Bacterial-Fungal Communicative Circles 



This project explores a method for curators and exhibition designers to open their impermeable practice, to one that engages with the interests of the surrounding, local audiences. For this, I take three key points from Robin W. Kimmerer (2013): “the re-learning of Nature’s language”; will frame the project in a biomimetic way of thinking for museums to engage communities. Using examples from microbial interactions, the idea is to inspire a transformation of the DNA of current exhibition-making practices into a mutualistic one. “The power of reciprocity”, for which I take Constance Perin’s cultural theory of The Communicative Circle to highlight the importance of opening up the process. And finally, “becoming familiar with a place”, will ground the research on a physical landscape. This design research will focus on human-fungal interactions in different locations in New York City; how has the city influenced that kinship? Which Fungi are the most popular in peoples’ common imaginaries? What are the questions that they have about Fungi? The answers from the short interviews I conducted, and observations from my own walks in the city, will lead the direction of an open, unorthodox curatorial research for This is the Mushroom Age, an art and mycology exhibition.


In order to understand the sociocultural context of museums, the macro-view of the sociocultural context of museums must be understood, and how individual visitors’ visits are shaped by their views of museums as societal institutions, which also provides a lens into who does not visit and perhaps why. Taking this view enables us to step back and think about museums as societal institutions immersed in complex sociocultural ecologies, that aim to fulfill not only personal needs but also the collective needs of communities and societies. However, the perception of museums as societal institutions has been historically shaped by the dominant, western culture/society (Falk & Dierking, 2013). Individuals from different social and economic sectors of society, as well as from different cultural and racial/ethnic backgrounds, who may not have familiarity with such institutions, possess differing views of the nature and value of museums as societal institutions. The acknowledgment of this reality is increasingly important as many societies around the world become more diverse socially, economically, and culturally; incorporating these shifting trends is critical for museums’ practice. Besides that, museums need to be concerned not only with the “literal” sense of what they are, as defined by their buildings, collections, exhibitions, programs, and websites, but equally with the “imagined” or “perceived” sense of what they are, which resides in the minds of individuals living within their communities who may not regularly use museums. (Falk & Dierking, 2013)

In the United States and Europe, most of the efforts to grapple with the issue of individuals who do not visit museums have tended to frame the question around issues of race/ethnicity (in the United States) or social class (in Europe). This is perhaps not surprising since, in the United States, individuals from minority racial/ethnic communities such as Latinx and African Americans have been found to utilize museums proportionately less than individuals from the majority European American community do (Falk & Dierking, 2013). Outside the United States, where the issue has usually been framed more in socioeconomic terms, individuals from low-income groups have been documented as being less likely to visit museums. However, race/ethnicity alone is not sufficient to predict who does and does not visit museums; personal history emerges as an extremely important factor in museum-going, as demonstrated by leisure researchers. Education and income, which relate in complicated ways to race and ethnicity, will almost certainly continue to structure museum visitorship in the future. Opportunity also factors into museum attendance; wealth provides the obvious advantage of increased access to all consumer opportunities, including cultural experiences and other kinds of socially valued resources. As a consequence, even when income, values, and needs consistent with museum-going are present, the fact that there is no family history of museum-going is likely to result in a leisure decision that excludes the museum as a choice of leisure venue (Falk & Dierking, 2013). The decision to visit a museum is predicated on two streams of thought coming together: 1) the desire to satisfy one or more specific personal needs and 2) the perception that a museum is a context in which those needs can be met. Unfortunately, many low-income individuals, recent immigrants, and/or minority individuals do not perceive museums (condition 2) as places in which to fulfill their needs (condition 1). (Falk & Dierking, 2013)

Most visitors arrive at the museum with pre-existing expectations for what they will see and do. Some of these expectations are informed by direct experiences, such as previous visits, but many of these expectations are formed by information gleaned from the media, from websites, and, predominantly, from word-of-mouth; representing the main source of information for most museum visitors, most of the time. Word-of-mouth is typically generated by those with experience and familiarity with the institution, so one possible reason that people may not regularly use museums is that they lack trusted word-of-mouth recommendations in their own communities and daily lives. (Falk & Dierking, 2013)

Decisions about whether or not to engage in an activity like museum-going often boil down to questions of interest. What is considered interesting by various cultural and ethnic groups depends in some measure upon who is asking and how the question is framed. Another profound commonplace is that personal interest plays a fundamental role in shaping not only why people visit museums in general, and museums on particular topics, but also what people do and take away from these experiences. Interest is a fundamental, but under-studied and arguably under-rated, aspect of the museum experience. Several major international studies have shown that children and adults actively pursue lifelong interests, both in and out of school, using a variety of community resources (Falk & Dierking, 2013). If museums are places that support the public’s learning, the gateway to that learning is interest. Despite the vast quantity of studies on learning from museums, it is probably fair to state that the importance of visitors’ prior interests on subsequent learning and behavior currently exceeds the understanding of the topic.

However, one insight about the role of interest is that visitors are much more likely to focus their in-museum attention on topics and objects that they are familiar with than on those with which they are unfamiliar. In short, visitors generally select whether or not to visit museums based on their prior interest in a museum’s subject matter and/or the type of experience they seek, such as “hands-on” or “outdoors,” and then utilize their specific interests,along with their entering identity-related motivations, as lenses to decide what aspects of the museum to focus on; some aspects of this decision-making can occur below the level of consciousness. (Falk & Dierking, 2013)

As the value of museums as societal institutions has been historically shaped by white, western culture, questions like how to change the underrepresented communities’ views of museums, how to engage with them, how to fulfill the collective needs, what information are people receiving and from who, what are their interests, among others, arise to reimagine the role and perception of museums amid the current socio-ecological crisis. To answer these questions, I will frame the sociocultural macro-view of the museum context with the macro-view of the forest context, and also the micro-view of bacterial-fungal communication interactions, in a biomimetic approach to exhibition making.


Robin W. Kimmerer (2013) proposes that to remediate our relationship with Nature, an awareness of the responsibility we have to it and to each other, needs to be acknowledged. I think that something similar happens between museums and the underrepresented minorities who do not visit museums. In understanding how to design a system that speaks Nature’s language, that it is familiar with its place, and empowers the collective through reciprocity, the question of how nature would do it, comes up instantly. Through my research on biomimetics, I encountered the Living Museum Ecosystem proposal (Hoch et al, 2020), which develops a nature-inspired social innovation guide that museums could use to conceive strategies that contribute to the co-creation of social value. Inspired by the biological diversity led by mutualism and co-evolution between species; plants, animals, and fungi, the traditional processes of exhibition-making open. The idea of a permeable and symbiotic museum strengthens human-place-based relationships and enriches sustainable communities. The community needs the spaces provided by the museum to express, experiment and prototype, while the museum needs the community to be able to evolve and survive.

The proposal draws parallels between the forest ecosystem and the social ecosystem; in the forest ecosystem, the different biological functions are translated into the social ecosystem of the museum through mycorrhizal relationships. One tree would be a museum, a fungal mycelium would constitute a social infrastructure, a community, connected to the roots of the tree through the mycorrhiza. The nutrients from the soil, made available through the action of the mycelium, would be all the ideas and products generated by the community (artifacts, cultural practices, etc.), transferred with water in what would be the flow of information; exhibitions, public programs, word-of-mouth, media. In the leaves of the tree, photosynthesis occurs, a conversion of energy, that in the social ecosystem would be the equivalent of processing and generating ideas and information to be spread, ideas that take the form of carbohydrates and oxygen. Water, bringing life to the forest, would be the people bringing life to society; facilitating the exchange of ideas and information. The facilitation of new connections and productions creates a unique network for community-based biodiversity which values the museum as a place in which they feel free to learn, share, think or act. (Hoch et al, 2020)

However, some issues are not addressed in this guide, issues that arise from the microscopic, in the chemical composition of the nutrients and the shape of the tree; in the story that museum professionals tell, and in the message the audience receives.


An exploration of the tension between the conventional processes of exhibition-making and the lack of communication between the audience and museum professionals can be found in Constance Perin’s cultural theory of representation and reception (1994), which proposes that audience reception should be brought into the processes of representation when curators and designers are constructing the stories. In the way that contemporary museum professionals work, they are left with little choice but to imagine the audiences’ reconstructions of their telling. Acknowledging the existence of two-way communication between exhibitions and viewers changes the conventional conception of the exhibition development process. But how to listen to audience voices requires that we understand more about how curators, designers, educators, and administrators talk among themselves, and how their discourse is affected by bringing others to it (Perin, 1992). In the end, the question is how willing are the museums’ internal sociologies, politics, and structures to open up the exhibition development process.

In general, the theory proposes a deconstruction of authoritative paradigms in museum practice, and it could be practiced, Perin proposes, through regularly scheduled informal discussions with docents and curators, museum professionals who work as ‘audience advocates’ or in ‘talk-back boards’, where visitors can express themselves. As of today, the internet and social media are other important tools museums have been using for acquiring audiences’ more specific information about their receptivities to some concept or idea. By enhancing the integrity of the exhibition development process, all members of museums’ communicative circles stand a better chance of speaking and being heard. (Perin, 1994)

Perin argues that audiences’ reception process is as creative and constructivist as the representation one and that these receptivities could be brought into the circle to suggest to exhibition makers how the representation will be received. Bringing up the audiences’ responses would clarify ambiguities and misunderstandings; it would make communication successful because all the messages the audience receives from the exhibition emerge from that dialogue, making exhibitions and museums dynamic products of reciprocity, “not static objects with unvarying significances” (Perin, 1992). Furthermore, from a communicative perspective, visitors are more significantly defined as frames of reference rather than as ethnic or socioeconomic criteria, as Perin mentions: “knowing more about these reception puts museum professionals in a better position to make principled choices throughout their representation process”.

Taking these ideas into account, the method for the project will be framed through reciprocal, molecular communication interactions between bacteria and fungi; interactions via cooperative metabolism, and interactions via protein secretion and gene transfer (Frey-Klett et al, 2011), that will serve as metaphors for a transformation of the conventional processes of exhibition making. Between the interactions via cooperative metabolism, we can find (1) metabolite exchange: formation, or degradation of a molecule that neither partner can produce alone. In the case of several complex food products that require Bacterial-Fungal Interactions for their production, like wine and cheese, each partner contributes to the synthesis and organoleptic qualities of the final end product. (2) Metabolite conversion: utilization of specific metabolites from one partner to aid the general growth of the other. Conversely, fungi or bacteria may benefit from the production of toxins by their Bacterial-Fungal Interactive partner. (Frey-Klett et al, 2011)

In addition to the transfer of nutritive metabolites, antibiotics, and signaling molecules, the exchange of other biomolecules between bacteria and fungi can also occur. Many bacteria rely on secretion systems to translocate molecules, such as proteins and DNA, into neighboring cells and the extracellular milieu. Scientists have employed bacteria to transform fungi with foreign DNA for over two decades but are becoming more widely adopted as a method of fungal transformation (Frey-Klett et al, 2011). All of these interactions could be seen as if the audience were the bacteria, and the fungi the exhibition-making process. All the metabolites and molecules that are synthesized, degraded, and translocated, would represent co-created bodies of knowledge, products of the communication between the audiences and museum professionals. Then, the first metabolite for this project is to frame what are the interests and kinships of people who live in New York City with Fungi.


When I just moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, I wondered when I would see my first mushroom in the city. Just two weeks after I saw a couple of them in the New York Botanical Gardens Thain Family Forest. However, I really engaged with a Polyporus I saw every day walking from Church Av. station on the Q train, to my place. I noticed that not only that tree had the mushroom, but all of the trees on the east sidewalk of Ocean Ave between Albermarle Road and Regent Place did. I did not pick it up right away when I first saw it, since I wanted to see its development. It was very unusual; the concrete was very close to the tree trunk and from the beginning, I could observe, every day, how the mushroom struggled to get through the concrete. At some point, it stopped, and other mushrooms started growing next to this one. That was the moment I felt it was time to collect it. It was Fall, and I was always carrying my mushroom knife. It was very hard, it took me some time to go through its woody texture. Enough for a pedestrian who was walking his dog to ask me “is the tree gonna die because of that?” To which I answered, “no, they just live together”. He seemed satisfied with the answer and kept walking, and I felt very inspired by his genuine curiosity and thought about how this question could be answered through an art piece. Months later, I joined the New York Mycological Society (NYMS) and the NYU Mycology group, which gave me the opportunity to know a bit more about some communities with fungal kinships in the city.

As Perin suggests, focus groups, surveys, and a lot of tools can be used in order to gain more specific information about the reception of the audiences to some concept or idea. Therefore, the initial task was to start compiling information about people who live in New York. The short interviews method I used to do this was primarily based on the occasion of the Fungus Fest, the first Fungus festival in the city, a community-centered event, free for the public, open to all ages, and all mushroom-curious amateurs and experts alike. The Festival’s program design was guided by the idea of doing a very homegrown celebration of the amazing talent that already is in the NYMS. For that, they made an open call among the members and encouraged some outside people to showcase their work, which they felt would be a good fit. One of the objectives of the Festival was to enhance the sense of community among the members, which grew exponentially during the pandemic, and the closeness that they had before when they were only 40, vanished. This was a space that aimed to promote cultural diversity, which led to the creation of partnerships with other community-based organizations that are serving diverse audiences, one of them, Randall’s Island Urban Farm, provided the place for the festival to happen.

I conducted fourteen interviews at the Fungus Fest, and twenty-two online interviews afterward.

 Among the participants were mycophiles, and also people that barely had relationships with Fungi, that
live in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, originally from South, Central, and North America, and Europe. The goal of these short interviews was to provide frames of reference for the main questions that the exhibition will address and to draft some ideas about human-fungal interactions in the city. I asked the participants three questions: how has NYC influenced your relationship with Fungi, what is your main question about Fungi, and what is your favorite mushroom and why.


The most common reason for choosing their favorite
was gastronomical use (15), followed by aesthetics (shape, color, 12) and then the health benefits for the mind and body (8). Other reasons like biology (auto-deliquescence, ink and pigment production, psychoactivity, 6) came after. Then the visual culture around it, and the mental health benefits (4 each). There were also a few reasons like personal memories, social benefits, and mythology.


The most common question was what is Fungi (4) and 16 other questions I grouped them as biological questions: What functions do Fungi serve in ecological environments? How should we be thinking about preserving it or, interacting with it? What are the right ways to interact with Fungi? How many of them are safe to eat that you can just find around Brooklyn? How to grow them better? How do they reproduce being sexual and/or asexual? What role does the mushroom color play? How can Fungi live in all places? Can you grow edible mushrooms at home? Is my body digesting it well? What are the metabolic differences between eating them fresh, cooked, or dried?

The second group of questions addressed health benefits for the mind, and for the body: How can we use Fungi for helping mental health as a whole and help humans be able to live in a healthier way? How can Fungi continue to help people with their healing? Does the lion’s mane supplement I take actually help me? Why is it not legal? How can they help regenerate neuronal systems? Where’s the best place to start educating oneself if you want to learn about different types of mushrooms, like what’s available? How do you make psychedelic research more digestible? How can I adapt psychiatric discoveries to my own personal struggles? How do Fungi make us access an unconscious intelligence?

The third group was classified as eco-social questions: What is the mystery of Fungi? How to reconcile their extraordinary health and healing properties in nature with these deadly, toxic ones? What is it about the current moment that makes people look to mushrooms for something? What’s the smartest fungus? How can we bring the “fungal” way of thinking into other fields? How can Fungi teach us to communicate?

And the last group addresses sustainability: How can Fungi make us more sustainable? What are Fungi going to do in the future? Can we grow edible mushrooms out of plastic garbage? How fungi might help us address issues of pollution and waste in urban spaces? How can Fungi help us create a new future with more renewable, sustainable materials? Why isn’t the mycoremediation opportunity more on top of people’s minds?


For 11 people, New York has contributed negatively to their relationship with Fungi. Claims such as “back in my country…” or “we live in such an urban environment that I don’t see them anywhere” were the most common. However, for the other 25 people, New York has awakened different modes of engagement to Fungi. For a lot of them, their relationship started in the city by their own communities who brought them closer, giving them a sense of belonging into the NY cosmopolitan mycelia. The New York Mycological Society has also acted like a binder for anyone with questions and eager to participate in a community with shared interests. Other experiences that were repeated involved a “surprise” of finding them in an urban environment; they had made people happier, by understanding and knowing the urban ecologies, a sense of connection to a natural world, even in the concrete jungle, has driven people to go deeper into mycology. Other common concept was “accessibility”, to all mushroom health products, merchandise, psychedelics, and even education. The Fungi Queendom now is of usual interest of the humanities and biological sciences alike; their endeavor disrupts many concepts coming from predominantly white structures that have ultimately treated Nature as if they were separate from Culture.


The gastronomical preference, and the question of what is Fungi, becomes a perfect image for the deranged growth of capitalist “development”, the human-machine eating everything in its way, without knowing or understanding what is going on. Those would be the first themes of the exhibition, connecting one of the earliest relationships Fungi had with humankind, their ingest.

Most of the favorite mushrooms have been found in the city, which is encouraging in terms of the imaginaries being coherently placed in the species found in the wild. Another highlight is the different appreciations of urban ecology, which enlightens Tsing’s different ways to practice the “art of noticing”. Creating kinship with more-than-human beings, allows us to move beyond the idea that every species is out there by itself. Fungi have never occurred to them that they live by themselves. (Tsing, 2015). A second step, will be finding a venue for the show and iterate this round of short interviews with the surrounding neighbors
and organizations.

Falk, John H. & Dierking, Lynn D. (2013) The Museum Experience Revisited. Left Coast Press.

Frey-Klett, P., Burlinson, P., Deveau, A., Barret, M., Tarkka, M. and Sarniguet, A. (2011) Bacterial-Fungal Interactions: Hyphens between Agricultural, Clinical, Environmental, and Food Microbiologists. Microbiology And Molecular Biology Reviews, Dec. 2011, p. 583–609. American Society for Microbiology.

Hoch, H., Nathan, N., Solís, S. (2020) A Living Museum Ecosystem: Museums and Communities creating lasting social value together. We Are Museums, Biomimicry Academy.

Kimmerer, Robin W. (2013) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed

Perin, C. (1992) The Communicative Circle: Museums as Communities. Karp, Ivan, Kreamer, Christine M. & Levine, Steven D. (eds.) Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. Smithsonian Institution Press.

Tsing, A. (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press.