Spider Goats, Sea Monkeys, and GMO Corn: a Museum of Modified Things – an interview

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Photo credit to Stephanie Stasburg

In March, 2015, I read in National Geographic about a new small museum in Pennsylvania. Working at the American Museum of Natural History, I couldn’t help but jump up and take notice of their name: the Center for PostNatural History. Huh? What is PostNatural History? A few months later I found myself in their hometown of Pittsburgh for a gaming conference, and worked with the couple who run it, Richard Pell and Lauren Allen, to both give a public talk (on the Science of Seltzer) and interview them for Mooshme. We talked about Sea Monkeys, genetically engineered goats, and whether we think dogs were a good idea. I asked: what IS PostNatural History anyway, why does it need a museum, and how did they end up becoming the ones to launch the first?

Hi Richard and Lauren.

Lauren:  Hi.

Richard:  Hi Barry.

So where are we sitting right now?

Richard:  Well you’re in our kitchen, here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Which happens to be located directly above this museum, that we run here in town, called the Center for PostNatural History.

All right, hold on a second. That is a really interesting name for a museum.  So let’s break that down.  Why is it a “center”?

Richard:  Well, it’s a center because I felt like the bar was a little bit lower than a museum and we are just getting started here.

Fair enough.  And obviously there is a reference to natural history museums.  So what makes it a PostNatural museum?

Richard:  Basically we pick up where natural history museums leave off.

One of the things that I noticed in just traveling and looking at natural history museums, which I love, is that they almost all exclude life forms that have been shaped by human culture.  So domesticated life forms, for certain, but laboratory organisms, genetically modified organisms.  Pretty much really anything from domestication of dogs through agriculture rarely appear in natural history museums.

So we just decided to shine a light just on that, by picking up where they leave off, and create the PostNatural History Museum.

When did this all begin?

Richard:  I got started with this maybe nine years ago.  I learnt about a field that was just getting started called synthetic biology, which is kind of just a form of genetic engineering. It really surprised me because it was engineers tinkering with life that had maybe had no background in biology.  They are really looking at life as a computer, as a robot.  And how they can program it with DNA. And I thought, “Wow, that’s really provocative.”

So I started just digging in and the more I dug in, the more I wanted to visit a museum, where I could wrap my head around it.  No such place existed.  So I really started out from that kind of wanting to build a museum around genetic engineering. But then I noticed that this blind spot is much, much bigger.  So from that grew this larger idea of basically anything that people have mucked with in a way that has evolutionary consequence, that’s inheritable to the organisms.  We began collecting specimens from scientists, calling them, emailing them.  Anytime we read a newspaper story that was interesting, you know, who is in that story, call them.  Can we get a specimen?  And then I had a moment, an epiphany.  I was visiting a friend who was working at the American Natural History Museum…

I’ve heard of that place.

… he was working in the shop preparing an exhibit about the domestication of horses, interestingly enough.  He showed me what they were working on.  He’s making these fiberglass casts of horses, so they’re not real.  Then he opens a freezer and it’s full of actual dead birds, but they’re just using them as props in the background behind the horses.  I thought, “Oh my God – everything that’s real isn’t and everything that isn’t is.”

But what I really learned was that the important thing is the story.

My friend was telling a story and the Museum was making an exhibits that allowed them to tell the story that they needed to tell.  So that freed us up as a museum just to be a storyteller.  We can still collect the specimens but just because we don’t have a specimen doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about that thing.  Otherwise we could never talk about extinction, right?  So that was kind of a really important moment early on in the museum that we had while visiting the American Museum of Natural History.

Richard, what’s your official title?

Richard:  The director, or janitor, of the Center of PostNatural History.

Lauren?

Lauren:  I think … what title did we give me?

Richard:  You’re the­…

Lauren:  …Director of­…

Richard:  …Science Education?

Lauren:  No, it had the word “learning” in it.  Science and learning.  Director of Science and Learning.  We spent a long time working on our business cards.

Please tell us more about your relationship with the museum?

Lauren:  Well, I met Rich, because he came to the Exploratorium which is a museum in San Francisco that I used to work at.  He gave a lecture about the Center for PostNatural History.  Everything that he said was really interesting and the biology was… just a little bit off.  And so when he was done, I took him to the biology lab that I was the coordinator of and showed him all of the PostNatural things that we had.  And told him all the mistakes that he had made about the biology that he had talked about in his lecture.

That solidified our relationship – I’m the biologist and Rich is the storyteller.  I also study learning and I’m interested in what happens to people when they go down in the Center for PostNatural History.  What do they learn?  What kind of conversations do they have?  So that’s why we said ”science and learning,” because I’m like the science fact-checker and the learning-interest person.

So what are some examples of things you noticed from visitors?

A couple of years ago we had an intern who helped me survey people who came through. We asked them as they came in what their opinion was about people manipulating other living things for human purposes.  We used that phrasing.  We didn’t say “genetically modified organisms.”  And some people said, “I think it’s good.  I think it helps us.”  Some people said, “I think it’s bad.”  And most people, after they went through the museum and looked at everything and they came out, they had reinforced their original opinion.  That to me, what I learnt from that, was that the museum does a really good job being what we called “radically neutral” on the topic.  We really don’t push that this is good or bad.

The proof is that anybody going in there can find the information that they want to tell them that the thing that they think is the right thing.  But people do learn how to talk about this stuff and they have an opportunity to think harder about how people have changed living things.  Because it isn’t usually a category that gets addressed in any major way, like Rich said.  For Museums, this is a blind spot.  It’s boring to a natural history museum to look at something that is no longer being controlled by natural selection.  If people are doing it that sort of renders it, like, no good in terms of biodiversity or the stuff we care about in the natural world.

The topic of “PostNatural” is completely serious.  Yet there is still something inherently humorous about it. When I first heard about the Center, and learning there was an exhibit about things like sea monkeys, it seems like it might be a joke. But now having visited the museum, I see it’s not a joke at all.  You’re very serious in the lens you’ve created, one I presume you want visitors to maintain when they leave the museum. But at the same time, there’s a slight humorous component to it.  Is that intentional?  If so, why was that designed as a way to engage people?  If it wasn’t, why do you think someone like me finds it funny?

Richard:  I think humor, maybe for me, came naturally, but it does serve a purpose.  It holds your attention and it makes it possible to weigh in on the areas that may seem controversial.  By using these oblique narratives and by highlighting funny little nugget, it’s a way of taking you deeper into the issue.

Deeper into that ambiguity.

What I would love is that when people leave the museum, they haven’t been convinced one way or another of something but it’s like they need to know more. Now they have a nagging question.  It’s a puzzle that’s missing a bunch of pieces.  So you leave kind of hungry.  You leave wanting to find out more.  You leave wanting to maybe bring somebody back to the museum with you next week.  That’s my goal and the humor is kind of my personal coping mechanism.

But at the same time, it’s also a way of just giving a story traction, a life of its own. Because visitors will retell those stories and as they retell them, they get little bits of PostNatural history to follow.

Lauren:  What you’re saying, about how the sea monkeys – they’re funny – and it’s funny that we have that exhibit.  We researched sea monkeys because we are planning on having 10 exhibits with little stories on each one.  Some of them are more dire and serious and have this heavy, cultural baggage with them.  So we were like, “Let’s do Sea Monkeys. It will be fun and it’ll be this sort of lighthearted one on the corner.” Then it turns out that the story of the creator of sea monkeys is not lighthearted!

We’re now talking Neo-Nazis and hate groups.

Lauren: That is some heavy stuff. He had some very strong opinions and he used them.  But I’m going to leave it to people to look into that.

Richard:  Yeah, it’s all out there as you go.  It was literally maybe a couple of days before we opened.  That was supposed to be our first exhibit and I was just doing the research and I thought, “Oh no.”  I had bought a whole bunch of Sea Monkeys that we were going to sell in our gift shop because it was going to be the whimsical takeaway.  Then it was like, “What are we going to do with all these?

We learn through the exhibit that this Jewish-American entrepreneur helped finance racist Aryan Nation causes. For decades.

Lauren:  He changed his name to sound more German.

Richard:  Yeah.

It’s a strange story, for sure.  So why use a museum as a format to communicate stories like this with people in the second decade of the 21st Century?  There are so many other ways, digital ways based on the internet, to engage people, to get them to explore important topics.  Why a museum? Why this 19th Century form?

Richard:  We’re all inundated with all these other narratives which gravitate towards the shortest, smallest pill, on this kind of reductive experience clicks. Whereas museums are one of the few places where you have an opportunity to allow a more nuanced narrative to unfold.  You don’t just go to a museum and see the first exhibit and go “eh?” and leave, right?  You’ll check out the next exhibit and probably the next one before you make a decision if you’re going to stay or not.  Our narratives are really complex and nuanced. I don’t think you can come away with a thumbs up or a thumbs down assessment of PostNatural history.

People still ask me, “Are you for this or against this?”  I’m like, “Do you mean dogs?  I love my Chihuahua.”  That’s one of the most PostNatural organisms I’ve ever encountered.  To really get the breadth of what we’re talking about, you do have to get exposed to a number of exhibits.  You have to see a goat that has been genetically engineered to make spider silk in its milk – and the Sea Monkeys – and something as ubiquitous as corn – before you can start to see the PostNatural in everything.

Lauren:  We make the stories really about the specimen. The specimens are the most important thing so seeing that real thing I think is important.  That’s what makes I think museums really important.  Is that they have the real thing. It’s not a picture.

Richard:  Right.

Lauren:  Sometimes we use representations of things that would be impractical for us to keep alive or keep in its real form, but most of stuff that we have are the real things.

Richard:  Maybe we want to confront people with the real, which is, generally speaking, not grotesque.  It’s not Frankenstein.  It’s also not a miracle.  These are kind of mundane objects.  Let’s just meditate on it on that level.  The headlines kind of distort them in both directions in those weird ways you imagine a spider goat.  The idea of a spider goat rather is quite a bit different from Freckles, whom you met today, who’s a pretty cute goat.

Albeit, a dead goat.  We can’t hide that fact.

Center for PostNatural History

So how can people learn more about or visit the Center?

Richard:  Well, you can start by going to our website of course, www.postnatural.org and if you are in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we are always open every Sunday, from noon to 4 and the first Friday night of the month.  But we’re open by appointment as well.  So just email us, rich@postnatural.org or lauren@postnatural .org.  And we can make an appointment with you.

Where do you see the center 10 years from now?

Lauren:  Bigger.

Richard:  Bigger.  I see it existing within other natural history museums.  That’s what we would like to be.  We would like every natural history museum to have a little door that just says “PostNatural History,” and you can go through.

Center For PostNatural History

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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