museum.”

Luckily for the museum's creators, Amanda Schochet and Charles Philipp, my roommate seems to be their sole competition. As far as they are aware, theirs is not simply the smallest collection dedicated to the natural history of mollusks — the phylum of spineless creatures that includes octopuses, clams, snails and slimy sea worms. It's the only one.

“Which is too bad,” noted Schochet, a computational ecologist who used to work for NASA. “Mollusks really are amazing.”

“Museum” is perhaps a generous term for the vending-machine-size structure installed at the Brooklyn Public Library's central branch earlier this month. It was built in a rusty shipping container and contains shells scavenged from seafood restaurants. Each exhibit-like “chapter” could fit into one of my roommate's shoe boxes.

But Schochet and Philipp achieve quite a lot in very few square inches. The museum features, among other artifacts, a 3-D printed octopus brain and a liter of slime (which is the amount required by a snail to cross the Brooklyn Bridge). Its base contains slanting panes of glass onto which holograms of various species are projected: a cuttlefish, a nudibranch, a nautilus.

And it explores the bizarre and often gross details of mollusk biology with unabashed glee. The chapter on invertebrate sensory systems features tiny human figurines with smell receptors on their arms and legs and eyes on their backs — an invitation for viewers to consider what it might be like to sense the world as mollusks do. Another display about deaths of and by mollusks shows a bivalve shell with a hole drilled in it; the caption reads, “A moon snail used its radula” — a tongue-like appendage covered in sharp, tiny teeth — “to scrape this hole, then secreted a digestive enzyme inside and drank up the partially digested prey like a protein shake.”

The museum exists because of a misunderstanding. Philipp, a designer, had told Schochet he was going to New York's “smallest museum” — an eclectic collection of everyday artifacts displayed in an elevator shaft — but Schochet misheard “smallest” as “mollusk.”

“I got really excited,” she recalled, and then was crestfallen to learn that no such museum existed — in New York or elsewhere.

So the duo decided to open their own.

Two years, several grants and countless buckets of slime later, the project has morphed into a nonprofit they call MICRO. It's not an acronym, but they insist on using capital letters anyway. “It’s just our belief that small things can have big repercussions,” Philipp said.

MICRO's ambition is to build dozens of miniature, modular museums about surprising scientific subjects — such as mollusks — and install them in unlikely locations around the country — libraries, lobbies, subway stations, the Department of Motor Vehicles. Schochet said such sites are “unexploited ecological niches”: accessible (unlike many expensive, hard-to-reach traditional science museums) and sorely lacking in distractions. Amid the tedium of a DMV waiting room, even slugs start to seem compelling.

Next year, MICRO plans to install three more mollusk museums at locations around the city. The nonprofit organization will also launch a physics-oriented “Perpetual Motion Museum” focused on the law of conservation of energy.

The Brooklyn Public Library's museum, which can be broken down to fit in the back of Philipp's Honda Element, will circulate through several of the system's other branches.

For now it sits in the central library's high-ceilinged foyer, where, on a blustery afternoon in late November, several unsuspecting visitors found themselves in its thrall. A computer technician who'd stopped by to do some research about the stock market spent several long minutes staring at the tentacled and many-eyed figurines. “Everything is designed to experience the world a certain way,” he said, thoughtfully. A woman wearing a long wool coat and boots that clacked loudly on the library's granite floor took her headphones from her ears to focus on a section about environmental threats. A high school student clutching a stack of books goggled at the gory description of sea slug sex.

A boy stood on tiptoe to gaze through an eyepiece at an image of the world as a baby octopus would see it: dark, blue and utterly empty. Mollusks, the label explained, grow up entirely on their own.

Schochet and Philipp have grand ambitions for their creation. Perhaps the woman with the headphones will think about where her wastewater goes and be inspired to install water-saving appliances. Perhaps the computer technician will have a greater appreciation for the diversity of life on Earth. Perhaps the high school student will have more fun in her biology class. Perhaps the little boy, having seen the world through another creature's eyes, will show more empathy toward all species.

If that seems like a lot to ask from a six-foot box of spineless, mostly brainless animals — well, Philipp doesn't disagree. But, he said, “the museum itself, we view it as this portal.” It's an invitation to learn more.

The MICRO website features an audio guide and a nine-chapter “book” about the exhibits in the museum. It also includes suggestions of actions fans can take to protect mollusks and their environment.

“Hopefully, this museum is just the beginning,” Schochet said.

Which might explain why she and Philipp weren't bothered when I told her about my roommate's plan to challenge them for their title.

“We would love for there to be more small museums around the world,” Philipp said.

Schochet laughed. “Tell her, bring it on.”