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Culture

How to Curate an Apocalypse

The Smithsonian’s natural history museum tackles climate change in an unexpected way.

A family in a museum.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany somewhere unexpected: the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils.

I hadn’t been to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., in more than a decade, but some friends in town had convinced me to join them on a visit. I waved hello to the taxidermied elephant, took a right at the information desk, and entered what I had, in the past, simply called the dinosaur room.

The hall was filled with animals lost to the ages: the cast of a plesiosaur swam along one wall; the bones of a giant sloth munched on fake leaves; a giant bronze millipede crawled over a bronze log; and a Diplodocus stretched lazily over my head, its neck extending over the path that bisected the room.

Like most of the other bones, the dinosaur had its feet on the side of the room that dealt with past apocalypses. The hall houses a single exhibit, called Deep Time, and is laid out so visitors travel backwards through time as they progress down the path; black pillars planted a few dozen feet apart mark the arrival of various mass extinctions. Here is the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs (66 million years ago). There is the Permian extinction (252 million years ago, the worst extinction ever), when volcanic eruptions coated our world in ash clouds and greenhouse gases. But the other side of the room concerns itself with a different kind of apocalyptic force entirely: us.

“Humans spread, extinctions follow,” declared one sign near a wall detailing just how much biodiversity we’ve obliterated in the last few thousand years (74% of the large animal species in North America; 97% in Australasia). “In the near future, most extinctions will be connected to human actions,” said another. As I finished reading a panel about fossil fuels, I turned and caught the eye (socket) of the Diplodocus.

The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils had got me good. I hadn’t expected to find climate change in the fossil room, but there we were: humans as a geological force.

The idea, said Scott Wing, a Smithsonian paleobotanist and co-curator of the Deep Time exhibit, was to create a cathedral. “Cathedrals are designed for the contemplation of your existence,” Wing told me. “We’re doing that through science and not religion. I want visitors to hold two contradictory thoughts in their head: We are small. But we are also big.”

There’s a classic analogy in paleontology, repeated so often as to be a cliche: If all of geological time were a clock, humanity would appear less than a second before midnight. It’s easy, in the face of time and climate change alike, to feel as if our actions mean very little on a planetary scale.

But the Deep Time exhibit, which opened in 2019 after a 5-year renovation and a much longer design process, argues otherwise: In a hall that’s designed to mimic geological time scales, humans take up as much space as three extinction events. A few steps down from the panels about human-related biodiversity loss, I found a series of short films highlighting the various ways people are trying to mitigate climate change — coral reef restoration in Hawaii, for example, or no-till agriculture in West Texas — and a panel that provided tips on how to open conversations about climate change (“find common ground; share success stories”) with people who might not want to talk about it. This extinction, the exhibit seems to say, can be avoided.

Nothing in the exhibit was particularly new to me; I’ve been thinking about climate change, professionally, for a few years now. And yet I felt as if I had traveled to the center of the Earth and had a conversation with Atlas about the best ways to brace an intercontinental shelf between one’s shoulders.

“We are the beneficiaries of a living planet that has been evolving over inconceivably long spans of time, and we’re among the first generations to recognize their capacity to change the planet in very substantial ways,” Wing said. “I want [visitors] to go away feeling powerful, and I want them to feel fortunate to have the inheritance that they have.”

The hall’s late namesake, the notorious fossil fuel executive and climate change denier who spent untold millions lobbying against climate legislation, is perhaps emblematic of that power. David Koch’s $35 million donation was the source of much consternation among Wing’s team at the Smithsonian and activists alike, but — as the Smithsonian made clear to The Washington Post in 2019 — he had no say in what went into the exhibit, and provided crucial funding to make it come to fruition. The same man who waylaid carbon taxes helped, perhaps unwittingly, make space for climate change alongside Tyrannosaurs and Triceratops.

I walked down a ramp, past more signs detailing the various ways our planet died in the past. Paleontologists have, of late, found their field taking on newfound relevance. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, Wing’s specialty, is widely called the closest analog to modern-day climate change. That era, like ours, saw a massive spike in greenhouse gases (one theory suggests volcanoes are to blame; another says the seas belched methane), and the fossil record points to a rapid rise in global temperatures, deep-sea extinctions, and intense ocean acidification.

Details on life during that time are still murky, but scientists suspect insects, in need of more energy to keep up with rising temperatures, mowed through leaves like the proverbial plague of locusts, palm trees sprung up in Wyoming, and algae bloomed on the ocean surface, choking the fish below. All, for the most part, plausible visions of our future: the difference now is the rate at which we’re putting carbon into the air, which handily beats any period in our planet’s history.

Humanity has its own deep time, and much of it is filled with mistakes. When the fossil hall was last redone, in the early 1980s, the Alvarez hypothesis — which found evidence for the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs — was still considered too new and unproven to include in the room’s design. Instead, curators had to jury-rig a retrofit, finding room among the dinosaur bones for the story of their death. Today, there is an entire section of the hall dedicated to the rock, culminating in a short film complete with a dramatic rendition of the day it hit.

We often lose sight of our collective chronology, aside from the occasional misplaced desire to return to our paleolithic roots. But perhaps sitting with our past is a way out of climate doomerism: if we are a geological force, and the Deep Time exhibit would argue that we are, then we ought to give ourselves the space to act like one.

Our memories are short and doom is common, both on our feeds and on our planet, but the exhibit was just as much about recovery as death. After every apocalypse came a resurgence: to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum, life, uh, found a way. Our solutions are not perfect, and we may well blow through every climate target we’ve ever set. We have caused nearly as much warming in a couple of centuries as volcanism likely did over millions of years. But the galaxy-brain message of deep time would suggest that, if we can beat some piddly volcanoes at warming the planet — and, ideally, we won’t — we can also hasten the recovery. So why not try our imperfect solutions, patchwork as they may be? Install your heat pumps and compost your veggies and reject your plastic bags and try sucking carbon out of the air, I say, and, ever so slowly, our bubbling pools of magma will cool.

Just, please, let’s not blot out the sun. No need to go full volcano.

Green
Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.

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