Omaha in the Anthropocene

“Omaha in the Anthropocene” showcases everday items from various time periods. Photo by Greg Staskiewicz

Greg Staskiewicz

Empty coffee cans, obsolete refrigerators, and broken concrete don’t have much in common, except that they’re all junk, right? Wrong. Even junk gets to make history.

The Durham Museum in downtown Omaha hosts “Omaha in the Anthropocene,” an exhibit showcasing knick-knacks from throughout the ages, from old stone tools and farm equipment, to fallout shelter signs and pieces of telegraph wire. All of these things are junk now, but they tell the story of humans on Earth.

The exhibit presents the idea of a new Anthropocene Epoch, based on evidence that humans as a species have made massive and unmistakable marks on the planet. To declare a new epoch, there have to be significant changes in the bedrock and geology of key areas around the world, said Emma Sundberg, associate curator at the Durham Museum.

“We have made a significant impact in the sense that it’s changed the geographical markers of the world,” Sundberg said.

According to Sundberg, many scientists believe there is now enough evidence for the Anthropocene. The evidence became especially obvious around what is called the Great Acceleration in the 1950s.

The Great Acceleration is a period during which human population, resource use, technological advancement and environmental change saw massive growth.

“But this one is just a relevant topic for today,” Sundberg said. “It’s a challenge because it’s such a heavy one – like how can we effectively present it to people?”

The Omaha in the Anthropocene exhibit works as a partnership between Creighton University and Durham. Students from the senior-level “Global Environmental History” class, taught by Adam Sundberg, went to Durham to research objects in the museum’s collection

Emma said students presented their findings in the exhibit and online at

Adam Sundberg is Emma’s brother – the two put their heads together and made the project happen at the Durham.

“I think at the very least, the big idea I want people to get across is that humans do create and have always created significant change in their environments,” Adam said. “More recently this change has expanded to global significance, and that’s the whole idea behind the Anthropocene.”

“We were talking about the intersection of academics and public history,” Emma said. “And literally over just a family conversation, we thought of this project.”

Since the beginning of the exhibit in fall 2017, several more classes of students have added to the exhibit each semester, she said.

Emma said the exhibit is a great way for students to “speak science to the public.” There are items as different as bison and TV dinner trays in the exhibit. Even though things like these are so different in appearance, they are evidence of humans affecting the planet.

“The Swanson TV dinner trays revolutionized the way we eat, sort of disposable culture,” Emma said.

The bison is a symbol of human impact on the herds that used to roam America, she said. Bison used to exist in the hundreds of millions, and today there are only hundreds of thousands.

“But that’s also a story of how man is trying to mitigate its previous impact,” she said.