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The Universe under the Microscope – Biodiversity and Aesthetics of Diatoms

Exhibition at the Botanical Museum, Botanical Gardens Berlin in Cooperation with Matthias Burba, Hamburg, from March 12 to June 1, 2009

№ 39/2009 from Feb 27, 2009

"The Universe under the Microscope – Biodiversity and Aesthetics of Diatoms" is an exhibition about diatoms. It will show the artistic and aesthetic treatment of diatoms at the end of the 19th century, as well as aspects of modern research into this group of organisms. The exhibition will be open to the public from March 12 to June 1, 2009, in the Botanical Museum Berlin. All the posters will be available for purchase.

Diatoms are single-celled algae. Since they are smaller than 1 mm, they can only be seen with the aid of a microscope. They live abundantly in lakes, streams, and oceans and exist even in wet habitats as tiny as the bark of a tree. The number of different diatom species, that is their biodiversity, is estimated at 1 million, with only 20,000 species having been described. The ecological significance of these organisms becomes enormous, if you take notice of diatoms producing about 25% of the global oxygen.

But apart from the scientific aspects, they are intriguing to look at: Their glass shells are incomparably beautiful and their pronounced symmetry fascinates the observer. The exhibition is divided into three parts: art, documentation, and science.

Starting in the 19th century, diatoms became a popular subject of study among (many) amateurs and (few) scientists. The preparation and arrangement of these small algae into orderly rows, circles, and other elaborate patterns was usually the work of amateurs. Johann Dietrich Möller (1844-1907) perfected the skill of arranging diatoms into such arrays on microscope slides. While he made a living by selling these slides, it was also important to him to have his works published among experts. In the exhibition large-size prints of modern micro-photos illustrate the diversity of diatoms in the microscopic slides from the 19th century. The exhibition will display slides prepared by Möller, Eduard Thum, and Henry Dalton.

The creativity displayed in the microscopic slides ranges from mathematical symmetries up to mosaic-shaped arrangements of bouquets, butterflies, and birds. By using different microscopy techniques, the same product can (in dark-field transmitted light or in reflected light) become two very different works of art: manifold colors unfold by light refraction at the diatom shells. The production technique of the historical specimens is illustrated by a photo from 1891 of J.D. Moller's workplace.

The largest microscope slide of this kind was prepared in 1891 and is called "The Universe" by J. D. Möller. On one slide sized 5x6 mm, more than 4000 different diatom species are arranged into even and uniform rows. A printed catalog identifies every single species and its exact position on the plate.

The purely morphologically based classification, the basis of the historic "Universe" slide, is compared to a modern phylogenetic tree that builds on the knowledge of centuries of molecular and finely structured analysis of diatoms for a modern synthesis. At a media station visitors will be able to interactively question the historical "Universum" and look up the current state of each algae in the information system for terrestrial and freshwater microalgae, AlgaTerra (

Electron microscope pictures of the ultrastucture of diatom shells illustrate recent international research findings, including findings by the diatom group at the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem (BGBM).

Further Information

Exhibition Team:

  • Matthias Burba, Specialist on the slides and the work of J.D. Möller, Hamburg.
  • Dr. Regine Jahn, Senior Curator of Algae and Head of Diatom Research Group at BGBM Berlin-Dahlem.
  • Wolf-Henning Kusber, Phycologist and AlgaTerra Content Manager at BGBM Berlin-Dahlem.
  • Kathrin Grotz, Museologist at BGBM Berlin-Dahlem.

Recommended Literature:

  • Burba, Matthias, Kusber, Wolf-Henning & Jahn, Regine 2009: Das Universum im Mikroskop – Biodiversität und Ästhetik der Diatomeen – MuseumsJournal II (2009) – in press
  • Burba, Matthias 2008: Die größte Typenplatte der Welt und ihre Herstellung – Mikrokosmos, Zeitschrift für Mikroskopie 97 (2008), 321-327
  • Burba, Matthias, 2007: Johann Diedrich Möller (1844-1907) – Über die Kunst, Diatomeen zu legen – Mikrokosmos, Zeitschrift für Mikroskopie 96 (2007), 7-17


  • Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem, Königin-Luise-Str. 6-8, 14195 Berlin
  • March 12 to June 1, 2009; daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.