Walk below the life-size model of a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and make a right at the 11-ton, taxidermied African elephant standing in the rotunda, and you’ll come to a curious little alcove in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. You’ll know you’ve found the right place when you hear what sounds like an erratic dirge emanating from an old-fashioned player piano in the middle of the room.
This is the home of the “Unsettled Nature” exhibit, a mash-up of art and science the likes of which has never been seen in the museum’s 111-year history.
With pieces from seven different artists, “Unsettled Nature” is meant to make visitors think about the impact humans have had on the natural world. But unlike a lot of the art that examines the Anthropocene—a term given to the current geological age, where humans have become the most significant manipulators of the natural world—this exhibit manages to grapple with a number of prickly topics without becoming a total day-destroying bummer.
“In the course of putting the exhibit together, I got really interested in how to communicate with people about climate change and biodiversity loss without either causing them to despair or to deny,” says Scott Wing, a paleobotanist and cocurator of the exhibit. “We just kept thinking, There has to be a way to draw people in so that they can learn about it in a more value-neutral way.”
For instance, among the first things I see while visiting the exhibit are the vibrantly colored aerial photographs taken by David Maisel and Edward Burtynsky. There’s no denying the beauty of these shots—the aquamarine blues and rusty reds set against more neutral grays and whites. The contrast is both striking and visually pleasing, like something you’d see hauled out of the earth and set out for display in the museum’s Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals.
Of course, the colors are also poisonous.
One shot by Maisel depicts the bloodred swirls of a noxious bacterial bloom in what used to be a natural lake in eastern California. A century’s worth of water diversion and a buildup of salts and minerals left behind little more than a stagnant, sour pool. And in Chile’s Atacama Desert, Burtynsky’s lens reveals dozens of acres-wide, lithium mine tailings. Their colors—turquoise, robin’s egg, lime, and citron—look like gigantic Pantone swatches drying in the sun. The water evaporates in the desert heat, leaving behind lithium salts for use in rechargeable batteries and smartphones.
Both technologies I have in my backpack, I suddenly realize.
A few steps away, a series of photographs by interdisciplinary artist Ellie Irons tells the tale of two corner lots in Brooklyn, New York. Shot over the course of two and three years, respectively, the photo sets catalog how plants rapidly took up residence in the paved-over lots after they were left vacant.
Without prompting, the images make your brain wonder which is better—the relatively “clean” lot, where concrete and steel reside, or the one covered in unruly vegetation, plenty of which is composed of invasive species?
“I like the really weedy one myself,” admits Wing. “There’s the aesthetic part of it, but what about the ecosystem services?”
Plants absorb water from the soil and fix carbon from the atmosphere, he says. They also reduce the city’s heat load. And even though native plants would probably support more species of insects and other wildlife, “I’d rather have some kind of ecosystem there than a parking lot or a patio,” Wing says.
Humans made the city, of course. We also brought in invasive species, like the tree of heaven that comes to dominate one of the lots (the tree is also the preferred meal of the dreaded, invasive spotted lanternfly that’s eating its way through several eastern and midwestern states). But the fact that without any help from us a garden can bloom even here, where pavement covers all, also hints at the resilience of the natural world.
On the opposite wall, another plant-based exhibit makes us think about human intervention in an entirely different way.
Around 100 million years ago, there lived a species of Australian tree known as the Wollemi pine. Paleobotanists like Wing know the species well, as fossil records are chock full of the conifers, right on up to a point about 30 million years ago where the continent became so dry that the species went extinct. Or so scientists thought.
Amazingly, a forest ranger discovered two small groves of living Wollemi pines while out on a hike in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia, in 1994.
“Essentially, you have the tree equivalent of a living dinosaur,” says Wing.
Since then, scientists have cloned the species and planted it in gardens all over the world, including outside of the Smithsonian Institution Building, commonly called “the Castle.” And that’s a good thing, considering how the bushfires that swept across Australia in 2020 came very close to wiping out the last of the Wollemi pine’s wild stands.
So even though the species is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the transplants have set up an insurance population all over the globe.
“In some sense, it’s now safer than it has been in millions of years,” says Wing. “It’s kind of like a phoenix. It’s something that humans have brought back from being nearly extinct.”
The future for many other endangered species is much murkier, though.
At the center of the “Unsettled Nature” exhibit sits a restored player piano from 1921. Look wherever you like in the exhibit, but you cannot ignore the music emanating from those keys, each of which was carved from the tusks of an elephant half a world away.
Frankly, that would probably be enough of a statement about the fate of African elephants, both species of which are nearing extinction. But even those notes have meaning.
Using population projections from NRDC, where she is the artist-in-residence, interdisciplinary artist Jenny Kendler assigned numerical values to each piano note and then arranged them into a 10-minute musical score. Lower, longer notes correspond with estimated spikes in poaching. All together, the music tells the story of what will happen if elephant populations continue to decrease just 1.5 percent each year. Spoiler alert: That projection does not have a happy ending.
“[A]fter only 300 months (25 years), the count of living elephants falls to zero, the piano’s ivory keys fall silent…and elephants are extinct,” Kendler writes on her website.
In the end, “Unsettled Nature” offers a little bit of everything—destruction and loss, along with perseverance and hope. And also the inescapable sense that what happens next is up to us.
“This is kind of what it means to be human, in a way. The more power and influence you have, the more you need to consider how you use it,” says Wing. “I hope people will go away unsettled.”
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