The “Anthropocene” is a proposed new geological era currently under consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Meaning the “Age of Humans,” it makes a bold claim that humans have become a geologically significant force in earth’s history. The implications of this decision extend far beyond the limited confines of academic geology into the life sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. The Anthropocene concept exposes the profound degree to which people have affected the earth system, whether in terms of the composition of its atmosphere, its species diversity, or even the elemental cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus. The humanistic implications of these changes are equally significant and a variety of disciplines have begun exploring their social, cultural, and ethical implications. History, in particular environmental history, has taken a leading role in examining the meaning and significance of the Anthropocene and public history projects have begun to explore new ways of presenting and interpreting these findings. The project “Omaha in the Anthropocene” combines these two historical approaches to explore the meaning and relevance of the Anthropocene idea in the context of Omaha and the history of Nebraska.
“Omaha in the Anthropocene” is a collaborative digital and physical exhibit project between the Durham Museum and the senior-level “Global Environmental History” course at Creighton University (EVS/HIS 488). At the beginning of the Fall 2017 semester, students in EVS/HIS 488 selected objects from the Durham collection as the basis for their final project research. They explored the significance of these everyday objects in local, global, and environmental history and their findings will be displayed in a public exhibit, which will be installed at the Durham Museum in the spring of 2018. They researched the provenance of their artifact in the Durham’s collections, investigated its place in Omaha’s local history, and made connections between the object and patterns of global social and environmental change. They discovered connections in the form of discrete relationships between Omaha’s past and dramatic changes in global systems of commerce or communication (for instance, the transcontinental telegraph or railroad), while other found connections in the material or biological history of the object itself. For example, the students that selected a coffee can from the “Butter-Nut” Coffee company in Omaha – researched the nineteenth-century business history of the company and the global distribution of its cultivation. In this way, students will be connecting the local with the global. They connected their own everyday use of material “things” with the curated experience of museum exhibitions. Finally, they embedded the ostensibly global narrative of the Anthropocene into the material and environmental history of Nebraska and Omaha. This exhibit is both a pedagogical tool and an opportunity to view Nebraskan history through the lens of global, environmental change.