This new museum explores the effect humans are having on the natural world

Oct 23, 2015

Several years ago, after visiting a lot of natural history museums, Rich Pell, associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, noticed the natural museums seemed to be missing a lot of what he considered the natural world. There were, for example few farm animals, almost no pets. 

The reason? Human involvement. Once humans start breeding and training animals, the animals are less and less likely to fit in a natural history museum. 

“It just seemed like there was this kind of blind spot that we needed to fill,” Pell says. “It was just kind of a matter of time before I started collecting them.”

Pell began his collection for the eventual Center for PostNatural History, where he is now director, with a tiny tray of genetically modified mosquitoes. 

“They were modified so that they couldn’t have malaria. It was a way of kind of addressing the malaria issue in the wild,” Pell explained, “I pinned them myself and they’re preserved in a little box the way, you know, you do in a museum.”

Before long, Pell had added a BioSteel™ Goat, a transgenic chestnut tree, an alcoholic rat, and many other “post-natural” animals and plants to his center, which is now open to the public in Pittsburgh. 

“At some level, humans have influenced probably just about every living thing on the planet through climate change or pollution or what have you,” Pell says. 

Pell’s collection, however, is more specific. “We chose to focus in on intentionality,” Pell says. “The changes that we've made on purpose through breeding, domestication, genetic engineering. So it's the stuff we do on purpose that has evolutionary consequence that’s inherited by the next generation.”

There is only one live specimen in the museum, and that is an aquarium filled with glowing fish. They are mostly zebra fish that have been given a gene from coral or jellyfish that make them glow brightly fluorescent under black light “just like your Led Zeppelin poster.”

The fish are sold in pet shops throughout the United States, and, according to Pell, they “are the only genetically modified animal that you can legally take home with you. They originated as laboratory organisms but they're sold for purely aesthetic reasons today.”

There are also photos of giant pumpkins, and Freckles the BioSteel goat, who has been bred to produce spider silk proteins in her milk. 

“Ultimately we're looking at these living things that have been shaped by human desire. And they tell us all kinds of interesting things about us, not just about the organisms themselves,” Pell says.

Museum-goers have various reactions to the collection, but Pell says he’s not trying to convince anyone of a position. He’s just trying to get people to think about human influence and desire. 

“We're very careful not to present a position. What we want is for people to come in regardless of how they feel about these things and leave really wanting to know more,” Pell says, “What we want is for people to be thinking harder. We're not trying to convince anyone that one idea is better than another.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow