“You Are Here:” Deep Time at the Smithsonian

As an avid young reader, I devoured EL Konigsburg’s 1967 novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I identified strongly with the protagonist (like many other readers, I suspect)—a smart, curious girl called Claudia who hatched a plan to run away from unappreciative parents and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia and her brother spent their nights exploring the museum, and I coveted their secret access to a treasure trove of knowledge.

Looking back, my fascination with museums has clearly played out in my doctoral research. My dissertation focuses on emerging relationships between humans and nonhumans under ecological emergency. Unsurprisingly, the natural history museum is one of the most fraught sites in which these relationships have historically been constructed.

In July 2019, I took a trip to the Hall of Fossils at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institute (I did not, however, sneak in and stay overnight). The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils—Deep Time reopened in June 2019 after a multiyear, multimillion dollar renovation project. 

By reframing the Smithsonian’s extensive fossil collection with the concept of deep time, the museum aimed to draw connections between geological history and contemporary climate change. As such, it engages with the challenge of history in the Anthropocene, a challenge that Dipesh Chakrabarty described in his oft-cited article “The Climate of History: Four Theses” (2009). Chakrabarty argues that climate change shakes the foundations of historical inquiry, and that “the task of placing, historically, the crisis of climate change thus requires us to bring together intellectual formations that are somewhat in tension with each other: the planetary and the global; deep and recorded histories; species thinking and critiques of capital.”[1] These historiographical difficulties surface quite clearly in the new version of the Hall of Fossils, morphing from what once was a “Hall of Extinct Monsters” to a conceptual lens which places humans in the context of geological history.

Getting oriented in Deep Time.

One of the key questions I ask in my dissertation is whether traditional practices of display found in natural history museums can truly be used to combat climate change, particularly as they depend on articulating a separation between the subject who looks (human) and the object to be looked at (nonhuman). Much of the environmental destruction caused by global capitalism can be traced to this foundational division. New forms of relationality that dismantle Eurocentric and capitalist human exceptionalism are central to fighting against climate change and for climate justice.

So how can a hall of fossils, designed to display the remains of life from times long past for human edification, contribute to imagining these new relations? The new Fossil Hall invites visitors to travel backwards in time, from the most recent ice age to the beginnings of the planet. Scattered throughout the displays, small labels describe “Human Connections,” placing humanity at the moment of mastodon extinction and within the global food web. 

These connections link evolutionary and geological history with human history through the idea that humanity is a global force of change. Though the dinosaur fossils remain the hall’s spectacular draw for visitors, the Age of Humans gallery attempts to link contemporary environmental change with human action—all in the context of Deep Time. The gallery features a series of five films showcasing different responses to climate change, from activism by native Hawaiians to preserve coral reefs to efforts to revitalize the oyster population native to New York’s Hudson Bay. These individual stories exemplify some of the ways humans are causing global change. The overarching story of Deep Time tries to show that, though the planet has undergone numerous changes over time, something about this era, with humans, is different. 

The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils—Deep Time demonstrates the tensions between the work of display in knowledge production and imagining new ecological futures. In a hall named for one of the richest men in the world, who made his fortune at least partly from the wholesale destruction of the environment and use of fossil fuels, full of fossilized traces of extinct life and warnings of more extinction to come, what is offered as the way forward in the face of large-scale planetary changes? What roles do natural history museums have to play in working toward climate justice? Can human history be integrated into geological history to better understand how we got here? My sense is that radically different modes of engagement are needed to pursue ethical ecological relations, which might mean completely rethinking the work of natural history museums.

[1] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 213.

*Cover Image Credit: A panoramic view of the new David H. Koch Hall of Fossils—Deep Time at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by author.

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