Center for PostNatural History
The Center for PostNatural History, 2010
4913 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA
Open Sundays 12–4pm and the first Friday of the month 6–9pm, or by appointment.
Founded by Richard Pell in 2010, the Center for PostNatural History was created from the acquisition and exhibition of an eclectic collection of living, preserved and documented organisms that have been intentionally modified by humans. After six years of research and specimen collection, the contents of the museum offer an array of scientifically generated abnormalities. Visitors to the Center for PostNatural History experience a Silkie chicken, impaled fruit flies, GloFish®, dog skulls, well-preserved alcoholic rats, sea-monkeys, a spider-silk producing goat, and large X-ray print of a mouse skeleton with no ribs. One can explore diagrams of genetically modified corn and glass jars of a variety of specimens, including albino snakes in formaldehyde. These photographs, videos, taxidermy, dioramas, and living exhibits are only a few of the treasures on display at the Center for PostNatural History.
A mural of a pheasant embryo covers an entire wall of the central gallery space. This giant photograph is an homage to a bird that was part of a failed genetic experiment; likely the reason it has only one eye. Pell and his partner Lauren Allen are quick to point out none of the exhibits are ever manipulated. The information and documentation is as authentic as any other history museum. The main purpose of the Center for PostNatural History is to highlight the existence of organisms that are difficult to comprehend, like BioSteel goats. Their desire is to generate curiosity, raise awareness and educate visitors on the relationship of mankind to other living things on this planet. Visitors of the museum are able to form their own opinions about whether this type of genetically mutated scientific history is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
The PostNatural occurs during the evolutionary process when a human intervenes with the nature and biotechnology of an organism. This began nearly 10,000 years ago when humans started the domestication, genetic engineering, and selective breeding of pets, farm animals, flowers and other laboratory organisms. An organism technically becomes PostNatural as soon as mankind changes the natural habitat. This can be as simple as adding a fence or enclosure or as complex as genetically modifying a specimen.
“We’re interested in what people do to living things on purpose. We’re not a biology museum, not a science museum,” explains Pell. The collection is “anthropocentric; looking at human culture through the lens of biology.” - Pell, Richard (2012, March 2) That Was Then. This Is Now. Sage.
The Center for PostNatural History allows us to analyze not only the natural evolution of an organism but also the cultural history. It is through the controlled breeding of plants and animals we learn more about human desire and how those desires directly influence the evolution of these plants and animals. PostNatural organisms are often viewed as artifacts of human culture and are looked upon as the manifestation of human desire, power, hunger and fear. These organisms demonstrate the human need to control the genetic diversity of future earth.
Pell has always been interested in the collision of art, science and engineering. In fact, the first PostNatural acquisition for the Center for PostNatural History was a jar of malaria resistant mosquitoes from the University of California Irvine. PostNatural history is not about what happens after nature dies, but more about what happens to organisms after natural history takes place. The Center for PostNatural History is an archive of what has been created and developed, not a speculative analysis of the impacts of science on human biology.
“The museum avoids taking a position or even presenting a debate. This lets you walk through the displays remaining oblivious to the fact that the circumstances surrounding an exhibit are controversial. I can gaze in a sort of fascination as Sea-Monkeys flit around in their murky vial of water. But when I read about their inventor, Harold von Braunhut, and how he had ties to the Aryan Nation, a whole new layer of complexity is added.” - Giracca, Amanda (2013, July 18) The Magazine: Biological Parents: Issue #21.
Artist Eduardo Kac has developed work that can best be described as PostNatural. Alba, the glowing bunny, was created while working along side Dr. Louis-Marie Houdebine. Alba is a transgenic rabbit that produces Green Flourescent Protein (GFP) causing it to glow. These types of transgenic species are considered modern scientific technologies. However Kac is quick to point out that his transgenic art is created to promote awareness. Not unlike Pell and the Center for PostNatural History, Eduardo Kac's desire is to show respect for the transgenic by offering an unbiased perspective on the PostNatural. He acknowledges the importance of showcasing these animals as regular creatures that deserve as much attention and admiration as other non-genetically altered life forms.
In 2013, French photographer Vincent Fournier created an exhibit entitled Post Natural History. His imagery is inspired by synthetic biology, genetic engineering and reprogrammed stem cells. Fournier collaborated with a 3D imaging laboratory in Brussels in order to design these imaginary evolutionary animals. Whereas Pell is focused on the exhibition of the actual, Fournier approaches genetic mutation by illustrating the impractical. His surreal photographs mix old world science and mythology with contemporary science fiction and new world fantasy. Fournier comments on the speculative future of life forms that are genetically modified by science and technology. His supremely developed species with advanced technological capabilities are created out of concern for the future; the uncertain, potentially alarming, yet exciting possibilities of what can and will be imagined at the intersection of humanity and genetic research.
Genetically modified organisms continue to spark controversy. Some argue that scientists are creating a better future; solving global issues. Others fear there are yet unknown risks with genetically altering natural organisms. As humanity continues to have an increased and substantially negative impact on the future of this planet, the museum does not take sides on the ethical concerns surrounding genetic abnormalities created from scientific research. You can experience all exhibits with fascination, not judgment. Their goal is to simply tell the story of each unique organism, ultimately chronicling the history of mankind manipulating nature. The Center for PostNatural History continues to maintain their permanent exhibition and research facility in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as well as participate in ongoing traveling exhibitions.
The Center for PostNatural History is part of the exhibitions:
Intimate Science. The Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, The New School: Parsons. New York, USA. http://www.newschool.edu/parsons/currentExhibitions.aspx?id=99113
Center for PostNatural History. The Royal Institute of Science. Melbourne, Australia.
HUMAN+: The Future of our Species. The Science Gallery, Trinity College. https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/humanplus/, June 24) Dublin, Ireland.
Center for PostNatural History. Strategies in Genetic Copy Prevention. Verbeke Foundation in Belgium
Center for PostNatural History. Transgenic Mosquitoes of Southern California. Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (in conjunction with ZERO1 Festival)
Center for PostNatural History celebrates the grand opening of its permanent exhibition facility in Pittsburgh on March 2
Center for PostNatural History presents to the Association of American Geographers’ annual conference
Center for PostNatural History wins honorary mention in the Prix Ars Electronica Hybrid Arts category
Center for PostNatural History has a new permanent home in Pittsburgh, PA
Center for PostNatural History receives Maker’s Muse Award from the Kindle Project to support overhead costs for a new physical Center, slated to open in Pittsburgh in 2011
Pell develops Center for PostNatural History while in residence at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History