Altered States

Garfield's Center for PostNatural History reminds visitors: "That was then. This is now."

Photo by Melissa Yang


On a rainy Sunday afternoon, a museum director mulls over exhibit options with an intern. Books and journals including “Visualizations of the Dog Standards,” “American Pigeon Journal” and “Mouse News Letter” cover a table. Two small canine skulls rest against the wall near a quartet of preserved mice. A mounted pigeon stands nearby, sparking an inquiry from an interested visitor. The conversation shifts to a carrier pigeon that died in 1942.

This sort of discussion is commonplace at the Center for PostNatural History and so are the objects filling the room. Located in Garfield, the center aims to catalogue and display post-natural organisms — ones that humans have purposefully altered, be it by selective breeding or direct involvement in the laboratory.

“The idea was to create a space that documented this process of people changing other living things and broadening that lens,” explains Lauren Allen, the center’s assistant

director of science and learning, which aims to display organisms but obtains video and photo documentation when that’s not possible.

Rich Pell, the center’s founder/director, was introduced to synthetic biology 10 years ago. As an artist working with technology and robotics, he was no stranger to engineering, but this strain of science intrigued him.

“The language that’s used in synthetic biology is the language of engineering almost more than it’s the language of biology, ” he says. “They talk about cells as a device, genes are parts, [and] so it was immediately very familiar to me but also completely bizarre to me. I wanted to know more.”

As he delved deeper into the post-natural world, Pell says he realized no related institutions existed to permit people to visit, learn and discuss the issues surrounding it. So he created one. What started as a traveling exhibit in 2008 was in residence at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History from 2010-2011. The permanent space celebrated its second birthday this spring.

Past the lobby, ambient tones echo through hidden speakers, while illuminated display cases punctuate the dimness. One of the first creatures on display is a Silkie chicken, a variety first bred hundreds of years ago for ornamental purposes.
Across from the Silkie, wooden cases house specimens related to biological engineering developments. HeLa cells, of the cell line used in scientific research, and even sea monkeys have a place among the displays. A black telephone receiver is attached to each display to provide a recorded explanation.

Beyond the sea monkeys, the center’s biggest star is its latest acquisition — Freckles, the BioSteel™ goat. She was genetically engineered to produce spider silk protein in her milk; the super-strong substance has potential use for body armor or replacement human tendons. Freckles is the only BioSteel™ goat in the world on public display.

The center serves as a reminder that humans have been tampering with nature for a long time. With the world’s nations debating whether to label or import genetically modified organisms, Allen says some people struggle with the overall concept: “You say genetic engineering, [and] some people say, ‘That’s going to save the world!’ and other people say, ‘That’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to us.’”

Pell cites ancient agricultural practices that often are forgotten.

“The story of the last 20 years of genetically modified corn should be viewed against the backdrop of the last 8,000 years that farmers have been breeding it,” he says.

Some visitors leave the place thinking about the ethics and impact of genetic engineering, rather than simply marveling at the organisms on display.

Although the three-room center is small, its vision for its future is rather large. Displays will continue to rotate — fluorescent transgenic frogs are on deck for this fall — and Pell says he would like to establish a traveling U.S. museum.

He suggests “maybe something that exists in a trailer,” to go along with two exhibits already touring Europe. “The diversity of life forms in the post-natural realm is expanding exponentially. There’s so much more to talk about and so much more to collect.”

Until then, Silkie and her ilk will continue to attract people such as the Boston teen who last summer convinced his family to take a road trip to Pittsburgh just to see the place.

“They were not disappointed,” Pell says. 

Categories: Arts & Entertainment