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

The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History honors its 100 years on the National Mall with a new exhibit space devoted to human evolution.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

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.

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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.

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Exhibit highlights

How to make the most of your visit

What about creationism?

Discussion with museum curator Richard Potts



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