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Book illuminates Pittsburgh's unique Center for PostNatural History

pigeon flying upside down
Center for PostNatural History
Rich Pell's "This is Not An Artifact" explores the ideas and objects behind his Center for PostNatural History such as the Birmingham Roller Pigeon, which was bred to tumble backwards during flight.

For generations, the vast majority of Americans have lived in a world almost entirely of human devising.

Our home and work environments and the plants and animals we eat or keep as pets are all products more of culture than of nature.

Rich Pell’s job is asking why we prefer to think about that fact as little as possible.

In 2008, the Carnegie Mellon University art professor founded the Center for PostNatural History, dedicated to organisms intentionally altered by people, whether through domestication, selective breeding or genetic engineering.

The intimate, artfully lit Garfield storefront museum Pell opened in 2012 is where you can see, and ponder, genetically modified mosquitoes, a taxidermy silky chicken, seed corn, the testes of a castrated cat, petri dishes of e. coli bacteria, and even the stuffed remains of Freckles, a long-haired goat on whom scientists bestowed the genes of an orb spider so she might make spider silk in her milk for industrial and military use.

Pell launched the Center because traditional museums of natural history almost universally ignore organisms he calls “postnatural.”

“It's like a good way to get kicked out of the collection if you're somehow modified by a person,” he said. “And the closer I looked, the more it seemed there ought to be a place for all that other stuff where every vegetable and fruit and dog and racehorse has a place to be kind of considered on its own, as something that's important in human culture.”

The Center’s work is known internationally. Now Pell hopes to spread the word even further with “This is Not An Artifact” (K. Verlag), his stylishly designed new book of photos and essays exploring the exhibits and ideas that fuel the museum.

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In the past, Pell has collaborated with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History; as he documents in “This is Not an Artifact,” he also once did an artist residency at the Smithsonian Institution. He’s less upset by museums’ attitude toward the postnatural than he is puzzled.

“When I first started, I thought, ‘Surely somebody with a lot of money is going to do this in six months and I'll be out of a job,’” he said. “That hasn't happened.”

It’s not just museums who are less than eager. At a recent talk he gave in Pittsburgh, an audience member asked him, “Who would pay to see a chicken?”

In other words, why study the very familiar?

“I think part of it is that we expect it to be boring,” Pell said. “What my job is, is to show you that it's extraordinary. You know, the longer you stare at it, the more there is to talk about.”

Then there’s the “yuck factor.” It’s especially likely to affect people confronting transgenic organisms, like a tomato given fish genes to enhance its resistance to cold.

“There's kind of a sense of disgust and guilt that can enter into the conversation,” he said. “When people come to the museum, the way I describe it is this balance between wonder and worry, you know?”

For instance, consider that dogs, bred from wolves, are cultural artifacts rather than natural ones.

“When [people] look at, like, the skeleton of like, a pug dog, the squashed little faces, and they kind of oink a little bit,” he said. “You can see we've bred them to not have a face anymore. And they're having a hard time breathing, you know? So little insights like that are unsettling.”

Pell notes that humans domesticated dogs some 15,000 years ago, even before we did so with food crops. But postnatural entities are all around us, in ways large and small: Two-thousand-pound pumpkins, bred for contests, so heavy they deform under their own weight. Rats inbred by researchers for their susceptibility to alcohol. The Big Michel variety of banana, no longer grown in this hemisphere because of disease, but whose flavor lives on in candy peanuts.

In its 16 years, the Center’s collection has drawn global interest, with touring exhibits in dozens of cities around the world, in countries including Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Singapore.

It’s also been featured in American Scientist magazine, and on the BBC World Service and public radio show Science Friday.

In “This is Not An Artifact,” Pell asks whether even humans themselves can be considered postnatural.

“It turns out we kind of self-domesticated, you know, in the same way that we domesticate animals, by kind of putting them in captivity and taking control of their habitat and all those kinds of things,” he said. “We kind of did it to ourselves to the point where we need these houses and we need these clothes. We've adapted to the conditions of our own captivity, which is a pretty heavy thought. But at the end of the day, that's who we are.”

“This is Not An Artifact” is available at the Center’s website and at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History gift shop.

The Center’s Penn Avenue storefront is open 5-9 p.m. Fridays and noon-4 p.m. Sundays.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: