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Touring the Hall of Human Origins: A Visitor’s Impressions

By Guven Witteveen

On March 17 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History unveiled the newest addition to their permanent exhibits: the Hall of Human Origins. Since this museum counts 7 million visitors a year (second only to the Louvre in 2009), we can expect lots of people from the US and abroad to weave their way through the innovative displays. I enjoyed my own recent visit to the exhibit, which yielded the below photos. This first panorama displays a timeline, where a giant arrow illuminated with an Earth view points to a simulation game in which players struggle with the many factors that imperil the continuation of human life.

One of the first scenes in the unfolding story of human origins conveyed in both the exhibit and the Smithsonian’s larger Human Origins Initiative is the family tree metaphor depicted on the wall in this second panorama view. Presenting lifesize models for each of the major players in the cast of characters in this way encourages visitors’ interactions with these shadows of long-ago generations.

In my rapid photo pass-through and conversations I had with one of the educational designers, I found the exhibit to be engaging (with 3-4 minute video vignettes and interactive elements), authentic (with numerous priceless pieces on loan from museums around the world, in addition to models and descriptive materials), and thought-provoking. Even though gallery walking is slower-paced than the TV and web communication modes that young visitors may be accustomed to, this exhibit succeeds in its mission of giving visitors insight into and familiarity with our understanding of human origins today.

Guven Witteveen (anthroview [AT] gmail.com) is chair of the AAA Anthropology Education Committee

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