This past summer, I had the pleasure of serving as a Public Humanities Fellow through the University of Pittsburgh Humanities Center. This program connects humanities graduate students with organizations throughout Pittsburgh that can benefit from their research skills and specialized knowledge.
For the summer of 2019, as part of my Public Humanities Fellowship I was housed in CMNH, working with Dr. Nicole Heller, the museum’s Curator of the Anthropocene. Under Dr. Heller’s guidance, I set off on a research project investigating how different museums are approaching the issue of the Anthropocene. Specifically, I focused on how interdisciplinarity—taking up perspectives from the arts, humanities, and sciences—can be valuable in addressing the very complex topic of the Anthropocene.
In both my dissertation research and the work I have done as a Public Humanities Fellow, the idea of extinction has often been on my mind. Like the related concept of the Anthropocene, extinction has both scientific and cultural dimensions. The disappearance of nonhuman species can be seen in data measured by scientists. But extinction is also understood through art—like Denis Defibaugh’s Afterlife project photographing extinct species-and felt in people’s lived experiences, such as the impact of biodiversity loss on Indigenous practices.
Natural history museums have long been one of the ways people understand the stories and lives of extinct animals. In the Anthropocene, extinction feels more immediate and more rapid: the idea that we are living through (and causing) the Sixth Extinction. As the number and rate of extinctions increase due to climate change, habitat destruction, and other factors, what stories will natural history museums tell about these creatures? How can those stories intervene to mitigate future losses and devastation?
For example, at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the Halls of Evolving Planet chronicle the development of life on Earth (including the Twitter-famous Sue the T. Rex). Like other similar exhibits, this history was punctuated by dramatic red displays to mark each of the planet’s five mass extinctions. At the end of the winding exhibit, the last display marks the Sixth Extinction, it shows how the interconnection of life on the planet means that human action is placing nonhuman species in danger of destruction. This display, which includes the body of a trumpeter swan and a digital counter marking species that disappear each day, is certainly a sobering one. However, the recognition of the embeddedness of humans in their environment offers an opportunity to explore the many, many ways which, as CMNH’s own exhibit showed, “We Are Nature.”
Throughout my research process, I have realized that there are many opportunities for natural history museums to resist the negative impacts of climate change not just through scientific research and conservation, but also by shifting cultural conversations. One way to do so is to involve a diversity of perspectives and disciplines, bringing together people that might otherwise stay apart. My work at CMNH this summer is just one example. Collaborating with Dr. Heller has been an exercise of meeting in the middle. Our backgrounds are very different—biology and performance studies—and our understandings of the Anthropocene have developed out of these different perspectives. To facilitate our cross-disciplinary conversations, we sought out views on the Anthropocene that would give us a shared understanding and together worked through how to approach this complex topic. Our conversations have generated a lot of exciting possibilities for the museum’s future work in this area.
By providing opportunities for a diversity of knowledge producers to meet and work together, and by offering spaces for the processing of new ideas and emotions, natural history museums have much to contribute to solving the problems of the Anthropocene. My research demonstrated that CMNH is one of only five natural history museums in the country explicitly taking up the Anthropocene in a meaningful way in their work. The possibilities for this work are made all the richer by taking an interdisciplinary approach. CMNH has the potential to craft new stories to help us understand the changing world we find ourselves in and imagine new futures.
Shelby Brewster is a PhD candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and is working on her dissertation, which explores how relationships between humans and the environment are performed in light of climate change.