PostNatural museum crosses boundaries

A visitor at the Center for PostNatural History listens to one of the audio exhibits housed in the space. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) A visitor at the Center for PostNatural History listens to one of the audio exhibits housed in the space. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor)

The Center for PostNatural History is a distinct crossbreed between a museum and an art gallery. Friday marked the grand opening of its permanent exhibition facility, located at 4913 Penn Ave. Richard Pell, a Carnegie Mellon professor of art and director of the Center for PostNatural History, is the founder of this space.

The term “post-natural” refers to genetically altered living organisms. According to the center’s website, its intent is to “acquire, interpret and provide access to a collection of living, preserved and documented organisms of post-natural origin.” The exhibit allows access to a wealth of knowledge about the relationships among culture, nature, and biotechnology.

Upon entering, visitors are guided under a dark arch into a dimly lit room with ambient noises quietly adding to the atmosphere. Large, bookcase-like structures tower next to the entrance. Nestled in these dark, wooden barriers are glass windows that provide a glimpse of tiny, intricate dioramas created by Craig Tompkins, an artist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. These dioramas represent different environments that harbor genetically altered species, such as a military goat farm generating “biosteel goats.”

The glass windows also contain a fish tank of Glofish, or zebra fish, a transgenic organism. Edward Wojciechowski III, a first-year linguistics major, said, “I thought it was interesting that they had live organisms. Like, I definitely had those fish as a kid. It was all very familiar.”

Other sections of the exhibit display more of these cases, each with a specimen and a phone that viewers can pick up in order to learn the history of the modified organism. These cases include a variety of samples, including sea monkeys and the testicles of a castrated domestic cat. The specimens featured in the exhibit are all donations.

A larger portion of the exhibit has a wall dedicated to the Dugway Proving Ground, the largest biological weapons testing site in the United States. The location is illustrated by an eerie landscape photograph of the Utah Granite Peak Installation, accompanied by an aerial view of the land. A pulsating circular projection of the ground inhabits the wall next to the pictures. “For quite a lot of bacterial pathogens, this is their one sort of habitat that exists outside the lab,” Pell explained, when asked why the projection was there.

The idea for the exhibit goes back as far as 2005, though the development of the physical space started just a year ago. Pell originally began working with engineers in the field of synthetic biology. Though the museum displays a number of preserved life forms, Pell was never particularly interested in the creation of these displays as an art form.

“The realization that I came to was that the things that were already happening in labs were far more provocative than anything I could come up with,” he said. “What was necessary was a space of documentation and contemplation.”

He worked to transform the center into a neutral space that would allow for serious contemplation, which is no easy task when working with a controversial subject. The goals of the gallery are to challenge the assumptions of viewers and to allow them to reach their own conclusions, without having to decide whether or not they agree with any particular opinion. Pell said, “We specifically try to avoid using the language of the industry, or academia even.”
Pell revealed that the most difficult part of creating a permanent home for the center was simply the architecture of the space. He worked with numerous people to transform one large room into a series of intimate spaces that all flow in and out of each other.

Though the area is decidedly neutral, there is undoubtedly a hint of morbidity that arises from the lighting, audio, and concepts of the exhibit. The blunt exposition of the genetic modification that transpires in America is enough to give any viewer an uneasy feeling. The Center for PostNatural History lets viewers in on something that feels secretive, even though all of the information displayed is available to the general public.