“Endlessly Fascinating Devices”: Why the National Museum of Natural History is Exploring the Cultural Nature of Cellphones

A behind the scenes glimpse of the museum’s new exhibition, “Cellphone: Unseen Connections”

The exhibition’s eclectic displays juxtapose cutting-edge technology like smartphones and intricate motherboards with anthropological objects, like this copper axe money from Mesoamerica (second from left), and mineral specimens, such as this chalcopyrite with quartz (far left). James Di Loreto and Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian Institution

To piece together the ongoing human story, anthropologists analyze a range of cultural practices and objects like languages and art. But one of the key clues for understanding what it means to be human today sits in most people’s pockets. “Cellphones have become a defining feature of human interaction globally,” said Joshua Bell, the Curator of Globalization at the National Museum of Natural History. “This technology is an intimate part of what being human is.”

As a cultural anthropologist, Bell has spent more than a decade studying how people around the world use these “endlessly fascinating” devices. As the fastest spreading technology in human history, cellphones have become universally indispensable in an instant. These handheld gadgets have an outsized impact on everyday life by altering how societies communicate. Cellphones have even transformed how people see the world around them.

The Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, the first handheld mobile cellular phone, weighs nearly 2 pounds and took 10 hours to charge. James Di Loreto and Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian Institution

Bell is currently the curator of the museum’s new exhibition, “Cellphone: Unseen Connections.” The exhibition, which opens on June 23, explores the intersection of culture, technology and nature in cellular phones through a range of interactive displays and intriguing objects that run the gamut from ancient Egyptian gold jewelry to an “ancient” Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, the first handheld mobile cellular phone.

To learn more about the origins of the new exhibition and the evolving role of cellphones in society, Smithsonian Voices recently spoke with Bell and Christyna Solhan, the exhibition’s project manager and developer.

When people hear the word 'Anthropology,' cellphones are not the first thing that usually comes to mind. What about cellular phones piques your interests?

Joshua Bell (JB): An important through line in my work is understanding the shifting relationships people have with objects and their environments. Cellphones allow one to examine these issues from multiple perspectives. For example, I carried out a study with colleagues at George Washington University on cellphone repair vendors, which was a fascinating opportunity to understand how people fix these devices. Doing this work gave us a glimpse of the global supply chain and more insights into how cellphones are an integral part of our daily lives.

There is nothing like having your cellphone break to fully realize how much you rely on this technology. Cellphones allow cultural anthropologists to explore the material, social and linguistic dimensions of human lives at the local and global scale, and thus think about how we are interconnected through electronics.

The exhibition will display a range of artwork, including cellphone cases and accessories designed by artists from around the world. James Di Loreto and Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian Institution

"Cellphone" is definitely different from the rest of the museum's exhibitions. How did you and your team approach tackling the topic of cellphones?

JB: This exhibition is in keeping with the museum’s mission of “understanding the natural world and our place in it.” The topic of cellphones allows the museum to explore the social and cultural transformations and creative responses to this technology, as well as the environmental implications of our devices. Focusing on the cellphone allows us to address issues of sustainability and globalization.

We are telling a big natural history story through a device that nearly everyone on the planet has, which also makes it a very personal story. The show helps demonstrate that technology is an essential aspect of our humanity and an intimate part of our engagement with the environment. The show is something that NMNH is uniquely positioned to do because of the interdisciplinary nature of the show. It illustrates what NMNH can do with the breadth and depth of our collections.

An early look at the “Cellphone” gallery, located on the museum’s second floor near “Objects of Wonder.” Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

Christyna Solhan (CS): When it comes to exhibits about cellphones, most people have been exposed to the “history of technology” angle. But we knew we had to create something categorically different that situated the story of cellphones in a natural history museum context. We did that by crafting storytelling that turns these devices inside out to reveal all the connections to our natural environment and each other that cellphones hold.

What’s also different about “Cellphone” is that the team set out to develop an exhibition and programming to engage young people between the ages of 13 and 25. While most of our exhibits at NMNH target broad, multigenerational audiences, for this exhibit we wanted to target young people who are actively growing up navigating their worlds with these devices.

How did you and the curatorial team choose the particular objects displayed in the exhibition? Is there one particular object you're most excited for visitors to see?

JB: NMNH’s vast and historic mineral and anthropological collections were a critical aspect of the show as both a source of inspiration and as something to respond to and expand upon. It also provided an opportunity to expand the collections. In 2010 and 2011, I collected bilums [string bags] and baskets in Papua New Guinea that are used to hold and store cellphones. I also commissioned then NYU PhD student Barbara Andersen to collect bilums in 2012, who purchased a small bilum for one cellphone.

“Cellphone” displays several cultural objects, including these bilum bags and hanging string basket from Papua New Guinea. James Di Loreto and Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian Institution

We also feature an akeke (a basket made from sago fibers) that I purchased in 2010 from Aea Kevin, a young I’ai basket maker whose family I have known since 2000. While a traditional form and material, the basket is decorated with store bought dyes and used to hold a variety of things alongside one’s cellphone. Alongside this basket are an embroidered bag from the Kachchh region of Gujarat, India, and a beaded bag commissioned from Jennie Kappenman (enrolled Red Lake Ojibwe, with lineage to Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe). I hope that throughout the exhibit people will see how cultural diversity can flourish in relation to this technology.

CS: In the section of the exhibit where we explore all of the human and natural resources that go into your cellphone, we have a massive case that evokes the shape of a giant cellphone and showcases the roughly 65 or so elements that are used in the average cellphone. Each element is represented by a real mineral specimen that is a part of NMNH’s extensive collections, and so I think that case beautifully reveals how our natural world is really deeply embedded within the technology we use, and how our technology wouldn’t be possible without the earth’s resources.

One of the highlights of “Cellphone” is a large, cellphone-shaped display case containing the 65 elements found inside most cellphones. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

In addition to these objects, what else will “Cellphone” have on display?

JB: As a curator, I was really driven by an anthropological maxim that when done well anthropology helps make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. The show sets up a series of cross-cultural comparisons such that everyone will hopefully see themselves in the show while also learning about others.

We incorporated personal profiles of people that emerged out of interviews carried out by the exhibition writer, project manager and myself. We featured people and objects from 35 countries and 22 US states. Through these profiles, we hope to give the global supply chain a personal dimension and inspire the next generation of STEM careers.

Precious metals like gold (top right) have been used by humans for millennia to craft artwork and jewelry, like this pendant (top middle). Today, gold is utilized to create SIM cards and other crucial components of smartphones. James Di Loreto and Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian Institution

We also worked with comic book artist Khary Randolph and writer Joanne Starer in an interactive fashion to develop a remarkable comic book mural that explores cellphone use in terms of privacy, health and constant connection. I feel the mural breaks new ground for the museum and will hopefully provoke conversations about the role of this technology in our lives.

The interactive aspects of "Cellphone" are exciting. What activities aim to capture visitors' attention and interests?

JB: There are in essence four main interactives. The first – the cellphone forest – is an entrance experience where visitors will encounter larger than life cellphones which they can interact with and have their faces transformed into an emoji.
The cellphone forest will offer visitors a chance to walk amongst supersized smartphones. Smithsonian Institution

As part of this experience visitors will be introduced to the group chat where they will answer questions that will feed into our data visualization. The data visualization is our attempt to help visitors see how their experiences with cellphones relate to that of other visitors. The group chat is a way for people to engage with themes of the show either through their cellphone or kiosks in the exhibit.

The other experiences are two games. One focuses on infrastructure and how to sustain a call while on a hypothetical journey while the other focuses on cellphone repair. In the case of repair, the idea was to introduce repair as a possibility to visitors and create a low-stakes but interesting experience where they could learn about the process.

What message do you hope visitors take away from the exhibition?

CS: Part of our museum’s mission is to excite and educate visitors about how people and nature are intimately connected. I’ll consider our efforts with “Cellphone” to be successful if visitors, and especially young people, come away having a deeper appreciation for how integral the natural world is to their everyday lives in so many ways, including through their cellphones.

JB: That we are interconnected to a host of people around the world through our cellphone and that technology is an intimate part of what being human is and connects us to our environment.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

“Cellphone: Unseen Connections” and its educational programming and national outreach efforts are made possible through the charitable generosity of lead sponsor Qualcomm with major support by T-Mobile.

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