Is it a science exhibit?
Is it an art exhibit?
Maybe the Center for PostNatural History is a little bit of both. In an effort to memorialize how science changes the world around us, Richard Pell created the Center for PostNatural History back in 2012 within a storefront on Penn Avenue in the Garfield neighborhood. The Center examines how processes such as genetic engineering and selective breeding have altered nature around us, whether accidentally or on purpose.
When you enter the main exhibit area through the dark curtain, you are currently greeted by Freckles, the taxidermied genetically-modified goat. Freckles is (was) a BioSteelTM Goat that was enhanced with genes coded for a Golden Orb Weaver Spider, so that Freckles’ milk would produce a spider silk protein. This protein was then spun into a silk material that was used to create fibers to incorporate into body armor and other bullet-resistant technologies, as well as for replacing tendons in humans.
If this all sounds a touch bizarre to you, don’t worry. I found myself on a recent Sunday afternoon staring at a stuffed goat thinking the same thing. If you’re wondering why not just use spiders themselves to produce the silk, this makes a touch more sense. Spiders are difficult to wrangle and convince to produce silk on-demand. It’s much easier to milk a goat and then modify their milk, through dehydration, to obtain the silk. Efforts are still being made to make goat silk a commercially viable endeavor.
Freckles was donated in 2013 by Dr. Randy Lewis from Utah State University, who had obtained Freckles himself from the Nexia Biotechnologies company. Richard Pell obtains all of his exhibits from donations. It’s become rather easy, as Pell has created an extensive network of contacts over the years.
“I started getting interested in 2004,” said Pell. His interest stemmed from a friend who was doing selective engineering, as it was known at the time. Pell became so engrossed in the subject that he self-taught himself molecular biology and contacted as many researchers he could that would give him some time for questions. It’s a curious side venture for a Professor of Art from Carnegie Mellon University at first glance, but not after you see how passionate Pell is about the subject.
Pell even created a homemade lab for himself, but this particular hobby eventually became too cost-prohibitive. He soon realized that there were plenty of people doing research in the field; he should use his talents as an artist to bring the message to the general public. So in 2012, with the help of some foundation grant monies and drawing upon his worldwide network of contacts, Pell opened the modest, non-descript storefront.
I asked him if he wished it were bigger, as the whole space only takes 20 to 30 minutes to view. “I definitely wish it were bigger. We have space to go out the back by about fifty feet. It’s just a matter of finding an architect and the funding for it,” Pell said.
The current grant provider is The Kindle Project, an offbeat foundation that seems to seek out some slightly off-center work and ensure that its message is heard.
“When I opened the space, I had a re-occurring dream that I would open a door and there would be a whole new space behind it for more exhibits,” said the quiet and unassuming curator.
One of my questions did give Pell some pause for reflection. I asked him what his goal was for the museum or how he would know he was successful in this endeavor. After he absent-mindedly scratched his beard, he said, “Natural history museums have been asleep at the wheel in discussing post-natural history. I would hope that one day, each natural history museum would also have a little hall dedicated to post-natural history, as well.”
So the next time you’re at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. or even the Carnegie here in Pittsburgh, just think about being able to see stuff like this:
That’s a female chicken with a male chicken’s heel spur grafted on to her head. This was done in 1930’s Berlin. The reason? Because they could do it, is the best that I could fashion. Pell said that due to the size of the spur’s growth, it was evident to the researchers that there was plenty of blood stimulation to the graft.
Pell is an earnest man on a quiet mission. That mission is to make your viewing of history just a little bit more weird. Next time you’re in the Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Shadyside area on a Sunday afternoon, take a little detour over to the Center for PostNatural History. Because some things need to be seen to be believed.