The Anthropocene at the Valais Nature Museum

Above photo © Musée de la nature du Valais ; photo M. Martinez© Musée de la nature du Valais ; photo M. Martinez

The first-ever detonation of an atomic bomb occurred precisely at 05:29:21 on July 16, 1945. It took place at the “Trinity Test Site”, located in the Jornada del Muerto desert (Journey of the Dead Man), at Alamogordo in New Mexico. The closest observers were 6 miles away. After the detonation, it took around 40 seconds for the shock wave to reach them; some of them were even knocked to the ground. The sand around the crater melted and was converted into a glass-like substance known as “trinitite” (see photo 01). The explosion of the first atomic bomb in 1945 has been suggested as a starting point for the Anthropocene.

Today many scientists consider that we have left the Holocene and have entered into the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in planetary history marked by the profound and pervasive impacts of human on the Earth system. Nuclear bombings, from 1945 to the early 1960s, created a distinctive (radiogenic) signature that would make a clear reference point in the global geological record. Last year, the panel of scientists charged in making a general case for the Anthropocene as a new formal unit within the Geological Time Scale voted in favor of starting the new epoch in the mid-20th century (more information here).

This material known as “Trinitite” was forged in the blast of the first nuclear bomb test. This object is a loan from the Vaud Museum of Geology in Lausanne, Switzerland

A piece of Trinitite is currently displayed at the Nature Museum of Valais in Sion, Switzerland. It turns out that this tiny museum, one of the smallest natural history museums in the country, has played a pioneer role in bringing the Anthropocene to the museum world, under the impulsion of its director, Dr. Nicolas Kramar. In 2014 the museum opened an Anthropocene room in its permanent exhibition. In 2016, it produced an award-winning exhibition, Destination Earth: Living the Anthropocene (“Objectif Terre: Vivre l’Anthropocène”), which is the very first worldwide exhibition at a natural science museum specifically on the Anthropocene. The Nature Museum tries to make sense of this new epoch by bringing up not just scientific, but also social, cultural, and philosophical questions. While this approach is not common to most natural history museums, it can prove useful to understanding our current situation, as natural and social systems are increasingly intermingled. The Anthropocene might serve as a bridge between and within the natural and social sciences, and the humanities, in order to encourage integrative understandings of global change and sustainability.

Deer trophy in the ‘Anthropocene room’

My favorite object in the museum offers a beautiful but sad representation of human-nature interactions. It is a trophy of a deer that died because its antlers were hopelessly entangled in poles and nets. This object defies any categorization as ‘Culture’ or ‘Nature’. It is not, strictly speaking, natural, and it would not be part of classical natural science collections. It is not cultural either, even though it may well be confused for an artwork. Instead, it is an hybrid object that invites us to reconsider the idea of nature as an external and inert background to human affairs.

The Valais Nature Museum dedicated its permanent exhibition to the evolution of the relationship between humans and the environment. Our conceptions of the natural world are not universal; rather, they are the result of a history and a culture, which are constantly evolving. For example, the Museum explores the change in perspective that accompanied the emergence of agriculture during the Neolithic Period, characterized by a process of taming animals and cultivating plants for human use (which gave rise to the postnatural history).

‘Domesticate and cultivate’ room.

I like this museum because it seeks to convene the public on issues of great significance, even though it involves risk-taking. For example, it is difficult to represent complex and controversial issues like the Anthropocene. This concept has revealed deep tensions between several different interpretations of past causes and future possibilities, and highlighted the politics and economics of global climate change. By doing so, it raises moral dilemmas and confronts visitors’ personal values, beliefs, and ideologies. Yet what may seem at first like a challenge can also be viewed as an opportunity to gain new relevance. As far as I am concerned, that is exactly what this museum is doing.

Visitor information on the Museum’s website

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Gil Oliveira

Gil Oliveira holds a MS in Environmental Geosciences from the University of Lausanne and a MA in Museum Studies from the University of Neuchatel. He currently works at the Valais Nature Museum, and at the Laboratory for Pedagogical Innovation (LIP) at the University of Fribourg.