Consuming Nature Workshop

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    Teaching the Anthropocene: Student Responses to We are Nature

    Author: Kaitlyn Haynal Allen

    PhD candidate in Comunication and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    The Consuming Nature workshop exposed participants to the multitude of endlessly fascinating local resources of visual and material culture for learning about the presence of human influence across Pittsburgh landscapes. These resources have transformed not only my research, from which I now draw upon dozens of primary sources discovered through my participation in this workshop, but have radically transformed my teaching as well. Over the past year, consideration for place and environment has become significantly influential to my pedagogy of teaching and learning, and I have incorporated making use of these resources into my class instruction and assignments a primary objective.

    On a typically cold and rainy Pittsburgh day in February, my two Argument classes were asked to visit and explore the Carnegie Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History, and select an artifact or exhibit for their critical consideration in an upcoming paper. They were given as much time as needed to wander through the expansive museum spaces and consider what artifacts drew their attention. In selecting the object(s) of their case study, students were asked to reflect on various questions: What are museums? What purpose do they serve? How and what do their exhibits communicate? Museum spaces shape public frames of the subject matter they collect and include in display, just as they shape public perception of what is excluded from their space.

    The most discussed exhibit was the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s We are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene. The introduction to the exhibit identifies that “our collections and research tell various stories of the human impact” on the environment, revealing “hard truths, inspiration, and human ingenuity in the face of the Anthropocene.” Students identified various themes present in communicating what the Anthropocene is and why it matters.

    The dilemma of how a museum exhibit can effectively communicate to its various publics was a matter of great interest to several students. Taylor Jones, a junior Communication and English Literature major, argues that the exhibit “serves as a case study by which to examine notions of human-environment interconnectivity and cultural validity.” She ultimately concludes that, “We are Nature builds a sense of cultural validity through the popularization of climate change discourse and concepts, prioritizing ecological citizenship and environmental politics, and motivating children to carry on the legacy of working to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

    Gabby Mineroff, a sophomore Media and Professional Communication major, considers the work museums put into targeting visitors who are children. Gabby ultimately argues that “when a child engages in a creative space they are passively parking in the ideology of the museum. For the Carnegie Museum’s Future Thinking Lab, the ideology of saving the environment is transmitted to the children when they partake in the activity.” The various publics that the museum seeks to reach in their exhibition of We are Nature were revealed to be diverse and varied. Another student examines the exhibit through the lens of ecofeminism and ecomaternalism, in order to demonstrate how the use of masculine colors and design features might encourage men to take action against environmental degradation.

    To some students, the exhibit left possibilities of greater potential yet to be tapped. Johnny Yetter, a senior Chemistry major, focused on the Great Barrier Reef Funeral. In reflecting on his experience with the museum, he observes that “when I visited the We are Nature exhibit I expected to learn about my role in climate change and leave with a sense of urgency to do my part to help the environment; however, I left feeling under-informed and unsure of what steps, if any, I could take in order to become an environmental activist.” This was a prevalent concern among several students interested in better understanding: what would it take to get people to change their actions related to environmental action? Yetter concludes that while “the message was very information [sp] and could have helped any museum goer learn about this topic […] none of the words chosen induced urgency or hope, instead created a tone that was sad and hopeless.”

    Overall the students shared the insight that human impact on the environment was a matter of significant concern that is worthy of public attention. Max Carter, a senior Psychology major, examined a component of the exhibit called the Overview Effect. One of the final observation points for visitors who walk through We are Nature from start to finish, the Overview Effect sums up the experience of the exhibit. “After viewing how air pollution has changed the color of moths from white to black, then back to white again; viewing the ridiculous amount of plastic we have put into the ocean; the list of animals we have made extinct as well as a handful that will soon become extinct; after a funeral service for one of the most unique natural sites in the world, the Great Barrier Reef, you reach a few dark benches and a large projector screen […] As you stare at the large blue patch that is the Atlantic Ocean, you think back to display noting how much plastic we’ve dumped there. You see the green land masses without any borders or lines and suddenly a lot of things feel less important. […] I found myself sitting there, suddenly disgusted by how we were treating both our planet and each other.”

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    Getting Involved with Audubon Day and Pittsburgh’s Birds

    Author: Melissa Yang 

    PhD student in English (Composition) and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    A complete set of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827–1838) is a rare collector’s item worth millions, featuring 435 life-sized images of birds dramatically depicted by the controversial French-American artist-naturalist. The University of Pittsburgh owns one of these rare sets—it is the most valuable set of volumes in our library. Each fall, the University Library System hosts a public Audubon Day to celebrate the Birds of America.

    The seventh annual Audubon Day took place at the Hillman Library on November 17, 2017. During the day, select prints were displayed in special collections, and programming included live bird meet-and-greets from the National Aviary and invited talks. Local blogger and bird expert Kate St. John (author of the terrific https://www.birdsoutsidemywindow.org) gave a morning talk on "The Story of Peregrine Falcons at Pitt: The Dynasty Continues.”

    In the afternoon, I shared eclectic tales drawn from my dissertation research on avian rhetoric in a talk called, “Our Archival Aviaries: Exploring Pittsburgh's Birdscapes.” In addition to the resources in Pittsburgh’s many libraries and museums, I reflected on Powdermill’s bird banders, volunteering with Birdsafe Pittsburgh, and—as a result of the Consuming Nature workshop—visiting the Tarentum Homing Club pigeon racers. Seeking to cultivate bird knowledge and citizen science efforts, I encouraged the public to engage in local organizations and initiatives, including the Audubon Society, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, BirdSafe Pittsburgh, Three Rivers Birding Club, the National Aviary (Neighbohood Nestwatch and Project Owlnet), and more.

    Read about Melissa's visit to the Tarentum Homing Club here

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    Joe's first U.S. Steel appearance

     

    The Steel Man Reaches Out Across Time

    Author: Evan Chen

    PhD student in Film Studies and Consuming Nature Workshop participant

    As someone who is interested in how certain historical knowledges or narratives fail to reach us in the present moment, during the week of the workshop I found myself arrested by the apparition of Joe Magarac, a Pittsburgh folk figure who could be located and seen all over our local archives. As someone who first moved to the city in the fall of 2007, I find it painful to imagine how much local history and culture has been erased or papered over by the waves of gentrification and “urban renewal” that began around that time. I am also interested in what these histories might have to tell us about the present. Pulled back from the margins of visibility or legibility, what can we glean from the fragments that remain?

    For me, the Joe Magarac folktale belonged to such a set of remaindered historical fragments. His story first appeared in an article written by Owen Francis which was published by Scribner’s in November of 1931. Francis hears about Magarac -magarac (a word that approximately means “jackass” in Hungarian- from “one of the many Slavs” working in a Monongahela Valley steel mill, leading to the story being recounted. Francis’s storytelling approach feels anthropological in a bad way. He describes the story as “typical of the Hunkie” as if he is the white steward of Russian and East European knowledge. It does not help that the narrative is written in clunky, transliterated dialect. But the rough contours of the folktale as it will circulate elsewhere are also laid out here: Steve Mestrovich’s beautiful daughter Mary is set to marry. He holds a feat of strength contest in order to draw interest to her and determine who is best to help carry on the family line. Pete, the local favorite, competes well, but eventually the inhumanly large Joe Magarac has to show up to serve as his ringer (Joe is not interested in Mary and claims that his work is too important for him to pay attention to a woman at home). Joe goes to work in the mills and eventually melts himself into steel in order to literally become part of future mills that will succeed and survive due to his supernatural strength. (1)

    Since then, Magarac’s appearance and disappearance in the name of steel has circulated in a number of different contexts. During the Consuming Nature workshop, we encountered many of these, including at least two comic books published by U. S. Steel in the 1950s, where Joe appears to a pubescent boy in a queer fever dream to educate him about...steel. [See images 1 and 2 above] (2)

    Magarac was also a visible fixture within shared and public spaces in Pittsburgh across the 20th century. A photograph located within Pitt’s Historic Pittsburgh collection shows one portal of the now defunct Manchester Bridge, circa 1918, featuring Magarac on one end and another folk figure, the coal miner Jan Volkanik, on the other. When we visited the archive at Rivers of Steel in Homestead, we saw Frank Vittor’s 1951 mock-up of a fountain for Point State Park that was centered on Joe’s muscular vitality. There also used to be a statue of Joe as part of “the Olde Kennywood Railroad Ride” in Kennywood Park. [See images 3, 4 and 5 above] (3)

    Beyond the above, the text that first and foremost drew my attention in his direction was Joe Magarac and His U.S.A. Citizen Papers, was written by Irwin Shapiro, illustrated by James Daugherty and published by Julian Messner in 1948. In this instance of the story, Joe is still an ambiguously nonhuman or superhuman “immigrant,” but there follows a surprising twist. Towards the middle of the narrative, Magarac is melted and shaped into a steel girder, and then he is shipped to Washington D.C., where he becomes a constituent part of the Capitol Building. Once installed, he overhears a congressman and a senator engaged in a xenophobic conversation about the threat of Slavic immigrants to the United States’ sovereignty and well-being. Enraged by their ignorance and lack of respect for these working people, Magarac gets so hot that he melts out of the building, destroying part of it. When he re-solidifies, he is a man again, and he goes to war with all of Washington D.C.  This builds to a climax where the president has to offer Joe his citizenship to get him to back off and to agree not to destroy the whole capitol. [See images 6, 7, 8 and 9 above] (4)

    Given current events, I was amazed to encounter this 70-year-old text that felt so relevant to the xenophobic strains that remain in contemporary America. As a Chinese American whose grandfather immigrated to this country within a few years of ...and His U.S.A. Citizen Papers’ publication, a time when racist immigration quotas dictated the racial makeup of this country, that text seized me in a way others did not. I think I was also seized by the text’s other naked, avowed political sensibilities—it is clear from reading it that Irwin Shapiro was an unapologetic advocate for labor and immigration at a time when such sympathies could have cost him mightily.

    One might wonder what all of the above has to do with human extinction and the anthropocene, the stated theme of Consuming Nature. I would argue that all of this is relevant in relation to concepts of genealogy and transmission that are important to thinking about history more generally. For example: since the initial written record about Magarac was written by Francis, more than one scholar has raised the question of whether his narrative is fakelore, something made up by the workers he was interviewing to get one over on him, or perhaps made up by Francis so he might have something new to report on. In this vein, Ivan Kovačević has worked through a whole body of literature that speculates about the Slavic linguistic origins of the surname to determine whether Francis’s story is authentic. (5)

    I would argue that regardless of or even in concert with such concerns one can still appreciate how Francis’s narrative spun in multiple, unpredictable directions through the various iterations one can still see today. Seeing is contingent, however, on knowing where and how to look, and on someone having left and preserved something for you to see. In the case of Shapiro’s Magarac book and the various Magarac statues that used to be visible around Pittsburgh, I wonder if an ethic of the anthropocene might hinge on finding ways to constantly remember and call up the past in as much of its heterogeneity as possible. Perhaps we could read as allegory how Joe Magarac melts himself into a material trace of his labor, a labor that can be read and understood by future generations only if they are open to gleaning his story from the fragments of the past. If the horror of the anthropocene comes out of its erasure of tradition and its dissolution of human history all at once, perhaps we had better get to remembering in as much detail as we can while we still can.

    (1) Francis, Owen. “The Sage of Joe Magarac: Steelman.” Scribner’s, Nov. 1931, pp. 505-511.

    (2) These two delightful and propagandistic comics, Joe the Genie of Steel and The Return of Joe the Genie of Steel, can be viewed at Hillman Library Special Collections on Pitt’s campus. Special thanks are due to the University Library System’s Clare Withers, who shared these materials with participants and also guided my hand towards other relevant Magarac materials.

    (3) For sources and additional context, see: 

    http://www.historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3A715.185399.CP

    http://vannevar.blogspot.com/2013/04/joe-magarac-fountain-point-state-park.html

    http://pghmurals.com/Joe-Magarac-367.cfm

    (4) The text has also recently been reprinted by our own University of Pittsburgh Press.

    (5) Kovačević, Ivan. “Who Murdered Joe Magarac?” Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, no. 59, 2014, pp. 85-104.

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    Scientists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History offer their interpretations on the relationships and dynamics between people and museum collections. The scientists shown in the images are not the same people referenced in the text.

     

    Natural History, the Anthropocene, and Crisis

    Author: Mitchell Kiefer

    PhD student in Sociology

    During our Consuming Nature workshop, we discussed at various times the shift that the Anthropocene represents in our thinking. My own project is an analysis of the changing narratives within natural history museums, understanding the focus on ideas such as the Anthropocene as not only scientific statements about the world, but political and cultural arrangements. The emergent popularity of the Anthropocene – epitomized, perhaps, by its inclusion in a major institution such as Carnegie – suggests a particular understanding of the relationship between nature and culture. Just as ‘modernity’ may best be understood as a collective mindset of advancement rather than a realist description of social processes, the Anthropocene may be best understood as a collective understanding of nature-culture, reflective of unique and contingent social forces. What, though, are the social conditions that are reflected in this idea? This is too large a question to answer in a blog post. Instead of trying, I’ll suggest a few insights from specific examples of the Anthropocene in natural history museums.

    A crisis consciousness? If people only act in times of crisis, and the impacts of climate change are slow onset, the Anthropocene may represent a way of matching scale. By situating the pace of climate change in geologic eras, the changes look quite rapid, indeed, and may become more easily perceived as a looming crisis.

    Natural history museums such as Carnegie are institutions that wield cultural authority, and shape the ways people understand the natural world. Along with a new narrative of the Anthropocene, museums are also adopting new roles. One scientist with an administrative role at Carnegie told me the museum is now outward looking, drawing inspiration from the public and current social issues in shaping displays, exhibits, and programs. This represents a more general trend that speaks to the development of Anthropocene narratives. People in charge of these institutions recognize a relationship between people and science that may be new to major natural history museums. Another scientist with a similar administrative role suggested that Carnegie is acknowledging its role in delivering scientific information to the public in the context of people losing faith in and questioning science.

    To reconnect science and people, Carnegie is becoming more reflexive in how it displays and communicates information. The work of human scientists is proudly displayed, as is the work in constructing dioramas. More information is given on the processes of producing exhibits, and displays are incorporating more interaction between nature out there and people.

    What does this mean for communicating the Anthropocene and the possibility of a crisis consciousness? The new ways of displaying and the new content in displays does something different than suggest a new geologic era imposed by humans (though this, too, is suggested). What the Carnegie museum is doing is more reflective of the Anthropocene as a new way of understanding the relationship between nature and culture. Carnegie shows that yes, in fact, people have relationships with nature in ways that influence each other. Whether this change in narrative was born by some internal realization within scientific disciplines, a need for struggling museums to find funding, some other reason, or a combination of dynamics is a bigger question to be asked.

    I do want to suggest, though, that a narrative that re-connects people and nature, as well as people and science, seems to reflect the scientific community’s perceived need for people to 1) acknowledge the possibility and extent of human-induced ecological, geological, and biological changes, and 2) interpret that as crisis.  This is carried out in museums like Carnegie given the realization that museums can be more than holders of artifacts and drivers of scientific inquiry. They can direct public understandings, both scientific and cultural.

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    Smog meringues at the GASP Air Fair

    Author: Shelby Brewster

    PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies and Consuming Nature Workshop participant

    Fortunately, the weather on Tuesday, August 8, was sunny and clear, if a bit breezy. With egg whites and whisk in tow, Ana Rodríguez Castillo and I headed to the McConway & Torley Steel Foundry on 48th Street in Lawrenceville. Railroad tracks cross the entrance to the facility, marking the border between their property and the city street. I stood just outside the facility, wary of the security guard in his small hut monitoring those entering and exiting the property. Whipping up the egg whites here took approximately half an hour; Ana graciously documented the process with her camera. While we caught some curious looks from the workmen around the facility, we continued largely unbothered.

    At around 11:45, a group of five or six men congregated outside the security hut. As they were wearing khakis and polo shirts, rather than the jeans and work boots I’d seen on other workers, I assumed they were management. They headed out of the compound toward Butler Street (I believe they were going to lunch). As they passed by me, still whisking, most of them simply stared. One man, however, walked right up to me and stuck his face near the bowl of stiffening egg whites. He asked me what I was doing. I replied that I was making meringues as a performance project, and that because they are very light, I would capture whatever was in the air where I was standing. He looked at me, then around at the plant matter covering the ground near the railroad tracks, back at me, and replied, “Like pollen!” Not wanting to jeopardize the completion of the meringue, I answered, “Sure! And whatever else is here!” and carried on whisking. He and his associates laughed and continued on.

    After the McConway & Torley egg whites reached desired stiffness, Ana and I headed to the bus stop on Centre Avenue and Negley Avenue, a high traffic area. Luckily for us, a road construction crew was busy working on Centre; they had cut out a large portion of the asphalt and were using a backhoe and other construction vehicles to complete some work. I was excited for the potential of even more pollutants to make their way into these meringues.

    Being so near a bus stop, there were many more witnesses to these meringues. Many people getting on and off the bus gave me strange looks, though few asked me what I was doing. A pair of workmen in a moving truck hollered at me and asked about the whisk (I told them they could taste the meringues at the Air Fair). One woman getting off the 71 loudly encouraged me to keep whisking. A man with a video camera who was sharing the corner with me cautioned that if I kept beating the egg whites they would turn stiff (I replied that, as I was making meringues, that was precisely the point). We returned to my kitchen, polluted egg whites in tow, and I piped the meringues onto baking sheets. I also whipped up an “unpolluted” batch inside, to serve as a sort of control group. Visibly, I couldn’t tell a difference between the meringues, but I was eager to hear responses from visitors to the Air Fair.

    GASP hosted the Air Fair on Thursday, August 10, at Assemble community art space in East Liberty. In addition to the art exhibit GASP had built, a number of environmental organizations had tables to talk to visitors about their work on air pollution issues. I set up my own table among the other, displaying three silver trays with the three varieties of meringue I had made. Responses were quite varied, but most people who attended the event tried at least one of the meringues. Several people decided to conduct their own blind taste test, to see if they could identify which meringues were the “polluted” ones. The overall consensus seemed to be that the McConway & Torley confections tasted grittier or dirtier than either the bus stop or kitchen meringues. Some people were concerned about tasting the polluted versions, and I replied by asking if they were concerned about walking down Penn Avenue and breathing in that car exhaust. Some people didn’t know there was a steel foundry in Lawrenceville, like me before I started this project. Many visitors were also unaware of GASP’s history of baking, which I was more than happy to relate to them. Overall, attending the Air Fair with the meringues demonstrated the potential for taste experiences to reveal or unsettle expectations about invisible environmental pollutants. I plan to continue exploring how culinary experiences might be commandeered for an activist purpose.

    Find out more about the inspiration behind this event here

     

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    Fighting air pollution with a whisk

    Author: Shelby Brewster

    PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies and Consuming Nature Workshop participant

    On our visit to the University Archives Services Center, I came across a collection of materials from the Group Against Smog & Pollution, a Pittsburgh-based activist group founded in 1969. I was particularly interested in the Jeannette Widom Papers. She was one of the charter members of GASP, and she also happened to be a stellar baker, repeatedly winning baking awards at the Allegheny County Fair. Widom, passionate about combating air pollution in Pittsburgh, put her baking skills to work for the organization.

    The centerpiece of Widom’s baking for GASP was a Dirty Gertie cookie, resembling GASP’s cartoon mascot, a bird whose wings are choked by air pollution. One of the members of GASP enlisted her husband to craft a metal cookie cutter in the shape of Gertie. The cookie’s wings were covered in chocolate sprinkles to replicate the gloomy air of Pittsburgh. This idea became a massive fundraising event for GASP: The Dirty Gertie Cookie Project. GASP reached out to other community groups to help bake, providing them with complete kits of ingredients and cookie cutters. The first round of baking resulted in 1200 Dirty Gertie cookies, all of which were sold to raise money for GASP. Widom would continue “fighting pollution with a rolling pin,” publishing three cookbooks (“Party Cookies Only,” “Fun Buns for Kids to Make, Bake, Decorate, and Eat,” and “Just Coffee Cake”) and donating the proceeds to GASP. Her fame as a celebrated baker also helped draw attention to GASP’s work.

    GASP’s use of cookies to fight air pollution resonated with a contemporary artist group that I have written about in my research, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy. Like GASP, they harnessed the potential of taste as a political tool in an effort to draw attention to air pollution. In 2011, on location in Bangalore, India, artists with the Center began “harvesting air” from the most polluted areas in the city. Because meringues are up to 90% air, by whipping up egg whites in the polluted areas the meringues capture the air pollutants present in the air.

    The Center encourages other artists, community groups, and students to make their own meringues in their own cities. They envision the cookies as powerful political statements, as they can be tested for particular pollutants or mailed to politicians as a commentary on city conditions. So, continuing the GASP tradition of mobilizing baked goods for environmental justice, I’ll be making smog meringues to serve at GASP’s Air Fair event. I chose two locations near my home, the McConway and Torley Steel Foundry on 48th Street and the bus stop at Negley and Centre Avenue, to make my meringues.

    Stayed tuned for a second post covering the making of the meringues and the Air Fair itself!

    Read about the event here

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    John Yodanis Papers, 1919 – 1987, MSS 293, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

     

    Revisiting Pittsburgh’s Pigeondom

    Author: Melissa Yang

    PhD student in English (Composition) and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    The American Racing Pigeon Union (ARPU)’s Souvenir Book of the 1937 Greater Pittsburgh Convention opens on a charming exchange of two epistolary poems between Edgar A. Guest and Peter P. Barry. Guest’s four stanzas of aa/bb rhymes, addressed “To the Owner of a Homing Pigeon,” detail the antics of a pigeon who “stopped to spend the day with us.” Barry responds to thank Guest, and requests he “Do again that sportsman’s deed,/Give him water and a bit of feed,” if the pigeon again chooses to rest upon his roof on his route home.

    There is abundant poetry—intentional and unintentional, whimsical and solemn—in the five boxes of materials compiled over sixty years by Pittsburgh pigeon racer John Yodanis (1910 – 1988). Housed in the Heinz History Center’s archives, these boxes are packed full of documents, from pigeon breeding guides to lineage charts, racing diplomas to gift-like bundles tied up in paper and string, which unwrap to reveal piles of pigeon-centric newspapers, catalogues, convention yearbooks, and more.

    Pigeons have long been featured in and have fostered an enormous range of human communications. Pigeon post, after all, was the fastest method of message-transmission from ancient times until Samuel Morse developed his code in the 1830s and 40s. Perusing more recent papers, it is nevertheless striking how valuable these birds were to their caretakers, and how stark the contrast is between the dedicated treatment of these pedigreed pigeons and the feral “rats with wings” marginalized in city streets today. Still, racing birds were bred to serve a purpose and, unlike most pets, had to earn their keep.

    This common attitude is reflected across Yodanis’s materials, including the four-volume Four Seasons Real Course About Pigeons. Penned by M. Joseph Heuskin for novices in the 1920s, this relic meticulously describes the proper composure, composition, and disposition of an ideal bird. He notes, “A pigeon of value has often a bigger eye than a common pigeon,” and “watches you wherever you go, for it is very inquisitive.” Breeders are advised to kill birds not up to snuff because “Marvelous pigeons are scarce,” and only achieved by “cultivating your colony” carefully. The anthropomorphism of the watchful, bright birds juxtaposed with casual culling directives render this guide darkly memorable, and the sport susceptible to criticism from animal welfare activists. (Pigeon racing ethics are controversial enough to warrant their own entry.)

    The modern sport of pigeon racing first emerged in Belgium in the 1850s, as carrier pigeons were being phased out by newer messaging technologies. Aficionados were motivated by a passion for pigeons, as well as prize money. The sport spread across Europe, and when Europeans migrated to the United States, they brought their birds with them. This is how Pittsburgh, PA—whose abundant job openings in factories and steel mills attracted European immigrants—became an epicenter for American pigeon racing in the following century.

    “Pittsburgh Promotes Pigeondom’s Progress” appears as a bold announcement in the opening pages of Yodanis’s 1948 commemorative book for the 38th annual ARPU convention (and the 4th annual “Ladies Auxiliary” meeting). Several pages of a welcome essay boast, of all the sports in Pittsburgh, “One of the finest sports of all, the realm of Pigeondom, is enthusiastically proclaimed by a great number here.” The Pittsburgh Center of the ARPU was the largest in America at the time, with thousands of members within a 50-mile radius of the city.

    John Yodanis was inducted into Pittsburgh’s pigeondom by his father and brother at age 14 in 1924. One of the collection’s final news clippings, from 1984, features the 74-year-old retired steamfitter reflecting on growing up when “every other yard had a pigeon loft and the association of racing pigeon clubs known as the Pittsburgh Center had more than 2,400 members.” Near the end of Yodanis’s life, he estimated only “175 racing pigeon owners remain in the Pittsburgh area.” Today, numbers continue to dwindle.

    The Tarentum Homing Club is one of the few active pigeon racing groups remaining around Pittsburgh, where a few devotees—mostly male retirees—continue to race their birds on weekends. When I interviewed member David Corry, he attributed the decline of pigeon racing in part to a lack of interest in the time commitment required of animal husbandry among young people today. Curiously, a concern for adolescent apathy can already be discerned in Yodanis’s earlier documents, some of which even cite “prevention of juvenile delinquency” as rationale to encourage children to pursue pigeon racing. Corry, who laughingly recalled how he was almost arrested for climbing grain elevators to catch pigeons in his youth, followed up to say, “You do not have to be nuts to get involved in pigeon racing but to some degree it helps.”Pittsburgh’s pigeondom may be endangered, but there is a liveliness, passion, humor, and resonant lyricism in even the most matter-of-fact of the extant discourses and documents. John Yodanis’s collection offers a fascinating glimpse into this niche area of local history well worth remembering and revisiting.

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    Ferdinand Bauer engraving

     

    What is the real, "real" object?

    PhD Student in the School of Computing and Information and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    As an information scientist striving to define and describe online exhibitions, I am constantly reflecting on what constitutes a “real object” versus one that is acknowledged only through its absence. The status of the object has historically correlated to changes in museology, and in this regard it seems we are in the midst of a particularly challenging moment. With the proliferation of museum apps, for example, museum visitors are simultaneously engaging with site-specific media while also being pulled away from their actual physical or “real” surroundings.

    In her writing, Andrea Witcomb suggests that objects in the material world carry “weight...authority, knowledge and privilege” whereas “multimedia,” or virtual objects, are characterized by their superficiality or otherness: their immediacy, temporariness, and popularity. (1) Traveling through and among the various institutions and collections that were included on the Consuming Nature workshop itinerary, I was constantly thinking about perceived distinctions between real and digital objects. Particularly as we hopped from the Hunt Library, with its exquisite engravings and ink drawings of botanical specimens, to the overgrown vacant lot of Carrie Furnaces, I thought about what distinguishes the real and the real object. This is a confusing and unhelpful qualification, but I have been trying to grapple with the levels of human intervention that are represented by or within any particular object, and how these levels contribute to notions of authoritativeness and authenticity.

    Of course, these ruminations largely revolved around the figure of the “curator,” the individual traditionally endowed with the power to transform an ordinary object into an extraordinary one. At the core of curation likes the act of selection or “the crucial idea” that “turns a part of the natural world into an object and a museum piece.” (2) As an “object,” where does Ferdinand Bauer’s engraving of Pinus cembra (1803-1824) stand in relation to the wild grass growing in the garden next to an abandoned Pennsylvania steel mill Throughout the workshop, I found myself pondering the distinction between reality and fiction, or between data and capta. With regard to this latter element, I was thinking about data in the eighteenth century sense, as something that is given or assumed rather than something that is captured, or taken. At its conclusion, I think my brain had accepted that everything we saw during the workshop was the result of human intervention: from the alcohol-soaked beetles in the CMNH’s section of entomology to the errant trees growing atop a former furnace.

    Should I be anxious about the way that museums incorporate real and fake representations of things? Probably not. Is it important to signpost these things, such as what parts of the dinosaur’s skeleton are actual fossils versus man-made plaster reproductions? For me, yes. Brenda Laurel, author of the book Computers as Theatre (1991), describes the artificiality of the computer interface as follows: “...in the world of interfaces, the graphic designer renders the objects (like zoom-boxes and pop-up menus)” and represents “both concrete and ephemeral aspects of context through the use of such elements as line, shadow, color, intensity, texture, and style.” (p. 10) In depicting nature, broadly, so many representations (2D and 3D, alike) provide a similarly mediated version of “reality.” As Colleen O’Reilly and I endeavor to describe and even re-contextualize the dioramas in CMNH’s Hall of Botany through our online exhibition project, these are some of the questions I continue to ask.

    (1) Andrea Witcomb, “A New Approach to Thinking about the Impact of Multimedia in Museums,” in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007), 35.
    (2) Susan Pearce, “Museum Objects,” in Interpreting Objects and Collections, edited by Susan M. Pearce (New York: Routledge, 2003) 10.  

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
    • Schenley Park Entrance 1922
    • Schenley Park and Forbes Field 1936
    • Maria Sibylla Merian, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung
    • Andrey Avinoff at Carnegie Museum of Art
    Schenley Park Entrance 1922

    Schenley Park Entrance, 1922, Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, courtesy of the Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh

     

    Picturing Nature in Early 20th Century Oakland

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    In the context of the Consuming Nature workshop, sparked especially by our plans to visit the Hunt Botanical Institute, I was thinking a lot about how to situate CMNH’s Botany Hall and its dioramas in the social and cultural context of Oakland. I had learned from research conducted by Kate Madison and Emily Enterline, collaborators on our project, of the involvement of Rachel Hunt with Andrey Avinoff in the creation of the botanical dioramas. Hunt (wife of Roy Hunt of Alcoa) was president of the Garden Club of Allegheny County, which contributed the funds for the first diorama of wildflowers of Pennsylvania, completed in 1928. Press from the time noted that the Garden Club of Allegheny County had also contributed to the improvement of the entrance to Schenley Park, which was visible from the windows that used to be in Botany Hall.

    I also had learned from the research of Peter Clericuzio (Visiting Lecturer in Architectural Studies at Pitt) into the architecture of Forbes Field that early twentieth-century Oakland was positioned as a cultural center and soothing escape from the grime of the city. I therefore came into the workshop with the notion that the dioramas might belong in this context, in which picturesque views of nature, leisure, and cultural enrichment worked together. At the same time, I was aware that the philanthropic funding behind the institutional framework for this came from the very industry that was destroying the environment.

    At Hunt Botanical Institute, we were able to see Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s portrait of Rachel Hunt (with background painted by Avinoff), as well as examples of the kind of botanical illustrations that were Rachel Hunt’s passion: large, richly detailed portraits of individual plants that almost seem to pose for the viewer. Chuck Tancin also mentioned to us that at the insistence of Roy Hunt, the shelves in the library reading room are aluminum (but painted bronze so as to fit with the overall aesthetic), which is a poignant anecdote for thinking about the intersecting agencies at work behind Pittsburgh’s institutional investment in the culturally sophisticated appreciation of nature.

    At CMOA, Lulu Lippincott shared with us some of her expertise on Avinoff, and we viewed some of his artworks. As Lulu explained, these works can be understood as depictions of his philosophy about the links between art, science, the natural world, and spirituality. Even though Avinoff was known as an entomologist, it is clear to me now that Botany Hall was of special interest to him. In the context of Avinoff’s interests and Hunt’s patronage, the representational strategies of the botanical dioramas, which must be described as picturesque, theatrical, and somewhat political, as much as scientifically accurate, come into clearer focus. It is important to imagine the museum, and the philanthropic culture that shaped the space of Oakland, as both driven by a dream of a unified sphere of progress and idealism of all kinds, rather than the division between art and science that came to structure the institutions in the later twentieth century. This cultural space allowed the appreciation of nature to remain congruous with the glorification of industry.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh