by Pat McShea
A museum educator from Norway offered a novel way to interpret We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene. “This should be part of the story.” explained Bergsveinn Thorssonas he gestured at century-old steel industry scenes depicted in second-floor portions of the multi-level grand staircase mural painted by John White Alexander.
Thorsson, a PhD student who is studying how museums present current environmental issues, was fascinated by the smoky scenes and their marble pillar frames. “Owning our industrial history is important to understanding our current situation.” he added before conceding that he didn’t have advice for accomplishing such a task.
Since 2002, an excellent book-form model of industrial acknowledgement has existed in When Smoke Ran Like Water, by Donora, Pennsylvania native Devra Davis. The book, which Davis summarizes as an argument for “a fundamentally new way of thinking about health and the environment,” begins with a recounting of the most significant air pollution disaster in the United States – the build-up in Donora, some 25 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, during a five-day period in late October 1948, of a toxic fog of steel and zinc industry emissions that resulted in 20 deaths and 600 hospitalizations.
In Davis’s account, family histories, with all their hopes, accomplishments, and compromises, are central to the tragedy. A quote from her mother captures a common attitude toward the smoky scenery: “Look, today they might call it pollution. Back then it was just a living.”
Patrick McShea works in the Education and Visitor Experience department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.