by Greg Mayer
The Hall of Human Origins, a new permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History (aka the USNM) opened last March (at which time I got only a peek), and over the summer I finally got a chance to take in the whole exhibit. Like Edward Rothstein of the New York Times, whose review I noted in an earlier post, I have somewhat mixed feelings. There are many excellent displays in the hall, and it does bear “repeated, close viewing” (which is to my mind the highest praise for a museum exhibit), but there are also lost opportunities, slack use of space and objects, and, frankly, abdication of curatorial responsibility.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m a fan of the “cabinet” style in natural history museums. This style emphasizes well-labeled displays rich in the number and diversity of specimens and objects on display. An alternative style, which I’ve taken to calling “interactive”, is characterized by sparse specimens, large fonts, blank space, and interactive displays. Along with the late Steve Gould, I’m less fond of this style. First, some of the good stuff. The hall opens with a number of reproductions of well-known hominid skulls, such as this Paranthropus boisei (one could quibble with some of the taxonomy adopted in the exhibit, but it’s not a major concern of most visitors, and I’ll use what’s in the labels). For complex three-dimensional structures, such as skulls, the ability to walk around, look under, and touch the object greatly enhances the visitor’s grasp of the object, and I applaud taking some of the skulls out of the display cases, and putting them into the hall and the visitor’s hands.
The following two skeletons, nearly complete, of Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, are well-labeled, and, placed side-by side, allow the visitor to compare and contrast their form, while the signage guides the eye to particularly interesting parts, and their interpretation.
The exhibit includes a number of life reconstructions of hominid heads by John Gurche. Any life reconstruction must be a work of art as well as science, and is, of necessity, in part speculative. Gurche is well-known for making his art as informed as possible by science, and the fact that corresponding skulls for most or all of the life reconstructions are in the exhibit allows the visitor to compare the art with the inspiration.
I also liked some large bronzes scattered about, which, like Gurche’s life reconstructions, are both art and science, and, like the skull casts, walk-aroundable. They reminded me of Carl Akeley’s famous bronzes, found at museum such as the Field in Chicago, and the American Musuem in New York.
Paleoanthropological materials (bones, tools, art) are sufficiently rare that even great museums like the USNM must rely on reproductions for most of the display materials. This is a disappointment, but understandable.
But some aspects of the hall, generally those in the more “interactive” style were less successful to my mind. Here is the theme of the hall– “What does it mean to be human?”– which to me seems an ill-formed question, not subject to any clearly comprehensible response. I was tempted to say, “Fortytwo.” Note that the exhibit designers quickly translate the theme to a different, and more answerable, question.
Some early parts of the hall don’t seem to make good use of the space available.
A really lost opportunity is presented by a “cave wall” with fine reproductions of cave art, but little or nothing to guide or inform the visitor as to the import of what is displayed. There is some interpretive signage, but it’s in another case, not closely adjacent. As Edward Tufte has urged, we should integrate our images, words, numbers, and –for museums– objects; keeping all within an eyespan. These are thrilling achievements by among the earliest of human artists, but we are given little to go on in interpreting them, and our appreciation stays at a purely aesthetic level.
The part of the exhibit I found most wanting is the reproduction of a famous cave painting known as “The Sorcerer”, an anthropomorphic figure that combines deer and man. The reproduction is fine.
But the signage (enalrged below) is not fine. The question “What do you see?” reflects a trend in pedagogy and museum display that is thought to be ‘active’, and ‘inquiry’ based. But you can’t make intelligent inquiries into something about which you know nothing. Are those the antlers of a caribou or a red deer? Are the dark markings in the leg similar to the bones or the muscles? And do they look like parts of a deer or of a man? What other paintings, if any, are on this wall? Have any artifacts or bones been found in the cave? What animals lived in the area at the time? Without addressing these and many other questions, your inquiry goes nowhere. You may have an opinion, and it may feel good to have your opinion asked for, but your opinion is worthless– it is an uninformed speculation at best. The curators have abdicated their responsibility to provide the necessary context, and to share with us their informed opinion. They may of course be wrong, and further discoveries or reflection might lead us and them to another interpretation, but this does not excuse them for not letting us know what they think. I do not want to know what the visitor next to me sees, or even what I see; what I want to know is what is seen by the men and women who have studied this painting and its context most thoroughly, and reflected on it most deeply.
There are of course the now requisite interactive displays. (Note the question on the right!) Jerry has been to the exhibit on his current east coast tour, and he will likely have more to say about this aspect when he posts about it.
Overall, I’d give the exhibit a B- ; it does, as Edward Rothstein said, repay close and repeated viewing, but it could have been more.
An odd item I’ll close on are the curious politics of David Koch, chief funder of the exhibit (it’s actually called the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins). As I noted before, he’s a global warming denialist, and, as Frank Rich of the New York Times recently detailed, along with his brother, he’s a major funder of the tea party movement. Since tea partiers tend to be creationists, this is a real head scratcher– what is Koch thinking? The people he’s funding would probably want the USNM shut down. (I did keep an eye out for anything about climate in the exhibit, but noticed nothing untoward.)