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Spain's Mercury Fountain

Grrlscientist posted this video, of a mercury fountain that can be found at the Fundació Joan Miró museum in Barcelona, last week and said "I think this is supposed to be art, but it’s kinda scary art, if you ask me."Humans have long been fascinated by this liquid metal, but it wasn't until 1866 th...

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Grrlscientist posted this video, of a mercury fountain that can be found at the Fundació Joan Miró museum in Barcelona, last week and said "I think this is supposed to be art, but it’s kinda scary art, if you ask me."



Humans have long been fascinated by this liquid metal, but it wasn't until 1866 that it was first identified as being toxic to humans when two lab techs died of dimethyl mercury posioning. But the danger wasn't truly recognized until after the mid-1950s. That's when people around Minamata Bay in Japan began to act strangely. Some would stumble as they walked or have uncontrollable tremors. Others had difficulty writing or swallowing. Twenty people died. Medical researchers eventually identified mercury-contaminated fish and shellfish as the cause. The bay was laced with decades of mercury released by a nearby plastics plant.



Today mercury is heavily regulated, so how could a mercury fountain exist? Well, you can't see it in the video, but a glass wall protects people from the art. And the employee who cleans the exhibit wears what the security guard calls an "astronaut suit."



This hasn't always been the setup, however. The mercury fountain was created by American artist Alexander Calder in 1937 for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris World's Fair ( Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne). Spain wanted to highlight the town of Almadén, home to the world's oldest and largest mercury mine and displayed the fountain prominently in the pavilion near Pablo Picasso's Guernica.
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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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