Melbourne Museum and Scienceworks may be reopening on June 27, but there’s been plenty of interactive content to explore during lockdown on Museum at Home. That online option will be just as handy after the physical sites reopen, giving a behind-the-scenes look at the somewhat mysterious work people like Dr Johanna Simkin, Museums Victoria’s senior curator of human biology and medicine, actually do.
“Museums Victoria has a huge in-house team of designers, experience developers, carpenters and more, so each exhibition is a real team effort,” says Simkin. Case in point: she collaborated with EMMY and BAFTA-nominated animator Drew Berry for 2016’s Biomedical Breakthroughs exhibition, and recently helped organise a saliva-based experiment in which museum visitors contributed their microbial DNA fingerprints – yielding an incredibly detailed “microbe map” that’s now available to the public.
Whether engaging with rapidly changing research about gut health or collating the public’s personal experiences during the pandemic, Simkin boasts an uncommonly multifaceted job. We asked her about it.
How would you explain your job to a non-museum person?
My job is a mixed bag of researching and pitching exhibitions, curating them, and also looking after the medical side of Victoria’s state heritage collection. This involves chatting with all kinds of doctors, researchers, innovators and artists to bring ideas together in a way that’s fun and meaningful for the public.
What drew you to this area of expertise?
I probably never grew out of the “but why” phase! I especially liked developmental biology for its romantic, old-world-charm microscope experiments and fundamental questions of existence – the idea of how a bunch of cells becomes a living thing.
That’s how I ended up in a biology lab, looking at nervous-system development. My PhD looked at a group of stem-like cells first discovered in 1868. When you’re a tiny embryo, these cells migrate all the way from your hindbrain into your heart and gut to help form the heart and mature into your gut’s intricate nerve network. My work showed these cells need a chemical signal in the hindbrain to know to “hold hands” as they migrate – likely important for forming a healthy, connected network in the gut later on.
After some years researching in Paris and Melbourne, I moved into curation – where I get to showcase historical and cutting-edge medical content to the public.
What have you worked on recently?
I was pleased to pitch and curate the exhibition Gut Feelings. It explores very recent and ongoing discoveries of how microbes living in our gut impact our mental and physical health.
I’ve also been working on collecting stories to capture the Covid-19 pandemic. Our collections are not only a source of content for future exhibitions, but also a source for future researchers and curious members of the public.
What is the strangest thing your job entails?
Where to begin! A natural history museum is an amazing place to work for the lift conversations alone: marine biologists studying deep-sea creatures, conservators restoring 80-year-old doll’s houses and curators working with First Peoples communities on artefacts and stories.
What’s the most rewarding thing about the job?
I love creating content that is exciting for the eyeballs – immersive, with sound, light and touch. I don’t want to present a fusty old idea of biology, because it’s not a textbook diagram. It’s how you are thinking, feeling and existing every day.
Explore an in-depth microbe map to see how gut health varies from suburb to suburb across Melbourne, and join in the evolving conversation about how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected our lives, among other highlights from Melbourne Museum at Home.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Museums Victoria.