2017 Conference Report

By every measure, the 2017 NATHIST conference was a great success. About 250 delegates gathered at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh from the 25th-29th of October, representing about 30 countries and ranging from university students, through curators, to directors of some of the world’s most important institutions.

The theme of the conference was The Anthropocene: Natural History Museums in the Age of Humanity. The Anthropocene is the concept that human activity has had a profound and pervasive impact on the planet, such that its effects will be present in the fossil record millions of years from now. This warrants a dedicated geological era, the Anthropocene. The concept of humanity’s impact on and interaction with the global environment touches on science, conservation, artistic expression, philosophy, and even recreation. Natural history museums are at the nexus of these considerations, researching arcane ecological and evolutionary concepts, interpreting them for the public.

At the conference, we gave effect to this idea in many different ways. We opened two exhibitions – We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene (Carnegie Museum of Natural History) and Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line (House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation and The Natural History Museum) both of which, in different ways, explored the conference theme.

The varied sessions also looked at this topic from different angles and topics included “Collections to Study Environmental Change,” “Natural History Museums and Advocacy,” and “Engaging the Public in Natural History Conservation.” This diversity of approaches is at the forefront of the way people are tackling Anthropocene issues and sets the stage for more work to come.

Program highlights

  • Keynote speakers Dr. Helmuth Trischler, director of the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, and Richard Pell, curator of PostNatural Organisms at the Center for PostNatural History.
  • Over sixty sessions, workshops, panels and working groups focusing on different aspects of natural history museums’ activities with respect to human impact on the planet.
  • Excursions to Powdermill Nature Reserve, the museum’s environmental research center, and Fallingwater, the iconic house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • An immersive, interactive theater production entitled Dodo: The Time Has Come, which took place all over the museum spaces after it had closed to the public
  • A trade fair offering productions and services that cater specifically to museums.
  • Complementary tickets to Haunted Museum: Year of the Monster, an adult-only Halloween party.
  • A public day, in which delegates joined the museum in sharing perspectives with our communities in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Achievements and Activities

  • Anthropocene Working Group. – as anticipated, NATHIST formed a working group on the Anthropocene, which included about 20 delegates and guests to its inaugural meeting. More details on activities will follow.
  • Book launch. At the conference, we launched the book The Future of Natural History Museums, published jointly by ICOM and Routledge Press. It stemmed from the contents of the 2014 and 2015 annual conferences and most of its more than 20 authors are active members of NATHIST.
  • Unprecedented website attendance. Our normal website hits in 2017 marginally exceeded the previous year, breaking our all-time record for visits. Adding in the conference website nearly doubles that, making it a phenomenal reach.
  • Increasing membership. ICOM US and the Secretariat both had a presence of the conference, providing an easy mechanism for new members to join. This support for an international committee meeting is invaluable and gives prospective members a sense of tangible benefits of joining.

Information about the conference was disseminated through a dedicated website, the content of which will in due course be made into a newsletter and available through the NATHIST website.

Both NATHIST and Carnegie Museum of Natural History are enormously grateful for the sponsors ICOM US, Phipps Conservatory, Gallagher and Associates, Cullinaire, Delta Design Ltd, iDigBio and Carnegie Discoverers, as well as from private donors Richard Moriarty, David and Rhoda Hartmann, Caryle Glosser, Daniel Nydick and John B. Newman.

Photographs are from conference delegates and Carnegie Museum of Natural History. We are grateful to those who contributed.