Review of the Smithsonian's new Human Origins Hall

I’m in the Washington D.C. area on business this week. Yesterday I got the chance to visit the new Human Origins Hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

I wrote about the new exhibit when it opened earlier this year, linking to some reviews (“New Smithsonian human origins hall”). So I won’t repeat much of a rundown of what’s in the exhibit. I’ll just give a few of my impressions.

First, I really like the exhibit and I strongly encourage anybody to go see it.

In fact, if you’re in the area over the next couple of months, the exhibit includes two original fossil crania on loan from Paris – the old man of Cro Magnon, and La Ferrassie 1, the most complete Neandertal cranium known. They go away in July, so if you live in the area you’d better get over to see them before they’re gone.

The change in the museum since my last visit, in 1997, is incredible. I remember a dingy, circa-1970-looking human evolution display. It was, shall we say, uninspiring.

The current exhibit is open, airy, and full of room to walk around. There are some video set-pieces, and a fair amount of “gee-whiz” how’d-they-know-that displays, likely to be skipped by patrons briskly moving from the mammals to the ocean. But the space encourages people to linger, to look closely at the bones and fleshed-out reconstructions of our ancestors, and to think about the science that has told us so much about them. It’s a beautiful space that matches the newer parts of the museum, including the neighboring Oceans exhibit.

Much was said about the exhibit’s emphasis on paleoclimate. I feared that this would be heavy-handed, and so I went through the display with a critical eye toward that aspect. In fact I found that the paleoclimate is a relatively subtle subtext of the exhibit and only in a couple of places did I think the storyline was stretching beyond the evidence. The coincidence of brain expansion and the last two glacial cycles (with the “most extreme” climate fluctuations) is oversold. Otherwise, the recurring illustration of temperature reconstructions helps to link the different parts of human evolution on a common climatic timeline. I’d say this is well done, and greatly enhanced by the illustrations of Kay Behrensmeier’s paleoenvironment work.

The designers did several smart things that make the exhibit more accessible for all ages. The Hall is laid out as a big “L” shape, and the corner has a spacious gallery with the John Gurche busts. These have rightly gotten a lot of attention for their exquisite rendering – the Neandertal is especially evocative, with hair bound by a strap of leather, marked with red ocher. The busts are mounted on columns at the approximate level of the ancient individuals’ statures. In the large space, they make a very nice photo opportunity, as you can walk right up and all around them.

But what hasn’t been apparent in any of the promotion is the number of full-body bronzes, including casts of the heads, that you can get right next to. When I was there, a docent was wrangling schoolkids around a campfire with the reconstructed “Homo heidelbergensis”. You can get up close and personal.

Another part of the exhibit that leaves an impression is the “cave” area, with a melange of rock art from around the world. It’s a bit disorienting to have the Chauvet lions next to rock art from Australia and the American Southwest, and yet it does give a nice impression of the common scale of these works – not easily gotten from photographs that make some of them look billboard-sized. Like many parts of the Hall, it works because the noise is relatively low – this despite being in a mid-day crowd with classes of kids milling around. The space is well used, with plenty of room to move around, and even to be alone with the exhibits.

Nowhere is that more apparent than where the original fossils are on exhibit. The busts are at the outside corner of the “L”, the fossils at the inside corner, almost the inner sanctum of the exhibit. They lie in a large display case – The Shanidar 3 skeleton, which is in the museum’s collection, alongside Cro Magnon 1 and La Ferrassie 1, both visiting for the spring. Facing them is a wall of more than sixty casts of different hominin crania, almost a matrix of admirers looking toward the relics. I stood with them for more than twenty minutes, and although a stream of people wandered by, I was the only one who stopped to commune with the spirits. One mother quizzed her 10-year-old son about the display.

Most spent their time slack-jawed at the wall of casts – a truly impressive assortment. It is the Smithsonian’s answer to the American Museum’s phylogeny wall, where the casts are mounted on a tree linking the species. The Smithsonian’s hall does it’s phylogenies in computer form, with interactive displays showing different scenarios for hominin relationships. I had a bit of a chuckle about these – the “least species” scenario still gives us four or five species of Homo. I got to overhear a docent having an interesting conversation about the impact of the Neandertal genome on our understanding of them. It’s a nice reminder that a museum has to be flexible enough to incorporate 10 years or more of new discoveries into what might appear to be a static exhibit.

DNA makes up only a minor part of the exhibit – emphasizing our links to other primates and some factors reflecting the importance of evolution for humans today, chiefly disease. I think that’s a good idea – it’s really hard to do DNA well in a museum setting, you have to rely entirely too much on computerized displays that aren’t very engaging. Museums should do what they do naturally well – that is, show people objects. The new exhibit does that in grand order – anyone who comes in doubting human evolution will come face to face with a wall of bones, gradually ranging from ape-like to humanlike. There’s no better testament to the reality of our evolution.

The “interactive” features of the exhibit included two large “forensic” cases – what happened at Shanidar, and what can we learn from an elephant kill at Olorgesailie. What I liked most about these was how the architecture helped to isolate their noise away from the main hall. Large video screens, big enough to accommodate a whole class of kids, were set back into arched chambers that dampened the sound coming outward. The videos themselves, with their sort of “write your own story” button-pushing options, seemed likely to engage 8 to 14-year-olds.

It doesn’t match up to the best museum exhibits in Europe. That’s something of an apples-and-oranges comparison – this is a big exhibit, but it’s embedded in a much bigger museum where dinosaurs probably get much more attention than the hominins. The best museum presentations, like the one in Mettmann, Germany, or the new museum at Krapina, Croatia, are instances where the whole building is devoted to human evolution.

What’s missing? It strikes me that the exhibit included very few connections back to the Miocene apes. The story of bipedality is there, and the transition to Homo gets a good representation, but the story of the origin of the hominins is to some extent missing the bookend from which it begins.

In some ways that’s probably a good thing – the description of the Ardipithecus postcrania came too late to include in the display, though today it’s the natural comparison to Lucy. The Human Origins Hall isn’t adjacent to the mammal evolution part of the museum, so there’s not a possibility of naturally flowing one story into the other. As they often are in science, here human and vertebrate evolution form distinct entities. But thinking about it a day later, I don’t remember mounted chimpanzee or gorilla skeletons to provide a comparison to the hominins. It’s a bit of context that seems missing.

Well, that’s probably enough. It was a good way for me to use a day, and gave me some inspirations about how to explain and illustrate evolution for my own work. That’s pretty high praise for a professional anthropologist – and if you’re interested in seeing a broad scope of evolution, be sure to catch this exhibit if you get the chance!