Smithsonian's Natural History Museum opens its Hall of Human Origins

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; WE21

Every fossil tells a story.

That's a central premise of the National Museum of Natural History's newest permanent exhibition, a gallery devoted to telling the story of human evolution. Walking through the David H. Koch (pronounced "coke") Hall of Human Origins, a 15,000-square-foot exhibition space that opened this week on the museum's first floor, it's hard not to feel the sense of, well, drama. This is a story replete with mystery, wonder, bloody violence and, yes, even a little tenderness. (It contains evidence of the earliest human burials.) Like a movie, it even comes with its own soundtrack: a recording of eerie music composed by a contemporary musician for a reconstructed, 35,000-year-old flute.

There's also a cast of characters to guide you through the tale.

You'll meet them for the first time at the show's main entrance, a curving, futuristic archway known as the Time Tunnel, which is designed to pull you out of the modern world and put you through a kind of metaphorical regression. The faces of these characters stare out from the wall: Homo floresiensis, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus; Paranthropus boisei, Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus afarensis. You may not recognize the names, but you're meant to look deep into their eyes and to feel a kind of personal connection.

You'll see them throughout the hall. Not just in the bones and other artifacts on view -- nearly 300 objects in all, including more than 75 skulls -- but in a series of lifelike latex heads created for the museum by sculptor John Gurche, using state-of-the-art forensic reconstruction. Called "Meet Your Ancestors," it's meant to knock your socks off, and it probably will.

"We thought a lot about the emotion of the story," says curator Rick Potts, who alternately compares the exhibition's story arc to a Shakespearean play and an episode of "C.S.I." Several displays concern what Potts calls the "survival challenges" that our ancestors faced and that we continue to face: a Homo habilis bone revealing a crocodile bite; a broken rib belonging to a Neanderthal, showing signs that it was injured by a man-made weapon.

There are really two parallel narratives here, each of which Potts defines with a question. The first has to do with science: "What does it mean to be human?" Our complex brains, the acquisition of language, tool use and the ability to walk upright are just some of the evolutionary milestones -- those defining characteristics that make us who we are -- that the show discusses.

The second is more philosophical: "Why does it matter?" For at the heart of this story is the reminder that we are, as Potts says, "the last remaining species of a once-diverse family tree." As you stand face to face with Gurche's heads -- which are mounted, in one of the hall's most shiver-y touches, at the height each species stood -- you might just feel like the last Man standing.

And that's the whole point. We shouldn't just look backward, but forward. Yes, we are wondrous creatures. ("What a piece of work is a man," and all that, as Shakespeare wrote.) But if the exhibition reminds us of anything about ourselves, it's that life -- and our place on this earth -- is fragile.

To read more, click the links here or in the This Story box, above.

Exhibit highlights

How to make the most of your visit

What about creationism?

Discussion with museum curator Richard Potts

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