Recently my wife, Diane, and I had the pleasure of visiting Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s environmental research center. The occasion was a demonstration by our Powdermill scientists of their progress in testing window treatments designed to save as many as possible of the nearly 1 billion migrating birds that die every year when they are deceived by reflections of the environment (trees, sky) in the glass. We also learned about Powdermill’s leadership in the Motus project, which involves affixing tiny, harmless transmitters to birds to track their migrations. One bird we were tracking had flown some 2,100 miles in a continuous 46-hour flight. By logging how early in the fall birds migrate, how far south they go, how soon they return, and how far north they are choosing to breed, our experts are giving scientists in many fields an objective record of the effects of climate change. These are just a couple of the ways in which Powdermill serves the museum’s goal of becoming “the world’s most relevant natural history museum.”
Everywhere in society’s engagement with the natural world, we need both elements: accurate scientific reasoning, observation, and measurement; and the power of art and imagination to connect the impersonal facts of nature with human history, culture, and emotion.
Birds. In a way, they are a natural symbol of what is unique about our Carnegie family of four distinctive museums: a nearly perfect balance of science and art. In the eyes of science, we know that birds are dinosaurs, sharing with their long-extinct cousins the upright stance—legs directly beneath their bodies rather than extending off to their sides—that distinguishes them from other reptiles. (Yes, birds are not just dinosaurs; they are reptiles!) But their astonishing beauty and their ability to soar gives them a unique place in many cultures, where they are imagined, for instance, as messengers between Earth and heaven. Of course, birds in many cultures are also omens, literally ominous in what they portend of the future, as they are now doing at Powdermill through science rather than myth.
Everywhere in society’s engagement with the natural world, we need both elements: accurate scientific reasoning, observation, and measurement; and the power of art and imagination to connect the impersonal facts of nature with human history, culture, and emotion. Think of the birds that connect the sky and ocean in Albert Bierstadt’s magnificent 1887 Farallon Island, a masterful example of the American sublime that hangs in the Scaife Galleries of Carnegie Museum of Art. No human figure is present, but this turbulent land and seascape could not have existed without the particular ways in which the late heirs of Romanticism invested human emotions of fear and exaltation in a world newly naturalized by the science of (among many others) Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin.
What organization besides Carnegie Museums has as great an opportunity—and responsibility—to engage its audiences in the exploration of the endlessly rich and complex interaction of human and natural realities? It’s because of human activity, after all, that scientists have come to call the age we live in the Anthropocene—that is, the era in which human beings for the first time affect the systems of nature on a planet-wide scale.
Carnegie Museums is uniquely equipped to engage our audiences, throughout greater Pittsburgh and beyond, in meaningful dialogue not just on what the Anthropocene is and how it works, but what it means and how it feels—and even how we might imagine ways of changing it for the better.
President & Chief Executive Officer,
Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh
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