New Smithsonian Exhibition Examines the Cultural Nature of Cellphones

“Cellphone: Unseen Connections” Will Allow Visitors To Contemplate the Intersection of Technology, Nature and Culture at Their Fingertips
May 30, 2023
News Release
Social Media Share Tools
cell phone cases

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will present “Cellphone: Unseen Connections,” a new exhibition on the technological, environmental and cultural impacts of cellphones, Friday, June 23. “Cellphone” will offer visitors a chance to explore the many ways that cellular phones bring people closer to one another, often in ways they never even realized. The multi-faceted, first-of-its-kind exhibition features interactive displays and hundreds of objects from the museum’s collection, including minerals and an array of artifacts from around the world.

“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.”

As the fastest spreading technology in human history, cellphones became universally indispensable in an instant. 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, cellphones hold a deeper story about the ways people are connected to the Earth and to each other through the technology they create.

Cellphones are at the epicenter of personal networks. But the variety of ways cellphones connect people to others, beyond just texts and calls, are often unseen. To keep these essential devices online, a global system of people and infrastructure work around the clock. “Cellphone” will help put a human face on this international supply chain to reveal what is involved in making and maintaining these devices. Visitors will be introduced to the stories of more than 35 people, including innovative engineers making wireless communications widely accessible, young people campaigning for more inclusive emojis and Indigenous students utilizing language apps to revitalize their mother tongues.

“‘Cellphone’ explores the global stories and natural histories of our mobile devices,” said anthropologist Joshua Bell, the exhibition’s lead curator and the museum’s curator of globalization. “Visitors will learn how technology is intimately connected to the natural world, provides new forums for culture to flourish and transform, and is an important dynamic of what it means to be human in the 21st century. My hope is that everyone will see themselves in this exhibition.” 

“Cellphone” will display more than 750 objects ranging from intricate microchips to undersea cables that once crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean. Minerals, including quartz, silicon and silver from the museum’s collection, will represent the roughly 65 elements that comprise the standard cellphone (by contrast, the human body is primarily composed of just six elements). The exhibition will also present several objects that reveal how these natural materials have been utilized by humans globally for millennia. On view alongside modern objects like gold-plated SIM cards, lithium-powered batteries and sleek smartphones are historic artifacts like gold pendants from ancient Egypt and copper axe money from Mexico.

The exhibition also features custom-built cellphone tower antennas, fiber-optic cables and servers. As part of an array of historic phones, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, the first handheld mobile cellular phone, is displayed. Released to the public in 1983—a full decade after the first phone call over a cellular network was made—the DynaTAC weighs nearly 2 pounds and took 10 hours to charge.

“Cellphone” contains a large-scale comic mural highlighting the social effects of cellphones on four fictional characters living in Washington, D.C. The commissioned artwork joins an array of cellphone-inspired art from recent decades that express the evolving role of phones in identity and culture around the world. These include bags from India, North America and Papua New Guinea used to carry cellphones and colorful cellphone cases adorned with everything from dinosaur fossils to Indigenous art from around the world. Another featured object is a nearly 6-foot-tall fantasy coffin crafted by artists in Ghana to resemble a vibrant cellphone. The exhibition also features a wall of technology that has been subsumed by the cellphone, including payphones, boomboxes and VHS tapes. Collectively, these works, along with a selection of films in the exhibition’s theater, celebrate the cultural diversity expressed around and through this technology.

But the new exhibition is far more than simply show and tell. Museum visitors will have the opportunity to participate in a cellphone repair game, consider how global networks keep their phones charged and connected and even interact in a group chat, an online software application that will help visitors engage with the exhibition’s content in surprising ways.

The exhibition 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. Over its three-year installation, the exhibition will host field trips and after-school programs that invite middle- and high-school students to contemplate the role of cellphones in their lives. To help students imagine more sustainable and ethical phones of the future, the “Phone of the Future” game was specially designed for the exhibition.

The museum will kick off the opening of the exhibition with an after-hours celebration during the Smithsonian’s Summer Solstice programming Saturday, June 24. The event will feature cellphone repair and digital art workshops, games, storytelling and specialty-themed food and drinks.

About the National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History is connecting people everywhere with Earth’s unfolding story. It is one of the most visited natural history museums in the world. Opened in 1910, the museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. The museum is open daily, except Dec. 25, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum on its website and blog and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

# # #


Media Only

Randall Kremer


Jack Tamisiea

(202) 633-0218

Note to editors:  Photos of the new exhibition can be accessed via Dropbox here.

National Museum of Natural History
Press Office

Media only: 
(202) 633-2950