The Museum’s Hall of Human Origins turned five on March 17! The human ancestors depicted in bronze statues throughout the hall were dressed to celebrate, with party hats and balloons. Visitors joined the celebration, wearing birthday buttons highlighting their favorite ancestors and taking selfies with lifelike head reconstructions of ancient humans.
The party also kicked off an exciting new phase for the Museum’s Human Origins Program. Starting today, a new traveling exhibition called “Exploring Human Origins: What Does It Mean to be Human?” will hit the road on a 19-city tour, planned in partnership with the American Library Association. At each stop, a 1,200-square-foot exhibition—including 40 panels, interpretive kiosks, skull casts, and more—will be installed in public libraries for a four-week stay. The exhibit tour will last through April 2017.
“By asking the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and taking it across the country, we are trying to open an avenue by which people can make contact with science,” said Dr. Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist and the director of the Human Origins Program.
Each stop on the exhibition tour will include public gatherings featuring conversations with scientists, civic leaders, and faith leaders about the different ways that people, cultures, and faith traditions interpret what being human means.
The 1,200-square-foot new traveling exhibition includes 3-D skull casts representing groundbreaking research in the scientific study of human origins. Credit: Smithsonian's Human Origins Program.
Dr. Briana Pobiner, a scientist and educator in the Human Origins Program, said that although evolution can be a tough topic for some people to discuss, she’s been thrilled that nearly all her interactions with visitors on the topic have been respectful and productive.
Discoveries and research are constantly improving and deepening our understanding of human evolution. A fossil jaw recently discovered in Ethiopia, for example, is the oldest ever found in the genus Homo—the group that includes modern humans. Scientists dated it at between 2.75 and 2.8 million years old, or about 400,000 years older than any previously discovered fossils.
And a project to map the Neanderthal genome was first reported in May 2010 (just two months after the Hall of Human Origins opened!). Changes like these will eventually affect the content visitors see in the exhibition—via new dates on timelines, for example, or updates to certain panels. For now, an electronic screen in one part of the exhibition provides timely updates of new findings.
Part of the beauty of the exhibition is that it’s arranged by human milestones: things like using tools and fire, living in social groups, and communicating with symbols. Even as new research provides more information about the specifics, the general organization of the hall will stand the test of time—starting with five more birthdays.
By Laura Donnelly-Smith, writer/editor, NMNH Exhibits Department