Dead Ends: Curiosities in Carnegie’s Collection (2017, CMU SoA & Carnegie MNH)

The collection of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) contains over 22 million specimens of previously living organisms collected from all over the world. While the specimens were collected in disparate locations and represent far-flung branches of the evolutionary tree, they share something in common: They were all dead by the time they were assigned a catalog number and accessioned into one of the largest collections of biological diversity in the world. 

The specimens featured in this catalog are united in that Carnegie Mellon students taking the course “Mining the Museum” deemed the circumstances of their death, or after-life, note worthy. Most of these specimens were not collected during scientific research expeditions. Instead they met their demise through inadvertent encounters with civilization. These include accidental run-ins with cars, “stoning by school children”, a chance meeting with a discarded campfire marshmallow, illnesses acquired while in captivity, collateral damage from a stray Civil War era bullet, and other untimely ends. 

Whereas biological specimens are typically collected from habitats that are removed from the effects of human civilization, these specimens are direct casualties of it. They are specific testimonies in a larger, often abstract, dialogue regarding the present era of human-influenced climatic and geologic change, sometimes called the Anthropocene. At the very least, they are reminders of the unusual stories often hidden in plain sight within the drawers of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.