The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will present “Cellphone: Unseen Connections,” a new exhibition exploring the technological, environmental, and cultural impact of cell phones. Through an impressive array of objects, personal profiles, and interactive displays, “Cellphone” will offer visitors a chance to explore how cellular phones bring us closer to one another, often in ways we never realized. The multi-faceted, first-of-its-kind exhibition will debut on June 23, 2023. With its suite of educational programming, the exhibition is made possible through a generous gift by lead sponsor Qualcomm.
“Cellphones are one of the most significant technological creations in the annals of humankind,” said Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. “We are proud to bring the behind-the-scenes story of this revolutionary device to museum visitors. We are grateful for the generosity of Qualcomm in helping to make the exhibition a reality.”
“No technology has impacted the way we live, work and learn more than wireless communications, which has become the greatest platform for innovation in the 21st century,” said Alex Rogers, President, QTL & Global Affairs of Qualcomm. “As one of the world’s leading technology and semiconductor companies, we are proud of the central role our engineers have played in bringing these breakthrough technologies to life and are honored to support the Smithsonian’s efforts to tell the story of how mobile technology transforms the world.”
As the fastest-spreading technology in human history, cell phones have become indispensable. With the power of constant connectivity, these devices have reshaped entire industries and revolutionized how people document and express their lives. But behind their screens, cell phones hold a deeper story about how people are connected to the earth and each other through the technology they create.
Cell phones are at the epicenter of personal networks. But the variety of ways cell phones connect people to others, beyond just texts and calls, are often unseen. A global system of people and infrastructure work around the clock to keep these essential devices online. “Cellphone” will help put a human face on this international supply chain to reveal what is involved in making, using, and maintaining these devices. Visitors to the exhibition will be introduced to more than 30 people, including innovative engineers making wireless communications possible, young people campaigning for more diverse emojis, and Indigenous activists utilizing language apps to revitalize their mother tongues.
“Cellphone” will display more than 350 objects ranging from the first commercial cellular phone to undersea cables that once crisscrossed the Atlantic. The exhibition also will present an array of cellphone-related objects that have emerged to express identity and culture, including cellphone cases designed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, clothing, and even a cellphone-shaped fantasy coffin. Visitors to the exhibition also can participate in a cellphone repair game to learn how to extend the use of their phones and navigate real-world network infrastructure that playfully simulates what it takes to keep our phones connected. Leveraging visitors’ cell phones, a chatbot will also be accessible for texting and real-time visitor input around exhibition topics.
Museum visitors will also have a chance to learn how the elements and minerals powering their phones have been utilized for millennia. There are gold artworks from ancient Egypt and copper artifacts from Western Mexico and the Great Lakes region, displayed alongside tech staples such as gold-plated SIM cards, copper wires, and lithium-powered batteries. While their uses and cultural meanings have changed, these natural materials’ importance to human creativity has stood the test of time.
“‘Cellphone’ explores the global stories and natural histories of our mobile devices,” said Joshua Bell, the exhibition’s lead curator and the museum’s Curator of Globalization. “Visitors will see anew the intersections between culture, nature, and technology, which are central dynamics of what it means to be human.”
The exhibition will be accompanied by a field trip and after-school programs for middle- and high-school students, as well as drop-in exhibit programs that invite visitors to contemplate the role of cell phones in their lives, to deconstruct their phones and the global origins of their components and to imagine more sustainable and ethical phones of the future. The museum will kick off the exhibition’s opening with an after-hours celebration featuring cellphone repair and digital art workshops, games, storytelling, and specialty-themed food and drinks.
After the exhibition opens, the museum will launch “Cellphone DIY,” a print-on-demand version of the exhibition that can be installed anywhere in the world free of charge to further educate audiences on the unseen connections people have to their environment each other thanks to cellphones.
To celebrate the announcement, the museum today unveiled a life-sized model of Lucy, the iconic ancient human relative, snapping a selfie with the help of a smartphone. Visitors can take their selfies with the famous fossil hominin, which was sculpted by paleoartist Elizabeth Dayne and is now located on the museum’s second floor.