A Natural History Museum Questions What 'Natural' Means

Sep 27, 2016

Richard Pell, of the Center for PostNatural History, in Pittsburgh with his genetically modified goat, Freckles.
Credit Irina Zhorov / The Pulse

In a business district east of Pittsburgh’s downtown, between a pizza shop and a Vietnamese restaurant, is an easy-to-miss storefront marked Center for PostNatural History. Richard Pell is the center’s curator; he’s 40 but looks younger, informal in a pair of shorts, perpetually smiling. He greets visitors standing by a taxidermied goat that has been genetically modified to produce industrial spider silk in its milk. Behind it hangs a heavy, velvet, black curtain leading to the permanent exhibit, a collection of specimens – everything from seeds to mammals – that have been shaped by humans.

In the main exhibition room – dimly lit, atmospherically mysterious – he walks past displays of a seed vault meant to stockpile agricultural seeds in case of a catastrophe, a tank with a fish genetically modified to glow, and genetically modified corn. Below each hangs a phone receiver that narrates the history of the specimen. He pauses at a case with dog skulls and shows off an English bulldog. Descended from wolves thousands of years ago, they’ve been bred by people to accentuate their punched in noses, but now the animals can barely breathe.

Across the room, the illuminated display boxes built into black walls shine like gems and he gravitates towards one with a white rat, standing upright. This rat is a perfect case study to better understand the story Pell wants to tell in his museum.

An alcoholic rat 

The rat was bred by the Finnish government to prefer alcohol to water. Alcoholism is a big public health problem in Finland, so scientists bred the rat to study the disease. But to get to this point in its breeding evolution, we have to go back more than 100 years.

Once-wild rats have followed humans as they settled in urban cores. By the 18th and 19th Centuries, cities like London and New York suffered from rat infestations.

In England, the Queen hired rat catchers, who sometimes sold their bounty for rat baiting competitions, something Pell called a “blood sport.” One hundred rats would be released into a walled pit with a dog, usually a terrier, and onlookers would make bets on how long it would take the dog to kill the rodents. “This is something that guys would do over a cigar and a beer,” Pell said.

Some rat catchers started setting aside interesting looking rats to breed. It’s at this point, said Pell, that humans first start to deliberately intervene in rat evolution, by breeding them in captivity. 

Recessive-gened albino rats, like the one in Pell’s museum, were separated out, and begat more of the same. “And those white rats have different cultural meaning than the dirty looking street rats and so they get treated differently, they become pets, they become the fancy rats bred through the rest of the 19th Century, largely by women,” Pell said.

Aristocratic Victorian women used their rats as pets and accessories, adorning them with ribbons and socializing with them, but they also started breeding the rats for specific traits. And those rats are the ones that get used for lab work.

“Our story just went form blood sports, to hobbyists, to geneticists, all within the same lineage,” Pell said. “And that’s what postnatural history is.”

Postnatural history vs. natural history 

Pell defines post-natural organisms as ones that have been altered by people intentionally and heritably. “Heritably meaning we’ve altered its evolutionary path in some fashion. It affects its offspring, it’s not just a dog with a weird haircut. It’s we’ve bred dogs that have weird hair,” he said. “And intentional in that it reflects our culture in some way, they reflect what we want, what we fear, what we desire.”

All of the specimens in Pell’s museum have similarly complex biographies. They started out as wild animals and for whatever reason - food, research, productivity, aesthetics - humans have modified them to fit their needs. “There are no universal stories, they’re all tied to the people who make them,” Pell said. 

He took on the job of telling these postnatural stories when he realized that natural history museums weren’t doing it. Curators viewed such specimens as boring. Or they didn’t fit ideas of natural history in the culture of the 19th and 20th Century, when the museums were being built. Stephen Tonsor, Director of Science and Research at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said the museums drew a line between humans and animals that’s not really there. A typical natural history museum, “tells a story that’s really very much woven up in Judeo Christian notions of humans as separate from the rest of the living world. And it sets up a story of self versus other,” he said. “We often hear the phrase: ‘man versus nature.’”

“What you have is people making a decision about what was natural, what was nature, that was very...intentional,” said Sara Ray, who studies museums, at the University of Pennsylvania. She said curators – with all their personal experiences and biases - singularly decided what got in displays and what got left out. As a result, the world on display is “very infused with the human idea of what is natural. And it really kind of implicitly takes out all of the human influence that you find in the natural habitats of these animals.”

Natural history, then, was something pure, non-human. It was buffalo grazing on pristine prairie, not buffalo being hunted by people, or raised for meat. It was something other. So the good stuff wasn’t on the farm, explorers had to travel for it. No wonder cows and dogs didn’t show up in the dioramas much; they didn’t fit those mores. And those standards are still not regularly questioned.  

“When you’re a kid and you walk into a natural history museum, you’re like, oh, that’s geology and that’s Asian mammals. You just sort of take for granted the categories that are there and the information that you’re being given as just sort of being this objective scientific entity that exists sort of outside of yourself,” Ray said.

Changing the narrative 

Across town from the Center for PostNatural History, Pell has been looking for postnatural specimens in the displays of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. There aren’t many.

He walks up the grand staircase, surrounded by a three-floor mural exalting industry. In one panel, a bare-breasted angel lifts Andrew Carnegie – in full armor – up to heaven. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that the origins of natural history museums are steeped in wealth, empire, and powerful men, another cultural artifact not always acknowledged.

The first postnatural specimen he has found is in the distinctly human focused Egypt room. The exhibit is archaeological in nature. One of the displays includes a 4,000 year old mummified bundle that has been X-rayed to reveal a cat inside. 

The second postnatural display, a couple of black sled dogs, mounted in 1896, is in a wing dedicated to Arctic polar populations.

“Contact with Arctic people was much more limited so these were much more exotic,” said Carnegie’s Tonsor. “But now you can find Siberian huskies and other Arctic breeds of dogs generally bred and available. They’re not exotic anymore.”

That could be why the Field Museum, in Chicago, donated these dogs to the Carnegie museum, in 1984.

Finally, in the bird hall, Pell stops to look at the third and last example he’s found. Most of the birds are arranged by habitat and specific traits, but there’s one case that stands out. It features birds from popular culture – Tweety bird alongside an actual yellow canary, a toucan by a box of Fruit Loops cereal, and a toy Foghorn Leghorn doll, a character from a cartoon. Foghorn Leghorn is a chicken, but there’s no real chicken next to the doll in the display case because museum curators could not find a chicken in the museum’s collection to put there.

An extinct dodo bird? No problem. But a chicken? Nope.

Pell seems delighted to have caught the museum, with its millions of specimens, in this funny position.

No chicken.

For him, including a chicken and all those other postnatural organisms he keeps at his museum would make for a more realistic representation of our world. And it doesn’t have to be boring; If told well, he said, their stories - like the lab rat’s - could be as compelling as the ‘exotic animals’.   

Standing by a polar bear and a dated map of the polar ice cap, Tonsor and Pell start to talk about the importance of thinking more holistically. They mostly agree that, historically, museums have done a poor job of showing the interconnectedness of humans and the natural world.    

“It's the problem with the categories that we're calling attention to. Because we systematically edit ourselves out of the story, science does this all the time. You know, you're doing a field study but you don't acknowledge the people that are there. You take your pictures but you try to get out of the shot,” Pell said.

With the Center for PostNatural History he’s advocating for a wider lens, one that takes into account people’s involvement, their motivations, and contradictions.

Not doing that in the past, said Tonsor, has gotten us in trouble. “We've treated science as something that we can separate from the rest of human existence. And we've treated in fact the world as a giant machine in which we can isolate parts and manipulate those parts when in fact everything is interconnected and the unintended consequences of our really powerful and in many ways beneficial scientific advances are now being seen on a global scale,” he said.

Tonsor is talking about climate change. Species extinction. Big changes in the “natural” world. The Carnegie is starting to rethink how to incorporate humans into the exhibits, to start to tell a different story, one that’s not so clean.

“I’m looking for people to take responsibility for the great power that they’ve taken on,” he said.

As for Pell, he said he knows competing narratives will always exist: the scientists versus the Evangelicals. The nature enthusiasts versus the technology people. Those divisions won’t solve problems. He said that’s why being open about the complicated relationships between all those factions is key.

“The possibility of arriving at some kind of consensus is possible. People of different belief systems can agree that okay, we don't agree with this stuff, but that's true, and if we can grow those shared truths, things will be better,” Pell said. “It sounds incredibly naive when I say it out loud. But this is maybe like the secret utopian belief that kind of drives this stuff that I'm interested in, so don't talk me out of it.”