Saturday, March 20, 2010

I Do It Wrong ~ The Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins

The newly opened David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is impressive, well laid out, and ambitious. So, it’s ironic that curator Rick Potts’ overarching intentions fell flat and not because there is anything wrong with them. I’ll share my impressions of the new hall, first, and then try to explain my way out of the conundrum of really liking it while, at the same time, rebuffing Potts.

Though I may be something of a contrarian by nature, that’s not why I came into the new exhibition the wrong way, through the “backdoor.” It was an honest mistake, but, hey, as the exhibition makes clear, I’m a member of an adaptable species. Visitors are supposed to enter the new hall through a “time tunnel” that opens off the Sant Ocean Hall (that hall is well worth a visit). I misread the article in the Washington Post and very carefully walked in from the Mammal Hall (stuffed mammals move me, but not as the folks behind that exhibition intended, so, skip that hall).

I was greeted by a group of models and casts of fossil skulls, each on its own pedestal. A diverse crew, to be sure; among them, the earliest hominid in the exhibition, the 6-7 million year old Sahelanthropus tchadensis with a narrowing and protruding snout, as well as, Paranthropus boisei with its alien and prominent sagittal crest, and Homo heidelbergensis seeming, in comparison to either of those others, so modern. But, for each, the black shadows in their vacant eye sockets seemed to signal that their lives were, indeed, nasty, brutish, and short – a recurrent theme in the exhibit.

In retrospect, beginning with the fossils seems right. Not just because, as I describe later, the intended entrance leaves something to be desired. The fossils are where the science begins. So, as I went through the exhibition in reverse order, the fossil skulls acquired eyes, donned flesh, grew hair, acquired the attributes of humans, a process representing our growing understanding of who and what these hominids were. This is how it has worked in our study of early humans and prehumans, and, I think, it makes for a deeper appreciation of what we have learned.

Overall, the new hall is welcoming (particularly if you come in the back way), a wide open L-shape that never feels confined or cluttered despite containing a wealth of material – over 75 skulls (nearly all models or casts) dominate this space, with a complement of several life-sized bronze statues of hominids engaged in the work of survival, 8 startlingly life-like busts of several hominids (see H. heidelbergensis below), many, many tools ranging from the bulky and crude to the streamlined and refined, as well as beautiful examples of prehistoric art work. Along one side of the hall are three shallow cave-like openings with displays that make a feeble gesture toward interactivity. These displays highlight some of the research that has reconstructed the lives of ancient hominids, actually involving caves.

The exhibition is organized around a couple of questions. One entire wall is dominated by a series of displays that offers answers to a framing question: What does it mean to be human? Described by curator Potts as the “spine” of the hall, this area explores such aspects of humans and human experience as walking upright, new tools/new food, changing body shape and size, bigger brains, and social life.

Another question I saw cutting through all of this was: What role did climate change play in the evolution of humans? The exhibition’s answer is certain: climate change has made a huge difference in the high stakes hominid species-survival lottery. Lives were, indeed, Hobbesian. Climate change takes on the role of an evolution engine. In the human family tree, Homo sapiens is the sole survivor, in part because of our great capacity to adapt to variable climate. Yet, there was nothing certain about that survival. Roughly 74,000 years ago, according to exhibition materials, modern humans were down to the last 10,000 adults of reproductive age, a consequence of severe climate change.

I would recommend that, before visiting the new hall, a prospective visitor watch a brief video in which Potts describes what guided the development of the exhibition. Entitled “Designing the Exhibition,” the video provides a helpful framework within which to place what is on display. Frankly, some of what Potts intended will emerge naturally, while some of it may too subtle to come through without help. (The video is at the official Smithsonian website for the new hall.)

Finally, at the end of my visit, I reached the time tunnel which was supposed to have been my portal into, rather, than my exit from, the new hall. It offered a relatively short, darkened passageway with walls onto which was projected a panoramic view of paintings of some of the actors in the human family drama, including the fully fleshed busts of Homo floresiensis (aka the “Hobbit”), Homo neanderthalensis, and Australopithecus afarensis. I really wonder at the impact of this tunnel on the casual visitor to the exhibition, particularly if this is his or her introduction. The dates below the faces clearly showed that, if you came in the proper way, you would be traveling from the near present to the distant past in our history, but the pictures also may plant the misleading idea that the hominids featured belong in some sort of direct lineage of ours – one evolving from the other. And that’s just wrong. Take but one example, H. floresiensis, who is, I think, really just a relatively recent evolutionary sideshow.

I’ve also heard the time tunnel described as a way to suggest the confluence of changing hominids with changing climate (ah, a subtext for the entire exhibition). If so, it fails on that score, too. The changing environment depicted below the hominid busts simply does not register on the casual viewer whose attention will, I suspect, remain focused on the faces. In the final analysis, the supposed message of the time tunnel doesn’t come through and something misguided may, instead.

There’s a powerful subtext to the entire exhibition. All of those other species displayed here have come and gone. The exhibition states in no uncertain terms – forget all of the features people have used in the past to separate and divide members of our species, forget race. We are all one species. That’s what counts.

Now to tackle directly the conundrum posited at the outset. I think Potts’ intentions for the exhibition weren’t realized with me because he succeeded in another way. To be honest, the framing questions he posed – what makes us human and what’s climate got to do with it – just didn’t seem very interesting, particularly the first. Rather, I could not move beyond my awe in the face of the more than six dozen fossil skulls on display here. And I didn’t want to. Maybe on future visits, but, not this time. I found it difficult to turn away from the original Cro-Magnon skull displayed beside an actual Neanderthal skull from La Ferrassie (France). (Both of these skulls are on loan and will be returning to France in 3 months’ time.) I recognized this particular Neanderthal skull as one of us. I don’t know how else to describe it. Recognition.

So, it’s fossils, fossils, fossils – by far, the most compelling feature of the new Hall of Human Origins.


  1. I would not be surprised if the whole climate change aspect is included because 1) its really "trendy" right now and/or 2) they probably found some funding for the exhibit this way, but had to include some sort of climate change aspect in the exhibit to get the $$$$$.

  2. ReBecca:
    You may well be right with regard to its prominence in the exhibit. I don't think you're discounting the possibility of climate change playing some role in the evolution of humans. From what little I've read, I think it makes some sense. What's your take on it?


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