A new exhibit at the Witte Museum invites attendees to consider the role that physics plays in the day to day activities of living things. On loan from the Field Museum in Chicago, The Machine Inside: Biomechanics offers an interactive, multimodal look at the inner machinery of animal and plant bodies. 

The exhibit, which will run through April 18, is designed to generate a curiosity and knowledge base about biomachines that then extends to other types of machines and structures in the world, said Beth Stricker, the museum’s vice president of exhibitions

While the museum had to cancel a few planned exhibits last year, Stricker spoke enthusiastically about how hosting this traveling exhibit (and the next few the Witte has lined up) feels like a slight return to normal.

She also feels like the content of The Machine Inside is oddly perfect for the moment, noting that a global pandemic may provide an ideal impetus to look more closely at the unseen processes and connections in the world.

“It’s really all about looking past the surface of nature and getting deeper into what makes things work the way that they do,” she said.

According to Sarah Rowley, the Witte’s STEM education manager, this exhibit’s strength is that it “shows how plant and animal bodies function, bringing in ideas from material science, physics, and simple machines.” 

“When you start seeing how these things work, it can give you a different way of viewing the entire world,” she said.

By way of example, Rowley explained that the human arm is a kind of lever. “When you start to think of it as a lever,” she said, you not only understand more about how your body works but also gain rather intimate insight into how levers and simple machines work in general.

Interactive physical and digital components – including robotic biomimicry elements, 80 specimen displays, and large-scale videos – offer visitors an immersive learning experience.

For younger visitors, especially, Rowley touted an interactive digital item in the exhibition where one can select from a variety of wing types and sizes and actually experience flapping those wings.

“It’s a really cool thing to be able to actually feel the difference between wings,” she said.

This allows visitors to compare the advantages of a short wing to a long wing, for instance, and thus to gain some intuitive understanding of the physics behind flight.

A highlight of The Machine Inside is a model of a giraffe that allows visitors to pump its heart and thereby come to appreciate the strength that the animal’s heart needs to battle gravity in the crucial endeavor of getting blood to its head.
A model of a giraffe allows visitors to pump its heart and understand the strength that the animal’s heart needs to get blood to its head. Credit: Courtesy / Witte Museum

Another highlight of The Machine Inside, according to Rowley, is a model of a giraffe that allows visitors to pump its heart and thereby come to appreciate the strength that the animal’s heart needs to battle gravity in the crucial endeavor of getting blood to its head. 

A tangential component to all of this discovery, Rowley noted, is that it can get people thinking about how species have adapted their mechanical components over time.

Ultimately, both Stricker and Rowley are excited to offer an opportunity for exploration and learning to the community.

“As an educator, it is my hope that people can use this exhibit to start seeing the real connections between physics and their daily lives, how these different physical concepts affect so many different things in our world,” Rowley said.

“When you start to view the world through the eyes of science, you can really understand things at such a deeper level – and it’s beautiful.”

James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.