ed. note: Lauren wrote this several months ago, I'm just now getting around to posting it. My fault, not hers
I really wanted to give the new David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History a totally enthusiastic endorsement. After all who wants to say something less than that about the most visited of our national museums (Yes, the Natural History Museum gets more visitors than Air & Space)? On Wednesday, March 17, 2010, I had the good fortune—through my fabulously well paying gig at DCLikeaLocal.com--to be invited to a press preview of the hall before it opened to the general public. Coincidentally it was the 100th anniversary of the original opening of the museum in 1910. The Hall of Human Origins is a permanent exhibit and asks the question “What does it mean to be human?” Meeting some of the scientists who were behind the research and exhibit was a real treat. About the Hall itself, however, I came away with mixed feelings.
I did like the entire presentation of the evolution of humans and the human family tree--and the screen where they will be immediately able to post new developments in the field. This is a very dynamic area of research with so little that is known. The display of what proto humans looked like updated with faces made use of the newest technology. It definitely put flesh on the bones of prehistory. For those of you interested in the anatomy of ancestors in the human family tree, there are plenty of skeletons--including that of the famed "Lucy" from the dig in Kenya--displayed. Some of these skeletons, by the way, are casts of the originals--which are in other museums. This is standard practice, by the way. You will not be disappointed because they really do look like the original. Sometimes originals are just so fragile that no one displays it and all the museums use casts (pretty much the case for dinosaur bones as well).
The temporary donation of the Cromagnon and Neanderthal skulls from the Musee de L’Homme in Paris is wonderful and is a reason to visit the exhibit by itself. Since the skulls will only be in the Hall for 3 months, any of you who can get there should go and see them before they go “home” to Paris. The explanations of the dig at Olorgesailie, Kenya, where many human fossils have been found, is also outstanding. Our knowledge of the descent of man has increased so much in recent years as the fossil record has been slowly unearthed. When Charles Darwin died in 1882 no one knew any of this. His theory On the Origin of Species was just a theory. Now the fossil evidence is constantly being added to. The most astounding thing I learned is that, at one point, humans were down to about 10,000 individuals and could have easily gone extinct because they needed to adapt to--of all things--climate change. The exhibits are beautifully presented and there is plenty of room to walk and many benches--a huge plus for tour guides, who often want to rest tired tootsies when touring with groups. Tour guides go to the museums to actually see things in the off season because they are too busy when escorting kids.
What I did not like is what seems to be the dumbing down of exhibits with computer games, buttons to press—and in the case of the Hall of Human Origins, statues of proto humans put there simply so marauding kids could have photo opportunities. In fact, someone I spoke to from The Smithsonian hoped that they would be used just in that fashion. My take on museums is that they are there to teach—and not to just provide photo ops or entertainment for school groups. The exhibits should speak for themselves; the serious ones do, but there are too many distractions, in my opinion, to focus the kids on the serious exhibits. For example, there are two stations where you stand, a camera takes a photo of your face, and your face morphs into a Neanderthal (and you can email the photo to yourself!). Is this really necessary? This attraction is what all the kids will want to do. They will be busy queueing to morph rather than actually looking at substantive exhibits. Hall monitors will be needed to control the queues when massive groups of kids fill the hall. By the way, if you are going to morph, remember to take your eyeglasses off. A Neanderthal looks pretty pathetic with eyeglasses. (Confession: I did this with glasses, but, no, I didn’t email it to myself. I am ugly enough without being turned into a Neanderthal, thank you.)
Some of the computer stations where you punch buttons to obtain information through short videos had software problems during the preview. As with most of those sorts of computer run displays, they will probably be down half the time because they are incapable of adjusting to what I call button abuse. Maybe short films running in succession without the buttons would have been a better idea, but I certainly do not claim to be an expert in this area; the videos themselves are very interesting and explain what can be learned, for example, from a piece of bone.
At the end of the exhibit there is video game that is bound to attract the kids, but, again, there will be huge queues. The kids could do the same thing online through the website without coming all the way to a museum for that. In my humble opinion, they should come to a museum to see the artifacts and not to do something that they could easily do at home.
So, you can see why I feel ambivalent about the over the top "amusements". To my mind—and I am an adult thinks she has one—museums should be entities that teach and not another push button attraction that provides amusement for children who, it is assumed, will be easily bored if they can’t press buttons and take a zillion silly photos on cell phone camers. I think museums should encourage everyone to think--including the compulsive cell phone photo set. Some children are anxious to learn and would be interested in the exhibits if we could momentarily divert them from things such as morphing photos. I also think that providing a series of things that "kids will love" does not make it right if the museum is thereby abandoning its main function (at least in my book) for the function of entertainment. I do think the Hall of Human Origins has that failing. Maybe I am just getting crotchity, but wish it had left video games and morphing experiences for the amusement parks.
One thing I do not fell ambivalent about is the book "What Does It Mean To Be Human?" ($24.95 and published by National Geographic) which goes with the exhibit. It is excellent and will enhance your visit. No mention of the "amusement side" of the Hall of Human Origins, by the way. I got it at the press screening and, now that I have had a chance to read it, will revisit the Hall with more knowledge. I will steer clear--LOL--of the morphing station.
I will let you all explore the Hall of Human Origins yourself and see if it is successful or is weighted too much toward being a Disney-type attraction. Those are fine in my book—at Disney. I do want to point out that the serious exhibits are truly wonderful. I just worry about people--especially kids--getting so diverted with other things that they do not look at them. The serious exhibits are the "guts" of why the Hall of Human Origins, after all, has been built.
Before you go, be sure to take a look at the webite. There is a lot on it to prepare you for your visit--even preparatory lessons for teachers. Check the website also for times and dates of special prgrams--some of which will feature scientists involved in the research projects; there are special programs for groups that will appeal mainly to local schools who, after all, have the time to spend an entire morning just in the Hall of Human Origins. I found the serious exhibits truly absorbing, but I doubt that the school groups from out of town will see much of them. They will be busy waiting for their turn to morph.
On the other hand, maybe adults should be grateful for the morphing stations. If the kids are there, there will be plenty of space for the adults to look at the exhibits. The exhibit did make me wish I could go on one of those digs to Kenya and dig into human prehistory. Maybe The Smithsonian will have special tours to do that for interested folks. You never know.