Prove your humanity

As visitors enter a new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, they’re asked for their opinion.

A sign reads, “Do you think humans have had an impact on the environment?” Below it, people can drop a recycled wine cork into one of three bins: yes, not sure and no. The “yes” bin has the most corks.

And that’s what the exhibit, We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene, is getting at.

LISTEN: “This Age of Humans That We’re Living in? It Has a Name: Anthropocene”

“The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological era that acknowledges the impact that humans have had on the planet,” says Eric Dorfman, director of the museum. “In 2000, some notable geologists suggested that there is a signature that will be in the fossil record that is dominated by humanity.”

As visitors move through the space, they’re confronted with the evidence.

A chunk of iron ore sits on a pedestal. Its red, brown and gray layers were formed over millions of years.

“Next to it, which is for me a little bit of irony, is a little piece of plastiglomerate,” Dorfman says. “Which is rock that is an accumulation of plastic detritus from humans that the waves and other natural forces have smashed together and created, essentially, a new mineral.”

It looks like a fossil, but with a row of green, plastic teeth.

Plastiglomerate is a fusion of plastics and natural materials like sea shells, sand and wood. Photo: Kara Holsopple

Dorfman says the exhibit shows that people and nature are irrevocably entwined. That we’re natural beings and everything we do or create becomes part of nature, too.

Pieces from the museum’s collections are given a new context–like global warming. A branch of a redbud tree, from 1915, is mounted in a frame. Its pink flowers came out in May that year. Next to it, a sample of redbud from May 2017, is already done flowering.

Human-caused climate change, habitat alteration, species extinction, pollution, and even modifying the genetic code of animals is explored throughout the exhibit.

If all of this sounds a little depressing, Dorfman says actually, they’re aiming for a sense of hope.

“The idea that human impact is strong enough to affect the geological record long term, this has sparked a real social response and an artistic response in many people,” Dorfman says.

Dr. Eric Dorfman is Director of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. We Are Nature is the first exhibition in North America to focus on the Anthropocene. Photo: Kara Holsopple.

He likens it to the Renaissance, or the Neolithic Age, each of which profoundly impacted human society.

“We have an opportunity here, through the agency of the Anthropocene, to rethink our relationship with the planet,” Dorfman says.

He says the exhibit is a call to action, which isn’t so different from the role natural history museums have played since the 19th century. Part of their mandate was to win the hearts and minds of visitors, creating a sense of wonder and curiosity for the natural world represented within the museum’s walls. Dorfman says the Carnegie Museum of Natural History will even use feedback they get from visitors through the interactive parts of the exhibit to guide research.

The exhibit is open through September 3, 2018.


We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene is funded in part by Colcom Foundation, which has supported the work of The Allegheny Front.