Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring echoes at MSU Museum
Fifty years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s famed Silent Spring, the Michigan State University Museum is taking a closer look at the book that many believe launched the environmental movement.
“At first glance it might be surprising that we wanted to do an exhibit inspired by a book that’s over 50 years old,” said Gary Morgan, director of the museum in East Lansing, Mich. “Our intention is to engage people with the issues that she was concerned about and ask, ‘If it hadn’t been written, what would our world be like today?’”
From the moment you walk into the Heritage Gallery, the colorful, artistic displays grab your attention. Whether you are an avid Carson reader, new to her name or disagree with her perspective on the dangers of pesticide use, there is a lot to gain from the “Echoes of Silent Spring” exhibit.
Morgan insists that the museum staff’s intention was not to create “Rachel Carson: the exhibit”, but rather to further explore the key issues she raised in 1962.
Someone could walk in with no prior knowledge of Carson or the history of DDT and pesticide use, and walk out with a solid understanding of the book and the context of its publication.
“Silent Spring” was the first major published work that outlined the negative effects of excessive pesticide use on the natural environment and human health. Carson listed hundreds of case studies that illustrated these adverse environmental effects, though many then were skeptical of their validity. Others remain critical today.
The exhibit begins with a detailed timeline of Carson’s life as a scientist in the 1960s, a time when female scientists were few and far between. It then provides historical context about the use of pesticides back then. One of the most interesting features is the collection of newspapers and photos from the 1950s and 1960s that illustrate the U.S. government’s absolute confidence in intense pesticide use.
DDT is a pesticide that was widely used during World War II to control the spread of malaria and typhus among the troops. After the war, civilians used it heavily for agriculture, disease prevention and for various problems around the home.
While Carson referred to many pesticides in her book, she targeted DDT as the poster child.
One display shows an advertisement for DDT-infused children’s wallpaper from a 1947 edition of Women’s Day magazine. The company selling the product, Trimz, Inc., states in the ad that DDT is “non-hazardous to children or adults, to pets or clothes. Certified to be absolutely safe for home use. Tested and commended by Parents’ Magazine.”
Other photos show a U.S. soldier applying DDT directly to his skin, and model Kay Heffernon walking scantily clad through a cloud of DDT for LIFE magazine in 1948.
“At the time the book was published, science was much more limited in its understanding both of pesticides and natural environmental processes,” Morgan said. “There was a lot of faith in pesticides.”
DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972 after extensive evidence of its dangerous effects on wildlife and potential danger to humans. DDT is currently classified as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
It was likely no coincidence that this exhibit ended up at the MSU Museum, considering the book’s connection with the university.
It was there that DDT was sprayed on 5,000 elm trees to kill the beetles that carried Dutch elm disease.
MSU ornithology professor George J. Wallace documented the fatal effect the DDT spraying had on East Lansing’s robins, who ate worms that were consuming the rotting leaves laced with pesticide. Carson refers to Wallace’s study in her book, and had a unique relationship with him through letter writing. Some of the letters are on display in the exhibit.
“Wallace saw the importance in what she was doing,” Morgan said. “Both were subject to substantial criticism, especially in Carson’s case.”
Morgan believes the success of Silent Spring was likely due to Carson’s effortless ability to take a dense scientific topic and turn it into a beautiful piece of literature that many more people can relate to. “If it was too scholarly, it wouldn’t have had the same vital effect,” Morgan said.
Similarly, the “Echoes of Silent Spring” exhibit takes the overwhelming history of environmentalism in the U.S. and presents it in a simple way that gives both historical and contemporary context.
It is important to note that the purpose of the exhibit is not to present Carson as the hero on the white steed, Morgan said. That is an oversimplification.
“We asked the question ‘Was she right about everything?’ and our answer was ‘No she wasn’t,” he said.
In fact, many people believe that the banning of DDT gave significant rise to malaria fatalities and hold Silent Spring responsible to some degree.
The exhibit acknowledges this view and presents arguments for the modern use of pesticides – so people can choose for themselves whether the positive outweighs the negative.
It also includes an interactive education station for kids, where they can participate in four activities related to issues presented in the book. Children can take home a certificate that gives them the official title of “Silent Spring Scholar”.
One of my favorite parts of the exhibit comes toward the end where people are encouraged to drop a token in a bin to vote for whether they feel the message of Silent Spring was important or exaggerated. Important was slightly ahead when I went to the exhibit, though there is plenty of time for that to change. “Echoes of Silent Spring” is running until the end of the year.
People can also put a token in any of six bins labeled: Learn, participate, talk, use, choose and share; each signifying an action the exhibit inspired them to take.
Whether people feel the book is exaggerated or important, I just don’t see how anyone could walk out with nothing to think about. In the end, that is what a museum is meant to do: make you think.
Morgan says a Silent Spring nature trail is in the works for this fall. The 45-minute walk will take groups through key sites on Michigan State University’s campus that were chronicled by Carson in the book, which can also be purchased at the MSU Museum front desk.
The documentary “Dying to be Heard” below tells the story of Michigan State University professor George J. Wallace, who discovered a link between DDT and dying birds on the university’s campus. His work was highlighted in Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. The Emmy award winning film was produced by instructor Lou D’Aria and his students in MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, the center that also produces Great Lakes Echo.