Memorandum on Museums of Curiosity and Wonder

By Richard Pell |

I am the founder of a small museum that focuses on the intentional, hereditary changes that human beings have made to the living world. Everything from the domestication of dogs more than 10,000 years ago, to the present moment of synthetic biology. The Center for Post Natural History exists so that people can wrap their heads around this idea and discover some questions that don’t have easy answers. I don’t know what those questions are, that is up to the visitor. And I certainly don’t expect that they will find any answers while perusing our museum. We are just the first stop on the journey; a signpost at the entrance to your very own rabbit hole. The point of visiting our museum it is to leave a little hungrier than you arrived. It is a concept that shares some common ancestry with the first museum in the United States.

Charles Willson Peale

Charles Willson Peale

Charles Willson Peale’s American Museum was founded in 1786 as the first public institution in the United States to consider the general public as a valid audience for the cultivation of wonder and curiosity. It brought together fine art and natural history such that the visitor was, “led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar… into the mysteries of life”. One of Peale’s foundational specimens was the first complete skeleton of a mastodon to be exhibited anywhere in the world. The mind-blowing nature of this creature, at the time, cannot be overstated. So little was understood about this pre-historic wonder, that it was exhibited simply as “The Great Incognitum” or The Great Unknown1 .When was the last time you visited a science museum and were shown something so new and incredible that science was at a loss for words to describe it? And yet, isn’t this is the experience that we want to have? To arrive at the bleeding edge of what is knowable and gaze over the edge into the unknown and ask a question without feeling dumb.

Recently I was invited to put a few words together about the role that museums play in regards to curiosity and found myself struggling to clarify the difference between two concepts that in the past I have used virtually interchangeably2. For years I’ve blurred or ignored the distinction between wonder and curiosity. I often champion them both as a bedrock goal, in contrast to more traditional, quantitatively focused assessments that are measured by knowledge acquisition or learning outcomes. However, when I tried to split the difference between wonder and curiosity, I realized these are two very different characters. In fact, if “Wonder” and “Curiosity” were people, they would have issues with one another.

The two clearly spend a lot of time together, hence the confusion. And they look quite alike on the surface– perhaps they are siblings? If so, I suspect Wonder is the older of the two. Wonder generally describes the emotional experience of encountering something truly unexpected and amazing. Wonder is associated with a child-like way of thinking. Wonder yearns for richly novel experience and when she finds it, doesn’t want it to end. Wonder is an ecstatic state of completeness. It requires no further information. There are things Wonder would rather not know. In fact, if Wonder had her way, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

The Bible is littered with “wondrous” miracles, from self-igniting shrubbery to extraordinarily efficient lamp oil. The Wonder that they inspire is an entirely appropriate response to the experience of encountering an omniscient God. In this sense, Wonder is a complete experience. The architecture of cathedrals and temples does nothing if not inspire wonder. Its function in part, is to chase away any doubts about who is in charge. It is cathartic rather than cerebral. From Day One, the Biblical God advises his two initial followers to steer clear of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Children raised in the Christian tradition who ask too many questions are provided with the cautionary tale of the “Doubting Thomas”.

Curiosity, on the other hand, does have some doubts. Cautious skepticism may be what separates Curiosity from Wonder. Curiosity always wants to know more and is willing to risk disappointment to achieve this end. While Wonder has its eyes respectfully closed, Curiosity is peaking. Wonder was perfectly happy to visit the Emerald City and behold The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, while Curiosity pulled back the curtain revealing the truth. It is worth noting that the character who exposed the fraudulent wizard was neither Dorthy, nor any of her anthropomorphic companions, but rather her tiny dog Toto.3

Curiosity and Wonder also have something in common. The unexpected is what propels them. But, Wonder wants to hold onto the experience: “Don’t ruin it” while Curiosity takes the risky next step by asking, “Why is it that way?” Curiosity thinks that Wonder is naive. Wonder thinks that Curiosity is a buzzkill.

I think they actually need each other. Without an appreciation for Wonder, Curiosity IS a buzzkill. Left to its own devices, Curiosity would conduct an autopsy on the family cat just to find out how it works (pun intended). And without Curiosity, Wonder would still be staring up at the stars, satisfied that it is the center of the universe. Curiosity hates to admit it, but Wonder tells great stories. Wonder pilots flying reindeer and surreptitiously delivers video games consoles to middle-class kids. But one day, Curiosity kills Santa Claus. It had to happen eventually. Wonder WAS being naive on that point. In a sober moment Wonder might admit that Curiosity, in this case, exposed a greater truth: Most parents would do anything to make their kids happy.

Cedar Waxwing Collected By Museum Security Guard Barnes During the spring of 2001, shortly after the inauguration of George W. Bush a few blocks away, this cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) flew along Constitution Ave., past the north side of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and directly into the bulletproof glass of the museum security booth. A startled security officer alerted museum staff and carried the bird inside. When it was accessioned into the collection, it was credited to ‘Museum Guard Barnes’, making it among the few specimens in the national collection to be collected by a member of the Fraternal Order of Police. (Photo and caption from the CPNH exhibit “Collected From Within: Specimens of Interest in the Collection of the National Museum of Natural History”)

Cedar Waxwing Collected By Museum Security Guard Barnes
During the spring of 2001, shortly after the inauguration of George W. Bush a few blocks away, this cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) flew along Constitution Ave., past the north side of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and directly into the bulletproof glass of the museum security booth. A startled security officer alerted museum staff and carried the bird inside. When it was accessioned into the collection, it was credited to ‘Museum Guard Barnes’, making it among the few specimens in the national collection to be collected by a member of the Fraternal Order of Police.
(Photo and caption from the CPNH exhibit “Collected From Within: Specimens of Interest in the Collection of the National Museum of Natural History”)

At this point, it probably sounds like I am describing the difference between art and science, or science and religion, or rationality and non-rationality, or left-brain and right-brain, and surely there’s plenty of overlap. But I am also describing the inseparability of those things. It is only in the last 150 years or so, that we formally separated these worlds to the point where there are scant few places that attempt to engage both Wonder and Curiosity on equal footing.

Museums have evolved a great deal in the 180 or so years since their first generation collapsed in financial ruin or adapted into the more lucrative P.T. Barnum-styled collection of freaks, oddities and hoaxes. Following the necessary injection of funds from the mega-wealthy industrialists of the late 19th century, museum collections gained a stunning degree of rational order and quantitative analysis. They subdivided into seemingly unrelated institutions of art, science and history. They also acquired the monumental architecture of cathedrals and temples. The Great Hall in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. with its colossal taxidermy elephant and adjoining halls of knowledge inspires nothing if not wonder. It is a truly incredible space. But perhaps in the effort to impress the public with how much they know, they created a space that makes it harder to ask “Why?”

I’m not suggesting that the modern science museum is the Great and Powerful Oz, hiding behind his curtain. But I am suggesting that it has erected an edifice of similar proportions. What if, today, the National Museum of Natural History opened a hall dedicated to specimens and artifacts that are not well understood? Call it “The Hall of Incognitums.” They might risk visitors wondering about the “wrong things.” Visitors might risk being disappointed or frustrated. Competing narratives might develop that call the validity of the whole project of science into question. And meaningful answers to our deepest questions might emerge from unexpected places. It all sounds very risky. Is anyone else curious how it would all play out?

References:
1. Sellers, Charles Coleman. Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art.New York: Norton, 1980.

2. Pell, Richard W. “Can sites cultivate curiosity?” University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh. December 10th, 2015. Panel Discussion.

3. Baum, L. Frank, and Michael Hague. The Wizard of  Oz. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.

Notes:
1. It is beyond the scope of this essay to attribute the experience of Curiosity or Wonder to Toto, however, we can say with certainty that Toto is a domesticated dog whose wolf ancestors learned over thousands of years of co­evolution and breeding to read human expressions: Frank Baum wrote in The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, “Toto did not really care whether he was in Kansas or the Land of Oz so long as Dorothy was with him; but he knew the little girl was unhappy, and that made him unhappy too”.

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Richard Pell works at the intersections of science, engineering, and culture. He is the founder and director of the Center for PostNatural History, an organization dedicated to the collection and exposition of life-forms that have been intentionally and heritably altered through domestication, selective breeding, tissue culture or genetic engineering. The Center for PostNatural History operates a permanent museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and produces traveling exhibitions that have appeared in science and art museum throughout Europe and the United States as well as within the pages of National Geographic, Nature Magazine, American Scientist, Popular Science and New Scientist. The CPNH has been awarded a Rockefeller New Media fellowship, a Creative Capital fellowship, a Smithsonian artist research fellowship, support from Waag Society and ongoing support from the Kindle Project. Richard Pell is an Associate Professor of Art and Carnegie Mellon University.