A recent paper in Curator: The Museum Journal sheds light on the particular and growing relevance of natural history museums in sharing information about the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch, generally defined by the significant impacts of human activities on the Earth’s systems. In the 18 pages of The Anthropocene in Natural History Museums: A Productive Lens of Engagement, four co-authors use a careful comparison of two recent ground-breaking exhibitions devoted to the topic, one at a small natural history museum in Switzerland, and the other at Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH), to establish how museum spaces as well as the unique materials that museums collect and preserve were effectively used to provide visitors with the means to experience the complexity, uncertainty, and interdisciplinary nature of current work in this relatively new field of study.
The Swiss exhibition, Objectif Terre: Vivre l’Anthropocene (Destination Earth: Living the Anthropocene) which was open during 2016 and 2017 at the Valais Nature Museum in the town of Sion, was the very first natural science exhibition worldwide speciﬁcally about the Anthropocene. The CMNH exhibition, We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene, which was open in 2017 and 2018, was the ﬁrst major exhibition in North America to focus on the topic.
The paper also explores ways that the Anthropocene is driving changes in the practice of natural history science. The Anthropocene shows that humans are an integral part of nature, creating a challenge to the nature/human dichotomy that has been a common organizing principal in Western science and cultural worldviews. The authors maintain that recognition and study of ongoing human-induced changes is coupled with responsibility. Clear calls are made for scientists to explode the boundaries between natural science and social sciences, humanities and arts; and to think more critically about cultural assumptions and biases that are limiting scientific understandings and human responses to ecological crises. Analysis of the success of both exhibitions is tempered with advocation for more transdisciplinarity (people from different fields and backgrounds working together) and more attention to humanistic concerns and social equity in natural history museums. The overall conclusion of the peer-reviewed work is that in facing the Anthropocene, natural history museums are more relevant than ever. They have a critical role to play in 21st century education about social-ecological challenges, and in mobilizing community understanding and motivation to act for just sustainability.
The four co-authors came together to collaborate in the context of Gil Oliveira’s 6-month visit to CMNH to intern in the Anthropocene Studies section under the mentorship of Nicole Heller. His internship was part of attaining his Master of Arts in Museum Studies at the University of Neuchâtel. Gil had worked on the exhibition Objectif Terre: Vivre l’Anthropocene at the Valais Nature Museum with Museum Director, Nicolas Kramer.
The Anthropocene in Natural History Museums: A Productive Lens of Engagement in Curator The Museum Journal
GIL OLIVEIRA, ERIC DORFMAN, NICOLAS KRAMAR, CHASE D. MENDENHALL, AND NICOLE E. HELLER
Full Article can be found here, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cura.12374.
Nicole Heller is Curator of Anthropocene Studies at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences working at the museum.