Smithsonian's Hall of Human Origins tour

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

Four years in the making and built at a cost of $20.7 million, the Hall of Human Origins is part of a broader Smithsonian project called "The Human Origins Initiative." There's a wealth of information packed into a relatively small space. Navigating it will probably take most visitors between 30 minutes and two hours, depending on level of interest. Here's how to make the most of your visit.

Passing through

Head straight for the "Meet Your Ancestors" area. The hall is shaped like an L, and it's where the two wings come together. Access is via either of two entrances: the first, just off the Ocean Hall; the other, through the Hall of Mammals. There, you'll find artist John Gurche's hyperrealistic facial reconstructions of several of our earliest cousins. Trust me, you don't want to miss them. The same corner is home to a massive display wall of cast fossil skulls, along with what curator Rick Potts calls the exhibition's "Hope Diamonds." In a rotating, high-security area that will be devoted to some of the world's most priceless artifacts, you'll find the only Neanderthal skeleton in the United States, along with the original Cro-Magnon skull, discovered in 1868 in a French cave of the same name. But act fast. That Cro-Magnon skull is on loan from the Musee de l'Homme in France and will return home, along with a nearby Neanderthal noggin, after three months. [Tip: Don't pronounce the "g" in "Magnon." Say it like "filet mignon." Impress -- or merely annoy -- your friends.]

On your lunch hour

Potts calls the "spine" of the exhibition a series of display cases that fall under the category of "Evolutionary Milestones." In them, you'll learn answers to the exhibition's central question: "What makes us human?" (bigger brains, walking upright, speech, social networks, etc.). For fun, check out the morphing station, where you can have a picture of your face taken and then digitally transformed into an early-human version of yourself. You can even e-mail it to yourself for free. Then stop in at one of the three interactive "Snapshot in Time" booths, each of which uses fossil evidence, video and animation to tell a story about a day in the life of early man. [Tip: The plot of the "Snapshot" nearest the Ocean Hall is kind of grisly and involves a guy who gets eaten by a leopard. "Remember," says Potts, "we were not always at the top of the food chain."]

Nothing but time

Watch the five-minute film "One Species, Living Worldwide." Play one of two computer games. (The challenge? Keep the human race from becoming extinct. Another offers a sort of virtual Mr. Potato Head, in which you can speed up the evolutionary process by creating a human being of the future with, say, webbed feet, or stilt-like legs.) Visit the mock-up of a cave, with replicas of early human artworks. Don't miss the series of dramatic, life-size bronze sculptures installed throughout the hall. One features a terrified-looking Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the "Hobbit" for her tiny stature. In another, Homo heidelbergensis offers visitors a piece of antelope thigh for dinner. [Tip: You're encouraged to touch them, climb on them, even embrace them. It's all meant to break down the traditional barriers between visitors and the sometimes dry scientific material. "How can you break it down more than by hugging one of your relatives?" says Potts.]


On permanent view at the National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission: Free.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company