Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins

Review

of an Exhibition

by Delilah Florentino

Published on March 24, 2012, Modified on April 20, 2012

  • Description:

    I recently visited the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and found myself immersed in the exhibition space. Having taken numerous college courses on human evolution, I am always interested to see the various approaches that natural history and science museums take to the topic. I visited on a Wednesday before lunch in an attempt to beat any crowd that may be in the space. The audience at AMNH is broad, though anyone who has ever tried to visit during a school day will agree that during those hours the museum seems to be comprised solely of school groups. Entering the hall it was immediately clear that this was an exhibition designed for slightly older audiences than many of the others at AMNH. A handful of adults and two high school groups roamed the space, reading wall texts situated too high for younger children and playing games on interactive touch-screens that required content understanding. This is not to say that younger students cannot benefit from exposure to such an exhibition, just that it may not be as appealing to those who do not understand the content. One additional note on the audience, I noticed several design elements that would make this exhibition more accessible to visitors that may have hearing or visual impairments as well as learning disabilities. Most of the videos have subtitles as well as sound and the labels were written in language suitable for the general audience in a medium sized font.

    My first clue as to what the big idea or main message of this particular exhibition is, comes from the piece of wall text I encountered at the entrance to the hall. From this text and my overall experience, I deduce that the goal of this exhibition is to highlight the characteristics of humans that make us like other species and more importantly those that make us distinctly human. This overall message is evident as one walks through the exhibition space and encounters subtopics that support the idea through media, digital interactives, wall text, and the overall design.
    The space is broken up into three rooms or galleries, and large wall text serve as markers. The first room deals primarily with the notions of DNA and fossils and what both can tell us about human origins. Walk left when entering the space and encounter colorful comparisons of the DNA of various primates to that of humans, pointing out how alike and yet different humans are from our closest living ancestors. Walk right and you may choose to partake in the “Join the Hunt” game on a touch-screen in which the player becomes part of a discovery team looking for fossils. A popular exhibit on this side of the room that day was one that had a video and display explaining how faces are reconstructed from fossils, giving visitors a behind the scenes look at how the fossils that are found are transformed into lifelike dioramas. This particular exhibit drew many visitors because of the content but there was an element of confusion that I, as well as others that I observed, experienced regarding the sound heard in this space. The video that visitors watch depicting the reconstruction of faces does not match the sounds heard; rather the voices compliment a video on a perpendicular wall in the same area regarding ancient environments. After experiencing confusion I noticed that the next group that came to that area had the same problem. Better spacing between individual exhibit components might have helped although based on how much information was condensed in that first gallery I understand how this would be a difficult task. The room was filled with information embedded in texts and images making it overwhelming but thorough at communicating the main message.
    The second room in this exhibition is a circular space consisting of dioramas conveying the message that we can trace our ancestors of the human family to between six and seven million years ago. The layout of this gallery is such that visitors view the four dioramas in chronological order viewing millions of years of human history, however not in a straight line. The thought here is that the visitor’s path should be symbolic of the path that human evolution took. Each diorama depicts our ancestors as they might have looked and shed light on the terrain, climate and other animals of their day. This room is reminiscent of old AMNH and the dioramas that exist elsewhere in the museum however the additional element of walking in a path that mimics the non-linear path of our evolution makes the gallery come alive.
    The final room focused on elements of our species that make us different from all others as evident from large wall text asking “What makes us human?” Here, visitors are confronted with five standing exhibits focused on language, music, art, tools and technology, and the human brain, all aspects that contribute to making us a unique species. Double-sided, standing panels have videos, manipulatives and touch screens that allow you to explore each topic on a deeper level. This gallery helped to make the entire exhibition more relevant to me personally by bridging the past and the present through shared attributes that are deeply rooted in our species. Overall I found my experience to be enjoyable and educative, though at times I felt overwhelmed by the amount of information provided.

    After my visit I viewed the museum website to see what resources are available and was pleasantly surprised at the level of detail given. Each topic and subtopic that is explained in the museum can be explored on the site proving to be useful for those wishing to recall a particular exhibit or reflect on their visit. In addition, images accompany descriptions of each of the galleries and give potential visitors a taste for what might be in store should they choose to visit. The website for this hall also provides viewers with resources for those wishing to explore the topic outside of the museum as well as educator tools such as lessons and quizzes. All of these elements combine to make these webpages a useful tool for anyone who wishes to visit or already has.

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