Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh is a consortium of local museums, galleries and archives working together to share information and expertise, and foster collaboration in research, teaching, and public engagement.

Here, at the HAA Constellations blog, you can read about some of the outcomes of these partnerships. Learn more about Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh at https://haa.pitt.edu/ckp.

 

Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

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    Learning of the Local and the Global in the Art Gallery

    Museum Studies Intern at the University Art Gallery - Spring 2019

    My semester-long internship with the University Art Gallery promised from the start to be an exciting opportunity to expand my passion for audio-visual exhibition. The task was to assist with technological arrangements for an exhibition of Chinese video works being curated by Graduate Student Assistant Ellen Larson and set to open in the fall of 2019. The video technology aspect was mostly familiar territory for me, as I frequently organize pop-up microcinema events, which have afforded me with substantial experience in planning the logistics of presenting moving images in various formats. It was the geographic focus of the exhibition that mostly piqued my interest, as my knowledge of contemporary Chinese cinema was limited. As a cinephile who constantly endeavors to push my understanding of the medium and to foster a diverse knowledge base, this was one particular knowledge gap that I was eager to narrow.

    The perspective shift from understanding the world through the art of residents of a country foreign to my own was a welcome aspect of the internship. What I did not anticipate that my work with the UAG would encourage, however, was a different understanding of the gallery settings that were already so familiar and close to home. As the semester progressed, I was delighted to find that, in addition to a steady diet of contemporary Chinese film and video works, I was also offered opportunites to consider gallery exhibition practice beyond my familiar territory of audio-visual needs. It was often precisely in the areas where expectations were not met that I encountered the most enlightening learning experiences.

    Early in the semester, I had devised lists of equipment necessary to display each work selected for the exhibition. Moreover, I learned to use SketchUp software to create visualizations of each installation. The setups were generally straightforward -- display and playback devices, speakers, and various connecting cables -- though it was not until Ellen and I had the equipment in hand and completed a dry-run of the first setup that I began to understand some of the minutiae of exhibition planning for the gallery setting. With the installation assembled, I considered aesthetic details as precise as color and positioning of extension cords and other wires. 

    Although such elements seemed inconsequential at the SketchUp stage, seeing the installations progress from visualization to realization allowed me to understand the importance of such diminutive details to the overall aesthetic of each piece.  It also allowed me to more fully appreciate the labor that takes place within exhibition spaces. In this way, my internship with the University Art Gallery has provided a new way of seeing not just at the global level through a newfound appreciation for contemporary Chinese audio-visual culture, but also right here in Pittsburgh, since no gallery visit will ever be quite the same for me again.

    Categories: 
    • Environment
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Spaces
    • UAG
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Looking at Icons in Visible Storage

     

    Finding Stories at the Heinz History Center

    Museum Studies Intern at the Senator John Heinz History Center – Spring 2019

    Through the course of my internship at the Senator John Heinz History Center I had many experiences which helped me understand museum work better. I was an intern in the curatorial department under Senior Curator Leslie Przybylek and conducted research to help expand the museum’s body of knowledge. I had two great experiences which really shaped and changed my expectations and goals of working in a museum setting. Under the guidance of Ms. Przybylek, I found that what I really wanted to do was tell stories. And what better way to do that than to go and find them yourself?

    My two areas of research throughout the internship were Skiing and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I focused on the Pittsburgh area and mainly focused on the 1900s. I learned so much about Eastern Orthodox Christianity that I hadn’t known before doing this internship. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a service at St. Nicholas Church in McKees Rocks. It was when I went here and listened to the service and talked with congregation members afterwards, that I wanted to do something more than simply interacting with icons in the collections. Objects are awesome and I love learning about them, but to me the story behind them and the people who interacted with them are the real gems of the collections at the Heinz History Center.

    The research that went in to skiing was a little different. Unfortunately, I could not go on any big downhill skiing adventures, though I was invited on an outing. No hills? No problem! Nordic Skiing, or Cross-Country Skiing, is a great alternative when there aren’t any convenient mountains. I received a great lesson about Nordic Skiing from Rick Garstka, the former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Cross-Country Skiing. I learned from Mr. Garstka that the wax on the middle part of the skis actually grips the snow so that you can propel yourself forward. It’s great for all ages and a wonderful way to stay in shape during the winter months!

    During my research I also came across a lovely article in the Pittsburgh Press from 1935. Aleen Westein had some advice on what to do with unused ski equipment including using it to ward of intruders in the night! Some other good tidbits include wearing ski pants to make unwanted guests leave early and transforming ski poles into a lamp.

    Throughout my internship I loved meeting new people and learning about their experiences. The ability of curators to not only collect objects but tell a story that might otherwise remain unshared is something I greatly admire and hope that I can one day do myself.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • William Mayer in the Anthropocene Living Room.

     

    Changing the Museum Experience Through the Anthropocene

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Spring 2019

    You probably have a certain expectation of what a natural history museum looks like. You would expect to see cases with filled with old dinosaur bones, taxidermic animals and dioramas. Perusing through museum exhibits of this nature, you might be surprised to come across a space full of couches and chairs, with books or news articles, in which to sit down and read. Not only that, but also a space dedicated to humans and nature in a largely modern context.

    The Anthropocene Living Room at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is such a space. A new addition to CMNH, the Living Room was designed to continue to communicate and engage visitors in information about the Anthropocene and reinterpret humanity as a working part of nature following the museum’s prior special exhibition on the topic, We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the current geological age in which we live, defined by the impact which humans have had on nature and the global environment, dealing with issues from climate change to nuclear fallout. This certainly feels like a new topic in a natural history museum, in addition to its non-traditional design. Over the course of my internship at CMNH under the advisement of Dr. Nicole Heller, Curator of the Anthropocene, I have been working to evaluate visitor interaction with and reception to this experimental new type of museum space.

    I have done a combination of survey work and observational data collection over the course of several weeks, and in my analysis, I have found positive results. Overwhelmingly, museum goers are interested in the Anthropocene. Around 70-80% of survey takers judged the Anthropocene as being relevant, both to natural history and to themselves personally, and they indicated that they are interested in learning more about it. Furthermore, visitors who have been in The Anthropocene Living Room or went to We Are Nature agreed even more so that the Anthropocene as a topic was personally relevant to them than the general populace of museumgoers. Not only that, but a sizable proportion of museum visitors is willing to, and even want to, spend time sitting down and reading books at the museum. Over half of those observed sat down in the couches or chairs in the space, and a third of all visitors engaged with reading material available to them.

    My experience working at the CMNH has been particularly enlightening for me. The Anthropocene Living Room and the Anthropocene at large provide a new perspective into the museum-visitor relationship and moving forward I hope that the work that I have done helps in developing an understanding of efficacy in the design of museum spaces.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Ethics and Policy in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Spring 2019

    When first learning about the Ethics Intern position, I was under the impression that I was going to spend a lot of time at my desk taking notes and observing in office meetings.  Instead, I was tasked with researching and compiling information from several sources for the new Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) Code of Ethics. My research consisted of reviewing other museums Ethics Codes, cross-referencing different international and national ethics guides, meeting with the CMNH Ethics committee, and meeting with other CMNH heads of departments that would be affected by the newly updated rules. By the end of the internship, I was to make several suggestions for updates and additions to the Ethics Code to the Director of the CMNH and the Ethics committee to take into consideration for the new CMNH Code of Ethics.

    In my meetings with several department heads, I learned a lot about how different rules and policies affect different departments. Before becoming an intern at the CMNH my experience with museums ethics and policy it was limited with a focus on art. In my meetings with other departments, I gained additional knowledge of policy and regulations and their impact on various studies. However, because of my role in this project, I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the overarching policies governing each. My understanding of “Ethical” correctly shifted beyond the decision of displaying an object to include other aspects. Such as the logistics of receiving an object, conservation, public engagement, inclusivity, and professional conduct. The best part of my learning experience was my meetings with other museum professionals and hearing their take on different aspects of the Ethics policy, and I was able to learn from their different field affected their views.

    I did learn a lot about the policy aspect of the museum, during my time as an intern. I also learned more about professionalism in museums and the inner workings of departments in a Natural History museum. As I move forward in my career, I will be looking back on this experience as something that allowed me to learn and grow as a worker and have a more complete understanding of policies and the inner workings of museums as a whole.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Lisa Canavan and the "Men's Work/Women's Work" exhibition

     

    Digitization and Exhibition of the PPL Archive

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Spring 2019

    I saw myself in a photograph from 67 years ago. Not literally of course, but I felt a kinship with a homemaker I never knew because I identified with her life. Thankfully, I never had to hand wash clothes in a shared hallway bathroom tub as the only source of hot water in an apartment building, or wash dishes in a clogged sink that had to be drained with buckets. But, as a wife and mother who stayed home to raise a family before going back to school to earn a third degree, I understand how hard women work and how often our contributions go unrecognized.

    This photograph of Mrs. Pagone and several more like it in the Pittsburgh Photographic Library at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh inspired me to create Men’s Work/Women’s Work, an exhibition highlighting how gender defined labor in the mid-twentieth century. As the Digitization and Special Projects intern, I wanted to create an exhibition that would acknowledge the hard-working women who often lived in the shadow of men, especially in an industrial city like Pittsburgh, where male labor and blue-collar workers were synonymous with the city itself.

    The Pittsburgh Photographic Library was created by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development to document Pittsburgh’s urban renaissance after WWII. It is an amazing archive of over 11,000 photographs documenting life in the city during the early 1950s. But since it exists in the form of negatives and proofs, the public only has access to the few that have been published. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh holds this collection and my supervisor, Brooke Sansosti, Digitization and Special Projects Lead, is in charge of making the collection accessible to the public. Working under her direction in the REcollection Studio, I scanned, edited, reviewed, and cataloged photos into the Historic Pittsburgh website [https://historicpittsburgh.org/]. I was also very fortunate to be given total creative freedom over an exhibition to be shown in the library’s Gallery@Main, giving the public a taste of the PPL.

    Through this internship, I learned many useful things. I received hands-on experience in exhibition production. I gained skills in digitizing photographic negatives and became more comfortable with PhotoShop software. As an artist, these skills are useful for creating as well as documenting art. I also came to appreciate the value of preserving archives. This archive taught me a lot about Pittsburgh in the 1950s and how far women have come toward equality since then, even as I recognize that there is still a journey ahead. It is productive to look into the past because it gives you perspective on the progress you may not be able to see from day to day, and allows you to move forward with a positive attitude.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
    • Image of Meghan Lees with Exhibit Case
    • Ground Floor Cases of Exhibit
    Image of Meghan Lees with Exhibit Case

    Meghan Lees accompanied by the introductory case of the Travelers Along the Silk Roads: 10th Century to Present exhibit.

     

    Digitizing the Silk Roads

    Museum Studies Intern at Archives & Special Collections, Hillman Library – Spring 2019

    It has been a fast-paced four years here in the University of the Pittsburgh and, with graduation a mere few weeks away, my time at Pitt is coming to an end. I have been able to explore an assortment of coursework, some of which I never expected to, and have found myself in both digital design and the arts. As luck would have it, I have had the pleasure melding those two aspects of myself together in my work as an intern at Archives & Special Collections (A&SC) in the Hillman Library. 

    As part of my primary task, I was given the objective of taking the currently displayed exhibit, Travelers Along the Silk Road: 10th Century to Present, and digitally recording it in a guide. Working with Slavic, European, and Global Studies curator, Daniel Pennell, I was allowed further insight in the wide range of research and media that went into the creation and running of the multi-case exhibit.  He gave me access to the files compiled by him and his colleagues and I was able to really see the narrative behind the exhibit.  It not only had the expected labels and images that you see in the exhibit, but also documents telling of the exhibit’s original conception and presentation, research not included in the final exhibit, and so on. Additionally, the Archives & Special Collections also had two book trucks of both primary and secondary sources on the Silk Roads that they used for the exhibit and I was given freedom of paging through the majority of them. 

    Most liberating for me was the actual aesthetic designing of the guide.  Of course, I had strict limitations in areas – what topics the curators of the exhibit wanted to highlight, which information goes on what page and the pictures that should accompany them, and then there’s the system as a whole that I used, LibGuide, which has its own set of limitations that comes along with it. But outside of that, I had free reign over what the layout of the guide looks like as a whole. They allowed me to share my insight on what would be most aesthetically pleasing and accessible for the viewer. I was given the chance to take skills I have acquired in my time here at Pitt and see how I can apply them in a professional setting. 

    After this semester, I feel I have a better understanding of how I can move forward.

     

    You can check Meghan's LibGuide here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Conor Short inside the Joseph A. Dugan Jr. Hall of Valor

     

    Honoring Local Veterans

    Museum Studies Intern at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum – Spring 2019

    Pittsburgh’s Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum was built in 1910 as a monument to the Civil War veterans of Allegheny County. However, as American history progressed, the institution expanded its scope to honor veterans from all American wars and all branches of the United States Armed Forces. The mission of this museum surpasses education or the preservation of history. The primary objective of Soldiers & Sailors is to honor those veterans whose donations compose the museum’s collection.

    I was fortunate enough to complete my internship at this institution. My work was largely confined to Wednesdays and Fridays—during which I was involved in the cataloging and organization of the collection. However, the most important and exciting of my experiences came on Sunday March 31. Soldiers & Sailors hosted its 2019 Joseph A. Dugan Jr. Hall of Valor Induction Ceremony and the museum staff was generous enough to invite me.

    In 1963 the Hall of Valor was dedicated in order to honor veterans whose valor went above and beyond the call of duty. From the date of its conception to March 31st 2019, the Hall of Valor has inducted over seven-hundred veterans from every American conflict and from every branch of the Armed Forces. This year’s nine inductees included veterans of the Civil War, Vietnam, and the Second World War. Medals awarded during their service included the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. The ceremony was held inside the central auditorium and allowed the veteran or the representative of the veteran to accept the induction and have his/her photo taken onstage. We were also honored to have one of the recipients attend the ceremony in person. Also in attendance was the Vietnam Veterans Inc. as the honor guard, as well as several local VFW posts. I was not seriously involved in the production of the ceremony, but I was content to simply sit in the auditorium and watch. The solemnity and dignity of the ceremony provoked feelings of sadness for those veterans who did not return from combat, respect for those who did, and the unrivaled admiration of all who served.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at Soldiers & Sailors. I was able to engage hands-on with what I believe are some of the most exciting and most important artifacts in the world. I realize that is not a chance that everyone receives and I fully appreciate the privilege. However, witnessing the Hall of Valor Induction ceremony was by far the most memorable experience of my internship. Not only did it provide me with a fond memory, but it also brought to the surface the core of the institution’s goals and values which I happen to share.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Emily Mazzola and undergraduate research collaborator Gabriela Schunn at the Detre Library and Archives

     

    Raising a Pittsburgh Glass

    Author: Emily Mazzola

    2018-2019 A.W. Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education and PhD student in History of Art and Architecture

    On February 25, 1972 the people of Westmoreland County proudly took part in a major diplomatic mission occurring halfway across the world when President Nixon concluded his historic trip to China by raising a Lenox Crystal glass filled with California champagne. With the delicate chime of clinking of glasses, Western Pennsylvanian manufacturing was, for a moment, at the center of international diplomacy. Nixon’s toast calling for a “new world order,” was memorialized for the president’s Chinese hosts with gifts of the acid-etched lead-glass champagne coupes, baring the Great Seal of the United States, that were offered as souvenirs of the momentous occasion.

    In the days that followed, the national press highlighted the west-coast origins of the sparkling wine, but failed to acknowledge the Pittsburgh glassware that had made it all possible—an oversight that the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Mount Pleasant Journal eagerly corrected for local readers. Tribune staff writer Dell McCloy lamented the media’s focus on California’s contribution to the event writing:

    "What hasn’t been widely publicized is the fact that Westmoreland County, although not as exotic as the coastal bikini country, also played a part in the drama and diplomacy of the ceremonies. Mainly, a county firm supplied the glasses that held the bubbly that eased the tension that…" [1]

    Following the author’s humorous trailing off, the article details the efforts of the Lenox Crystal production team to manufacture 60-dozen flawless coupes under a significant time strain. McCloy concludes, “Local industry had a hand in making history. And although a glass may not sound as exciting as perishable oranges and grapefruits flown in by special jet, who ever heard of drinking champagne without one?”[2] McCloy’s sarcasm belies the pride local glass workers felt in providing an essential element of a major diplomatic ceremony—regardless of how easily the rest of the country overlooked their contribution. The glass workers’ sense of achievement was echoed by the broader community when President Nixon raised a Pittsburgh glass on the international stage.

    Nixon’s famous toast using Lenox Crystal produced in Mount Pleasant is just one example of the stories tying Western Pennsylvania manufacturing to the material culture of the American presidency, diplomatic gift exchange, and the politics of national taste that I have uncovered while researching at the Heinz History Center’s Detre Library and Archives for the past year. As the A.W. Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education, I am developing a digital project that highlights these moments of intersection between local production and presidential politics, contextualizing them within the broader concerns of American material culture studies and the decorative arts. My project is rooted in the Detre Library and Archive’s Bryce Brothers Company and Lenox Incorporated Records 1828-2002. My work with this collection has been made possible by the support of the Heinz History Center and the dedication of my undergraduate research collaborators. 

     

    [1] Dell McCoy, “Crystal in China: Lenox? Vel-l-ly Good…” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 2, 1972.Bryce Brothers and Lenox Incorporated Glass records, 1828-2002, MSS 0800, Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center.  This collection has been made accessible as part of the Basic Processing and Documenting Democracy grants funded by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC).

    [2] Ibid.

     

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Leslie Rose

     

    Curatorial Movements at the University Art Gallery

    Author: Leslie Rose

    2019 Hot Metal Bridge Diversity Fellow in History of Art and Architecture and University Art Gallery intern

    As someone with a deep interest in museum display, curation, and education, I saw my internship in the University Art Gallery (UAG) as a chance to gain a greater understanding of what it means to work in an academic gallery. I was most excited to learn how a strong focus on education influences the UAG’s mission, from day-to-day operations to exhibition planning and public programming. Though there are many components of my internship that introduced me to the unique role of a teaching gallery, my experiences curating for the UAG have been the most illuminating. 

    As part of my internship, I was given the opportunity to curate a small exhibition to complement the traveling exhibition, Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers, on loan from the Schomburg Center of African American Culture, which was on view in the gallery in February – March 2019. For inspiration, I was asked to think broadly about themes present in this show, such as migration and exchange, agency, and representation. Using these themes as a starting point, I curated Movements, an exhibition exploring the representation and expression of people of the African Diaspora in the transatlantic world. My exhibition explored three different definitions of the term ‘movement’: movement as migration; movement in relation to musical composition; and political and civil rights movements. The show incorporated a variety of works ranging from 17th century prints related to the Atlantic slave trade and portraits to the Black Panther newspaper and contemporary zines. 

    The first difficulty I encountered in the curatorial process related to the UAG’s holdings. In every collection, there are bound to be gaps. Initially, this frustrated me: how could I create a dialogue around the people of the African diaspora when these artists were not well represented in the UAG collection? However, it was with the guidance of faculty, graduate students, and UAG staff that I began to see how to work with these “gaps” in a way that would help build the conversation with the viewer and as a way to better underscore the important points of the exhibition. These gaps also reinforced my belief that this type of show is needed and it offered me an opportunity to think more creatively. I turned to the University Library System (ULS) and the Heinz History Center in search of more material, forcing me to reevaluate my own expectations of what objects belongs in an art gallery. So much of my previous museum and gallery experience insisted on the separation of art objects and archival material; however, within an academic gallery setting, I was able to place the unconventional material in conversation with art in order to create a larger dialogue on visual culture. Movements grouped together maps, prints, comic books, music sheets and more to encourage visitors to see various representations and expressions of people of the African diaspora and consider the weight and influence of images in the world. 

    Through this project, I was also able to expand my understanding of curation and exhibitions. Rather than thinking of an exhibition as a visualization of an academic essay, which is where I began, I started to think of it as a space where discussions begin. Curating was not a way to talk at the audience, similar to an essay, but to talk with them. I began to imagine an audience and potential dialogues as a part of my process, altering my selection, arrangement, and labeling of objects. For example, I juxtaposed a stained glass image of a minstrel-inspired character from the Stephen Foster Memorial with a photograph of the Pittsburgh Community Choir, both from the mid 1930s, to encourage the audience to look closely at each work and think on how they operate within a larger system of representation. Rather than dictate this relationship through lengthy didactic labels, I felt that it was important for the audience to question this grouping and perhaps speculate in a conversation with a friend or fellow visitor.

    These experiences allowed me to see first-hand the ways a teaching gallery differs from public museums and galleries, and how the emphasis on education and dialogue informs all aspects of the UAG’s work. This experience also drastically changed my perception of my role as an emerging curator. Rather than seeing myself as solely a source of information, I now see my role as a facilitator for a broader conversation with our audience. As I hope to pursue a career in academia and curation, this is a lesson I plan to take with me throughout my career. 

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • UAG
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Eli Savage contributing to The Evolution of Sex and Gender lecture at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

     

    The Evolution of Sex and Gender: Chase Mendenhall on the power of diversity

    Author: Eli Savage

    Undergraduate student and CMNH content contributor

    Chase Mendenhall’s talk on March 7 in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) provided a broad and informative overview of the biological basis for sex and gender diversity. Mendenhall began at the cellular level, detailing how some bacteria extend fibers to one another that serve to transmit information that helps to promote each bacterium’s continued survival. Though this may seem irrelevant to us as humans, leagues removed from our distant, unicellular predecessors, he explained how this is the most basic framework for why diversity is crucial for groups to thrive. He used children playing board games as a human example: if one child finds a new game to play, it is in the best interest of the group for that child to introduce the new game to the group, expanding everybody’s options for play and allowing each child to pick a game best suited to their skillset, maximizing the group’s efficiency and well-being.

    Mendenhall then explained that an organism’s sex, as defined in biology as a near-universal rule, comes down to whether its gametes are relatively large or small. That, he said, was it. Everything else we tend to associate with biological sex—ovaries, testes, penises, vaginas, pregnancy, breasts, etc.—varies wildly, and are viewed in contemporary biology as gendered characteristics rather than sex characteristics. Gender, while a difficult term to define in any concrete and all-encompassing way, can be defined as everything that is associated with or extrapolated from an organism’s sex, from its body parts to its role in a family to the way it does or should act. 

    To illustrate these principles, Mendenhall listed numerous cases of non-human animals that diverge from human ideas of “the norm” when it comes to gender and sexuality. One of these was the long-tailed manakin, a species of tropical bird in which males exhibit almost exclusively homosocial behavior—two males will pair up for life and spend years choreographing an elaborate, beautiful courtship dance to perform for a female during the brief annual mating season. An interesting mystery in this dynamic, though, is that only one of the two males does the vast majority of the mating, and no difference has yet been found between the roles. It is unclear what the other male gains from this arrangement, aside from one chance in a hundred to mate with a female, but their dance, a stunning and mesmerizing display, would not be possible with only one bird.

    Another example was the clownfish. Mendenhall joked that if Finding Nemo had been accurate to the actual behavior of the species, the film would have gone very differently. Clownfish, he explained, live in groups of many males and one egg-bearing female. If the female dies, the males have a solution: one among them changes sex and becomes the new female. This process is beneficial to the survival of the group, and it’s hardly unique to clownfish—many species of fish, amphibians, and other animals practice sex-switching.

    Mendenhall finished his talk by returning to humans, providing two anthropological cases of gender and sexual diversity being beneficial to groups. One being the bissu of the Bugis society in Indonesia, an inter-gender priestly class, and the other being Native American two-spirits, or individuals viewed as containing male and female spirits in one body. Stressing that diversity is a key feature, if not the key feature, of the survival and development of all life. It is not something to be feared or discouraged, but embraced as a natural continuation of how we got to where we are now.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

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