Intersect: Micro museums deliver macro experiences for underserved communities

MICRO builds tiny, mobile museums and brings them to underserved communities, delivering a massive experience in a small footprint.

January 21, 2020


As far as museum experiences go, it’s not all about size. In fact, MICRO is a company built around the goal of delivering a high-quality museum with a small footprint. The company was born out of the need to bring museums to underserved communities where the populations typically don’t have the access or resources to experience the traditional, massive building filled with exhibits.

In this video series, “Intersect,” host Paul Sohi, self-proclaimed design nerd, chats with entrepreneurs and innovators doing new and incredible things with advanced technology. For this episode, Sohi and Louisa Bukiet, head of product at MICRO, discuss the need for these unique museum experiences, as well as the nontraditional way the company thinks about design by hiring from diverse educational and professional backgrounds. MICRO is a resident at the Autodesk San Francisco Technology Center, the setting for today’s bayside chat.

View transcript

Paul Sohi: My name is Paul Sohi. I’m an industrial designer for Autodesk. I like to build things, take on design challenges, and collaborate with designers, engineers, and fabricators from all over the world to build better things. They have some pretty great stories, and these are some of them. Welcome to “Intersect.”

We’re here today with Louisa from MICRO. Louisa, welcome.

Louisa Bukiet, Head of Product, MICRO: Thanks.

Sohi: How’s it going?

Bukiet: Pretty good.

Sohi: I’m already a big fan of MICRO, but I imagine that a fair few people watching this probably don’t know what you guys do. So can you tell me a little bit about MICRO and what you guys make?

Bukiet: Sure. We make small science museums that we install in public spaces to help broader communities access high-quality science knowledge.

Sohi: That’s awesome. I’m all about learning, especially when it’s science-based because science is the best. So how did you guys get started, and what was the impetus and drive behind creating MICRO in the first place?

Bukiet: Well, a lot of people love science museums, just like you, but access to them is very limited. So currently, they tend to cluster in wealthy neighborhoods, and people who attend them tend to be very white and very educated. So we wanted to take that same experience and be able to access a much broader audience for that informal knowledge. So we decided to take the museum out of the museum and instead put it in public spaces and communities where people are already spending their time.

Our science museums are very small. They are about six feet tall, and they are two feet on a side, so we can put them anywhere. We can put them in the lobby of a public hospital, we can put them in a public library. And then, when people are already spending their time there, they get to learn about mollusks.

Sohi: That’s awesome. Mollusks are definitely worth learning about. Mollusks are…What is a mollusk?

Bukiet: That’s an interesting question because there’s actually no formal definition of one.

Sohi: Oh, really? Well, there you go. I learned something new.

Bukiet: But yeah, our first museum series is called the Smallest Mollusk Museum, and it explores 650 million years of evolutionary history in 15 different exhibits with small movie theaters, 3D prints, and a digital aquarium.

Sohi: That’s super cool. Traditionally speaking, if you said “museum” to someone, of course they’d think of a building that they have to go into. So how do you guys define museum?

Bukiet: Well, we use a lot of the same tricks that museum designers do. So we try to make sure our museums are “museum-y.” But a lot of that comes into the design aspects. They’re made out of this beautiful material, white Corian, which has a lovely light glow from it. So from a design aspect, it looks very high quality, it looks very high end.

So when you go into a museum and you see these large spaces or these beautiful exhibits, we bring that same attention to detail into our design work so that when people see it, it feels like a special experience.

Sohi: So you mentioned, you’re a designer. It’s interesting that this is what you’ve chosen to address as a problem. I’m assuming you’re just really fascinated by science. How did you arrive at, “This is the thing that I want to solve”?

Bukiet: So my background, I originally studied architecture, and I have a graduate degree in engineering. So I come from a design background, and as I’ve worked through different things, the design of the human scale has always been really interesting. So not tiny little things, not huge buildings, but something that people can access very easily in their personal space. So these different types of public-space interventions again create a different experience in a public space.

People think of when they’re in public, they’re by themselves, they don’t want to connect with anyone, so by placing something in their path, you then get people to connect in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t. And that’s kind of exciting. So you see people talking about the exhibits with each other. Strangers, who they never would have had a conversation with otherwise, are sort of giggling at the effect or this or that. So getting people outside their comfort zones and finding tricks to do that is really exciting for me.

Sohi: I would argue, personally, that there is a unique combination of things that arrives at a product like this. I think if someone is an industrial designer, they’re not necessarily gonna have the same experiences and understanding of how people interact with spaces at an architectural level. And that’s sort of how, in my mind at least, MICRO is uniquely successful.

Bukiet: Yeah. Actually, we pride ourselves on our interdisciplinary team. The two founders—one has a science background, she was an ecologist; the other comes from a film background.

Sohi: Oh, cool.

Bukiet: So he sort of has a different type of design background. And then our main content developer was a novelist—so she had no science-writing background—and a journalist, so that’s rare. So yeah, we sort of all come with our own perspective and our own backgrounds. And that, sometimes, with any disciplinary team, causes some friction because we have our own perspectives. But I think it also creates a really robust product because we can all bring our own experiences and therefore we can reach many different people, and we get the benefit of all these different kinds of ways of looking at the world.

Sohi: That’s really awesome. You might even say you intersect a few different professions. Sorry.

Why do you think that now is the right time to address this? I feel like, arguably, anytime is the right time to address this kind of thing, but is there anything unique about the current state of technology or just bringing the right people together that helped make MICRO happen?

Bukiet: 3D printing has definitely been pretty instrumental in our design development. We use a lot of 3D prints throughout our exhibits. That helps us in a couple of different ways. One is that we can iterate very fast in our designs, so we can change things and implement them very quickly. But the other way is that we create a design and then we make many replicas of it. So we have six copies. We’ve made six copies of the Smallest Mollusk Museum so we can get it into six different places in the world. And so with 3D printing, we can design that exhibit once, but then we can just print it multiple times to build multiple copies of that.

Sohi: So we’ve talked about 3D printing and how you’re using cloud technologies and digital technologies to help with the distribution and the processes in creation. But what is coming over the horizon that you think is going to be really useful to MICRO? Or what has just got you most excited about emerging technologies right now?

Bukiet: I think one thing that’s exciting about technologies is how accessible they’re becoming. So, software is getting easier to use, user interfaces are getting easier for both software and also for things like 3D printing or laser cutting, which makes it accessible to so many more people, which is really cool because it’s democratizing the process, and it’s allowing so many more people to experiment with design and try their hand at it. It used to be, with 3D printers, you had to have a whole lot of background in how to set the parameters and how to build a print so that it would work well, and now technology does a lot of that back work for you. You just have to think about what you want to create and the interface will help you through the problems and essentially will identify the holes.

You still have to be conscious of how you’re designing it. You can’t fix something that’s complete crap, but you have a lot of help, and that just allows so many more people to engage and work with these technologies. I think that’s really exciting, just allowing more people access and allowing more people engagement in the space.

Sohi: MICRO conceptually is not something that could have happened as little as 10 years ago. We had to wait for technologies to catch up and manufacturing processes to come into place that would enable these weird and wonderful creations to come to life. I’m looking at your earrings, I’m assuming those are 3D printed as well.

Bukiet: They are, yeah.

Sohi: Yeah. It’s the kind of geometries that you could never do before, right?

Bukiet: Yeah.

Sohi: And I think it’s fair to say that we’re both old enough to have seen processes change over time. Those technologies that are available to us, whether it’s 3D printing or just the ease of CAD, cloud tech, whatever it might be. How do you feel it’s changed our interactions with the design and engineering process?

Bukiet: It’s certainly opened it up to more people, like I’ve said. I think the fundamentals of good design are still the same. One of the interesting things I think a lot about for design is that, if you design poorly, it’s very obvious. A poorly designed object that you interact with, you’re constantly frustrated by. Whereas if something is designed really well, you don’t think about the design at all. It melts into the background. So, good design means that no one ever thinks about the design or thinks about all the effort and all the blood, sweat, and tears you’ve put into it. So I think that hasn’t changed. I think that technology has made it easier to achieve those goals and has made it easier to communicate around them and to get to that product much faster and to iterate on it faster.

Part of our process at MICRO is always prototyping and testing our designs and making them better. And technology has allowed us to do those cycles in a way that creates a much better product because we can test it once, see where it’s broken or see where it doesn’t work, and then fix it, and then put the better product out into the world. So the end result is much more seamless.

Sohi: Do you feel like it’s fair to say the ability to reiterate on something that you’ve already published is something that you guys like the most?

Bukiet: Yeah. We do that constantly. So even the Smallest Mollusk Museum, which we publicly launched two years ago, we’re still improving. So we’re still catching things that don’t work as well, concepts that don’t come across, or parts of exhibits that break. And with a 3D model, you can just quickly tweak it, reprint it, remount it, and get it back out there in a really short cycle. Our goals of continuous improvement and constantly making the product better so the experience is better for the user—it just makes it easy.

Sohi: Well, thank you so much for having been on the show. I can’t wait to see the next MICRO installation.

Bukiet: Thanks for having me.

Sohi: Thank you. You’ve been watching “Intersect.”

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