• A Microbial Folly

A Microbial Folly



London, 1887. Dr Jekyll let loose Mr Hyde; Frankenstein had sparked lives out of corpses; a biology student by the name of Wells was contemplating time travel; and we had journeyed to the centre of the earth. Science was in the popular psyche.

Propelled by momentum of the industrial revolution and the spirit of adventure in the empire expanded, the 19th century was a time of scientific and medical advancement. Microbiology was at its infancy. Skills in manufacturing quality glass and instruments led to great improvement in microscopes. The use of agar plates and later, concealed glass dishes invented by Julius Richard Petri, allowed microbes to be grown and studied effectively. For the first time in human history, diseases could be shown and traced back to causes that were firmly of this world. Peering into this minute new world of bacteria, there was a morbid fascination and wonder in the strange and the grotesque.

At the same time, pleasure gardens were popular destinations for the masses. Since 17th century and well into the Victorian era, people of all classes were able to go to these gardens for leisure and pleasure. They were entertained as well as enlightened by the cacophony of performances and curiosities.

Imagine a scene in such a pleasure garden in Victorian London, the rotundas, the bands, the entertainers, the couples in the dark corners, the idle chatters and passionate speeches. Landed amongst the chaotic spectacles is a folly. A structure that looks somewhat alien in its context, yet as exotic as the surrounding frolics and goings-on. On closer inspection, it is a structure of modules of glass containments, triangular petri dishes. Concealed inside them, just as they do in a laboratory, microbes grow in these agar filled dishes, each is a unique kaleidoscopic colony of bacteria, filtering colourful light through the Folly, like stained glass windows in a new kind of chapel where only experimentation and knowledge are worshipped.

A freak show that befits the time in excess of wonders and bewilderment, the folly encapsulates the zeitgeist of the era, as if to trap and culture, within the transparent plates of the petri dishes, the excitement that is as ephemeral as the microbes themselves.