The exhibit takes viewers through our history with cellphones, how they’re made and how they impact our world.
For many of us, our smartphones are almost an appendage of the body. Always in hand, we’re connected in real-time to breaking news and family and friends, and we have limitless knowledge just a few clicks away. Your phone is probably the last thing you glance at before going to sleep and most likely the first thing you pick up in the morning. Because cellphones seem so ordinary to us, we rarely think about how we hold the world at arm’s length in these compact pieces of technology.
The pioneering new exhibition “Cellphone: Unseen Connections” at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History asks us to stop scrolling (momentarily) and to consider this indispensable marvel of modern technology in an ambitious interactive exhibit. The exhibition has been years in the making, with over 750 cellphone-related objects and over 35 countries represented. Exploring cellphones from different lenses — anthropological, sociological, technological and environmental — “Unseen Connections” also creates a deep focus on the global networks that create and operate cellphones, and on how phone users are interconnected worldwide.
Joshua Bell, curator of globalization, has been thinking about this project since he joined the National Museum of Natural History in 2008. While researching how deforestation and industrialization affected community members in the Purari Delta of Papua New Guinea in the early 2000s, Bell noticed how quickly the new technology of smartphones — first introduced in 2007 — also impacted the people of this region. Bell also noted how his own behaviors and those of anyone with early smartphones quickly adapted, too.
After pitching the exhibition idea in 2017 and receiving both approval and funding, Bell began researching and curating — along with a large team from both the Smithsonian and local universities — this exciting new exhibition that seamlessly integrates the natural and social sciences.
“It’s a very traditional natural history story, but through an object that almost everyone on the planet has,” Bell says. “At the very least, there are more cell phones than there are people on the planet. We’re trying to tell natural history through a device in almost everyone’s pocket. It’s a very personal, very local story, but it’s also a very global story. With the concept of ‘unseen connections,’ we consider the people, places and materials that go into the device.”
If you’re reading this article on your phone, look at the little device before you. A standard cellphone comprises 65 different minerals and rare earth metals from around the world (the human body is made of 6 measly elements), and the exhibition gives museum visitors a chance to get a glimpse of the minerals like silver, gold and lithium — all mined from different regions of the globe — that power and connect their phones.
The exhibition team stressed the global nature that’s ingrained in cellphones from their creation through their use and eventual recycling. There are interviews with over 35 cellphone innovators, including engineers, artisanal miners, material scientists and various activists — from those who recycle the scrap metals of discarded phones in Germany to a Zapotec community member in Oaxaca, Mexico who worked with her community to build their own DIY cellphone network. There is even an interactive display where guests can track a cellphone’s journey as it moves through the global network.
The exhibit shows many teenagers are not just mindlessly scrolling but actively using their phones for the greater good. Rayouf Alhumedhi famously began campaigning for more inclusive emojis when she was 15 and successfully created the first hijab emoji. A group of Indigenous students in Ohio have been developing language apps to revitalize and preserve their mother tongue of Myaamia.
Bell points out two startling facts about today’s teens: first, that Gen Z have only lived in a world of touchscreen technology, and second, that the insatiable curiosity young kids have for all things science dissipates during high school. Bell and the education teams at the Smithsonian worked with focus groups of D.C. teens while designing this exhibition to appeal to this key demographic of tech-savvy, but science-wary youth. This includes a major comic mural that runs throughout the exhibition designed by Marvel and DC Comics dream team Khary Randolph and Joanne Starer, intended to provoke intergenerational conversations about major smartphone issues like mental health, environmental activism, privacy, misinformation and moral panics.
Other interactive and innovative aspects of the exhibition cover cellphone pop culture and the arts, from Kente cloth shirts and Indian saris designed with cellphone pockets to displays of toy cellphones to an abebu adekai — also known as a fantasy coffin — shaped like an old-school Nokia cell. There is a forest of 10-foot tall interactive cellphones and an infrastructure recreation with tower antennas and fiber-optic cables that allows visitors to trace how cellphone technology works.
“The exhibit is a smartphone snapshot of humanity in the 21st century,” Bell says.
“Cellphone: Unseen Connections” opens at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on Friday, June 23, with after-hours programming during the Smithsonian’s Summer Solstice event on Saturday, June 24. For more information, visit naturalhistory.si.edu and follow on Instagram @smithsoniannmnh.
National Museum of Natural History: 1000 Madison Dr. NW, DC
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