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Humans’ living creations put on display

Center for PostNatural History examines genetic engineering, domestication

HUMAN'S HAND  Freckles the silk-spinning goat joins laboratory rats, glowing fish and other displays at Pittsburgh’s Center for PostNatural History. The small museum highlights the role humans have played, through both traditional breeding and engineering, in genetically shaping living things.

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Some might say Freckles the goat was a freak. Others would say she was a modern wonder. She was genetically engineered by a Canadian company to produce milk that could be spun into spider silk. The superstrong fibers were intended for high-tech uses like bulletproof vests or artificial tendons, but in 2009 the company went bankrupt. A taxidermied Freckles now greets visitors to a tiny storefront in Pittsburgh.

Her new home is the Center for PostNatural History, a museum opened in 2012 by Richard Pell, who teaches electronic media art at Carnegie Mellon University. Pell curates the museum and also tends the front desk.

As visitors pass through a curtain to enter the darkened exhibition space, they see a spectacularly fluffy white ornamental chicken and an aquarium full of glowing fish. Pell classifies both the silkie chicken and the GloFish®, genetically engineered to produce fluorescent jellyfish proteins, as “postnatural.” The label includes any organisms intentionally and heritably altered by humans, whether through domestication, selective breeding or the modern tools of biotechnology.

Other postnatural specimens include genetically modified corn, mutant fruit flies and a lonely pair of cat testicles in a jar. This oddball assortment of objects is tagged with handwritten labels and trapped under bell jars or pinned to boards.

But Pell does not intend the museum to be merely a cabinet of curiosities or a freak show. Visitors will not find rants that drum up fears of “Frankenfoods.” Neither is this a celebration of science with grand promises about the future. Instead, Pell hopes it is a place where “activists and scientists can run into each other, feel comfortable and maybe even blow each others’ minds.”

Language used throughout the center is artfully neutral, and each specimen is accompanied by only a few basic facts and a brief story highlighting a social issue. One display shows dried leaves from a transgenic American chestnut, engineered with a wheat gene to resist the fungal blight that nearly eradicated wild populations of the tree. An audio guide recounts how researchers decided to use the wheat gene instead of one from frogs, for fear of controversy.

Some might think the scientists were pandering to irrational fears of “frog-trees.” Others may say the scientists were manipulating the public into accepting the trees as more “natural” than they really are.

The museum’s approach could frustrate science enthusiasts when social and ethical questions push interesting scientific details into the background. But there is much to learn and think about in this collection, which bursts with stories of strange human endeavors such as growing monstrously large pumpkins or creating hybrid brine shrimp to sell as “sea monkeys.”

Visitors will get the most out of the experience if they bring a friend, preferably someone who will disagree about what it all means. 

To visit

Open Sundays 12–4 pm,
First Fridays of the month 5–8 pm
By appointment

Free admission

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