Perusing the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, I had some thoughts on how we perceive our connection with nature. I must admit that these were prompted by probing questions from my program director and site coordinators (since the museum visit was part ofour program). As a side note, the featured picture of this post is one of my favorite photos from the exhibition on the 22nd Anniversary of Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice Awards at the museum, captioned appropriately by me.
While browsing, I noticed how stark of an impact the human-centric lens we use to view natural history has on the exhibits within the museum. Take the dinosaur exhibit for example, one of the most prominent and visitor-drawing exhibits within the museum. To me, the exhibit seemed to focus more on humanity’s evolving knowledge and connections to the history of the dinosaurs, rather than a focus on the history of dinosaurs themselves. I distinctly remember one part of the exhibit in which a question is posed underneath the skeleton of a T-Rex about whether the average human could outrun a T-Rex (hint: the answer is no). Another part showed our evolving interpretation of what a triceratops should look like and how they should be depicted.
This emphasis on the human connection to nature is very prominent throughout the museum. Even though this exhibit was on dinosaurs who lived over 60 million years ago, tens of millions of years before our very distant ancestors ever lived on earth, the museum still seemed to focus on humans. On the surface, it is important to view the natural history of the world through a human lens because that’s the primary manner in which we experience the world and sense the world. However, we miss out on so much more perspective if we don’t use a context absent of human impact as well. On a larger scale, humans have barely existed in terms of how long Earth has been around. There’s the widespread metaphor that if the time Earth has existed is shrunk to an hour, then humans only appeared in the last second of that hour. Inserting humans into this frame can really alter the perspective we have, and then we end up having something like five Jurassic Park movies where humans and dinosaurs directly interact with each other.
And this is not a critique of how curators develop museums, but more a reflection of the human experience with nature. The way the curators told this story of the dinosaurs by inserting humans into the narrative clearly left an impression on me, so it is an effective method of storytelling. And then pops up the question to me of what “natural history” even is. Is it how humans have interacted with the world? Is it how the Earth has changed over the past few billion years? Is it how climate and weather shapes the existence of organisms on Earth? Is it how animals and plants have evolved to their current state? It’s likely a combination of all these stories and how they interrelate, and I think the museum curators did an apt job at conveying this with the various exhibits.
Wrapping up all these musings within this post, I don’t wish to convey that one of these lenses is more powerful or valuable than the others. There’s value in examining a story from every perspective. The way that curators design their exhibits, and the lenses they use, have an important impact on how humans perceive the natural world as well as our connection to it.