Humans' Living Creations Put on Display: Center for PostNatural History Examines Genetic Engineering, Domestication

Article excerpt


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 (below) and an aquarium full of glowing fish. Pell classifies both the silkie chicken and the GloFish [R], 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. …