One hundred years later, evolution continues for Smithsonian's Natural History museum

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

You could say that it was a hunting expedition that captured the whole world: In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt embarked on an East African safari, with financial help from the Smithsonian Institution, and ended up collecting more than a thousand specimens, including several hundred big game.

This hunting expedition would cause an uproar these days, but back in Roosevelt's time these trophies were objects of unabashed public curiosity. At about the same time, the Smithsonian was building a new museum to house its expanding collections. The Roosevelt bounty, including several Atlas lions, became one of the first exhibitions for the U.S. National Museum Building, now the National Museum of Natural History, when it opened in 1910.

Flash forward a hundred years, and it's now the most popular museum in the country, having hosted 7.4 million visitors in 2009 and passing the Air and Space Museum. Indeed, it was the second-most-visited museum in the world last year (after the Louvre) and the most popular museum devoted to science on the planet.

No small part of the museum's continuing appeal is its subject matter, which has meant that the Natural History museum has had to strive constantly to evolve as advances in science are made. Since 2000, for instance, the museum has updated several halls without ever closing, and on March 17, the anniversary of its opening, the museum will unveil its brand-new Hall of Human Origins. Adjacent to the newish Mammal and Ocean halls, Human Origins will cover 15,000 square feet, including a large time tunnel tracing human history. The exhibition space will have 75 cast reproductions of skulls, covering the last 6 million years. The displays will include dozens of fossils, including rare originals.

Giving visitors a sense of the past and providing evidence of the Natural History museum's role as a leader in scientific discovery and collections are some of the major themes of the centennial celebration, a year-long event at the museum.

"In round figures, 290 million people have been to the building since it opened," said Cristián Samper, a biologist who is the Natural History museum's director; he oversees the largest collection of natural history specimens in the world. "There have been a lot of things done here that help us understand who we are. We continue to build on our collections and grow in strategic areas," Samper added in an interview at his new "green office," in a recently renovated part of the building.

Another major part of the centennial will be a new Web site, coming in May, dedicated to the museum's history. It will have a timeline of the expeditions, collections, research projects, staff scientists, researchers and oral histories dating to the 1970s. Some of the cultural materials collected by explorer Charles Wilkes in an around-the-world expedition in 1838-1842 -- including species of coral and insects -- are still used. Charles D. Walcott, a paleontologist and former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, discovered the Burgess Shale formation in the Canadian Rockies, where fossils proved that there was life in the area more than 550 million years ago, an important 20th-century finding. John James Audubon, a leading ornithologist, collected birds for the museum.

And Samper said the Hope Diamond, whose arrival 50 years ago cemented the museum as a tourist attraction and scientific hub for the study of gems and minerals, will get a new temporary setting during the summer.

Thanks to its rich abundance of materials -- 126 million objects -- and the quality of its staff, the museum has often participated in groundbreaking scientific research that the public rarely sees. Its collections have provided a historical basis for biodiversity work, and the museum offers basic research material such as DNA information for all living organisms. Since at least the 1930s, when the FBI began working with Ales Hrdlicka, a controversial physical anthropologist who promulgated the view that Northeast Europeans had larger brain capacity, the museum became a nationally known center of forensic anthropology.

Environmental work has been a constant at the museum. The staff was involved in the development of the Endangered Species Act, which passed in 1973. In the 1960s, when Rachel Carson was writing "Silent Spring," and more recently, when Patricia Cornwell was turning out her mystery books, the authors consulted the museum's scientists. Now the scientists are collaborating with other researchers in building an online Encyclopedia of Life, a record of 1.9 million known species. "We are taking the Smithsonian to people outside the Smithsonian," Samper said.

Another forensic treasure trove is the museum's collection of birds killed in aircraft strikes, which started in the 1940s and goes all the way up to the Miracle on the Hudson incident of 2009. "When questions come up, we have the specimens," said Pamela M. Henson, director of the museum's institutional history division.

The public will be able to join in the nostalgia. Planned for a late May opening is an exhibition of archival and modern photographs. Another upcoming feature will be a showcase detailing the work of Smithsonian scientists and the military during World War II. Among the offerings: The Smithsonian produced a military survival manual, "Survival on Land and Sea," in 1945 and "A Field Collector's Manual in Natural History" in 1944 with directions on collecting natural history specimens. The museum still uses some of the specimens that World War II servicemen sent.

To connect yesterday and today, the museum next month is placing a series of portable signs throughout the building to show how the museum's mission, scientific work and exhibition design have changed over the years. (There used to be domesticated chickens where the Human Origins Hall will be, for instance.)

Samper says the placards will complement the memory of a typical visitor, who usually makes three trips during his or her lifetime, ending up as a grandparent pointing out the great elephant in the rotunda. "I met a number of people in the halls who said, 'I was here when I was 6,' " said Samper.

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