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The Strange Science of the Center for PostNatural History

By Lauren Clouser

Photo by Lauren Clouser

Richard Pell has traveled to Utah to pick up a taxidermy goat, received mice embryos in the mail and currently has a great dane in his freezer waiting to be stuffed.

These are just a part of over 60 exhibits that make up the Center for PostNatural History, a storefront museum in Garfield founded and operated by Pell that centers around genetically modified organisms, a topic not covered by most natural history museums.

The PostNatural History Center, with genetically modified seeds and fancy chickens, in addition to mice, goats and dogs, may be one of the most unique science centers in Pittsburgh.

“I’m telling stories that are true, but it’s all in telling stories to people in ways that they haven’t heard before,” Pell said.

When Pell first began researching synthetic biology, a fairly new field that combines biology and molecular engineering, he quickly became aware that something was missing. He found there were very few institutions that explored this type of science or recognized humans as the main force of change in the natural world. And it became a need that he was determined to fill.

“These were issues…people have really strong opinions about but there actually wasn’t any place you could go to think about it, so I started thinking about how to address that blind spot and that started to look a lot like a museum,” Pell said.

Richard Pell, curator and founder of the Center for PostNatural History. Photo by Lauren Clouser.

Pell, who is a professor of arts at Carnegie Mellon University, began to collect specimens for his museum, many of which were organisms that had been genetically modified or altered by humans, like red canaries or an alcoholic rat. In 2008, Pell began contacting researchers one by one to acquire more and more specimens. It soon became apparent that he needed a permanent space for his exhibits, which range from fighting roosters to bacteria that changes color in response to light to create Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.’

“When I moved to Pittsburgh I was on the lookout for buildings I could get that would be big enough to do that in,” Pell said, “Eventually the storefront underneath my apartment here in Garfield became open and so I just started to rent it and just started to do it.”

Pell considers himself an artist, not a scientist. He majored in art at Carnegie Mellon University, though his work often incorporated engineering and computer science.

“I haven’t had a biology class since high school, so it’s all kind of sort of curiosity based work, just talking to scientists and asking them lots of questions, reading a lot,” Pell said.

Pell also enlisted the help of Lauren Allen, who he met in San Francisco. Allen was working at a museum called Exploratorium. Her background was in biology, and she mainly studied how humans were impacting environments.

“He was talking about postnatural stuff and we had a lot of examples of those kinds of things like genetically modified and selectively bred laboratory organisms in our collection and so I showed him those things and we just kind of hit it off and started working on projects together,” Allen said.

Pell said the idea for the museum raised some concern from others because genetic modifications can be a politically charged topic.

“There was a lot of speculation that there would be resistance to it that the political left would be offended or the political right…and in reality none of that was true,” Pell said.

In 2012, Pell and Allen opened the Center for PostNatural History, with Pell serving as the curator and Allen as the director of science and learning.

Pell said the opening night of the museum drew a huge crowd. From opening night, however, the number of visitors became sporadic. Some days no one would come. Now, Pell says they see about 50 visitors every week, many who come from outside of Pittsburgh to see the museum.

Rebecca Shreckengast, the director of exhibition experience at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, was told by her exhibit staff when she moved to Pittsburgh that she needed to meet Pell. When she visited the Center for PostNatural History for the first time, Shreckengast said she was struck by the atmosphere.

“I liked the drama of the space, it was sort of dark, it’s close and intimate…I appreciated that Richard was sort of drawing on some of the mainstays of natural history presentation, like taxidermy, and objects in jars,” Shreckengast said. “He’s really referencing the natural history museum but in a very sort of different, a little bit macabre sort of way.”

An alcoholic rat on display at the Center for PostNatural History. Photo by Lauren Clouser.

Admission is free, but the museum is only open on Sundays from 12-4 because the staff is entirely made up of volunteers, and Pell and Allen work during the rest of the week. Pell said he  considered being open more frequently but didn’t want to commit to another day.

“I don’t want to commit to that unless I feel like that’s something that we can sustain because people find us in a book so we try to stick to those hours that were stuck in a book years ago,” Pell said.

Allen said the definition of what qualifies as postnatural is still up for debate, but currently the museum features domestication, genetic modification and synthetic biology.

One of Pell’s favorite exhibits is Freckles, a taxidermied Biosteel goat. Biosteel goats were genetically engineered by Nexia Biotechnologies so they would produce spider silk, one of the strongest-known fibers, in their milk.

In a magazine interview, Pell mentioned that he wanted one of these goats for an exhibit. About a week later Pell received a phone call from the man currently taking care of the goats, and said he would be able to provide one for the museum once a goat had to be put down.

It was a difficult specimen to procure; once a goat was put down, Pell and Allen drove from Pittsburgh to Utah and back with the taxidermied animal.

“We stayed in hotels on the way back because we were so worried about this taxidermy goat and we would bring it in from the car every night and bring it into our hotel room,” Allen said.  “So I’m sure that there were some people who could see through the window that were very weirded out by what was going on.”

Another favorite exhibit of Pell’s are genetically modified mouse embryos. One has no ribs, and one has too many.

Pell reached out to the researcher in charge of the project who was based in Portugal.

“He said: ‘Am I allowed to just send it to you in the mail?’ and I said: ‘I guess so.’ And a week later there they were,” Pell said.

Because the museum includes domestication, almost every pet could become a specimen. Pell and Allen recently acquired the body of a great dane, which is currently in a freezer waiting to be taxidermied.

The dog, Popeye, belonged to their friends, who put the dog down due to illness. Allen asked if they would be willing to donate Popeye for the center.

“They were like: ‘Yeah, that would be great.’ They were excited to have it because it’s going to be cool for them that their dog is in a museum,” Allen said.

Allen said they struggled to find a freezer that was large enough to fit Popeye.

“We went to Home Depot and they didn’t have any that were big enough, then we had to drive to Lowes…but it worked out, and now we have a giant freezer with a dead dog in it,” Allen said.

Shreckengast said that the Center for PostNatural History differs from a typical natural history museum because Pell and Allen have more flexibility with acquiring and maintaining specimens. Shreckengast also said that the center has a more cultural perspective.

“I do think that the main difference with the Center for PostNatural History is that they are looking for these sort of really strong engaging cultural stories and then finding an object or a specimen that embodies that storytelling,” Shreckengast said.

Stephen Tonsor, the director of science and research at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, collaborated with Allen and Pell on Carnegie’s exhibit ‘We are Nature,’ which centered around the anthropocene, a geological era which recognizes humans as a major force of change in the world.

Tonsor agrees with Pell that natural history museums do not always focus on how humans impact nature.

“Natural history museums often talk about what is becoming a more and more imaginary world of nature without humans and they don’t include the ways in which we are altering essentially all earth systems,” Tonsor said.

Tonsor believes that places like the Center for PostNatural History are important in order to get people to start thinking about how human impact is affecting the planet.

“We’ve come into this time in earth’s history when we are influencing all of earth’s systems…So it would behoove us to think of the ways in which we are altering the world to be intentional about the outcomes, both direct and the many indirect outcomes that are unanticipated and sometimes disastrous of our actions,” Tonsor said.

The Center for PostNatural History is currently closed in order to expand. The reopening is planned for March of 2019.

This story was originally published on Offbeat ‘Burgh, a magazine product of Point Park University’s School of Communication.

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