Spitzer Hall of Human Origins - “History of Human Evolution”


of an Exhibition

by kavak nimer

Published on January 30, 2013

  • Description:

    Evolutionary Theory in the Museum
    Natural history museums are the principal repositories of the collections that represent much of the objective evidence for evolution. With approximately 50 million visitors annually, United States natural history museums can significantly influence the public’s understanding of evolution.
    This report is based on my study of the New York City’s American Museum of Natural History’s “History of Human Evolution” exhibition located on the first floor in the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins.
    The appraisal begins with a brief description of the exhibition “History of Human Evolution,” followed by a short analysis of the target audience. Next, I assess the exhibition in terms of its signage, exhibit displays, interactive activities, and overall design. Then, I examine how well the exhibition fits into the museum’s exhibition history. Finally, I list recommendations and achievements of the “History of Human Evolution.”
    The American Museum of Natural History’s exhibition, “Human Origins” opened February 10, 2007 and is on permanent display on the first floor of the museum.
    “Human Origins” is split into three sections; the first room, “DNA and Fossils” introduces how scientists use DNA molecules and how paleontologists use fossils to study evolution. The second room is the Kempner Gallery’s “History of Human Evolution,” the focus of this report. It displays reconstructed fossils with text panels describing scientific deductions made from those fossils. Including four life-size dioramas portraying scenes in the lives of our human predecessors. There are over 200 casts of prehumen, human fossils and artifacts to illustrate physical and behavioral evolutionary phases. The third room, “What Makes Us Human?” Uses colorful panels, videos and pictures to describe how creativity is a human characteristic that differentiates us from other animals.
    Comparing the American Museum of Natural History’s “History of Human Evolution,” with a similar exhibition, San Diego Museum of Man’s “Hominid Hall” will help pinpoint which presentation style is best suited for the topic of human evolution.
    “History of Human Evolution” fuses paleontology and genetics, two sciences that have made their own evolutionary advances. Each discipline provides evidence to support one another in establishing a genealogy extending back to archaic species that developed in Africa some six to seven million years ago. Ellen V. Futter, the museum’s president, said the “mutually reinforcing evidence” was organized in the exhibition to address three fundamental questions: Where did we come from? Who are we? And what lies ahead for us?
    Essentially, “History of Human Evolution’s” narrative draws connections between humans and other species and defines what it means to be human. This narrative manifests itself in the signage, displays, interactive activities, and overall design.
    Similarly, the San Diego Museum of Man’s “Hominid Hall” presents the concept of human evolution with molecular science and paleontology as well. It displays fossil discoveries from around the world to educate people about the evolution of their human ancestors’ brains, bodies, and behaviors.
    Analyzing each exhibition’s writing style is an indicator of the intended audience. For instance, the “Hominid Hall’s” labels are geared toward elementary school children because most of the labels are shorter in height and in length of text. Moreover, the writing style and font are simpler than that of the “History of Human Evolution.”
    In comparison, “History of Human Evolution” is designed for adult audiences because most of the wall labels are situated too high for younger children to read. For example, the six fully reconstructed skeletal fossils are in glass vitrines with labels at least five feet and eight inches high (Figure 1). Also, the labels have more complicated language and showier font than the “Hominid Hall,” and are more suitable for older audiences than children.
    The “History of Human Evolution’s” writing style is written for general audiences. There is abundant information the exhibition could present, however, they smartly limit labels to a few paragraphs that allows for a quick read. Moreover, the well-lite panels underneath the dioramas use simple language to explain scientific findings (Figure 2). This is especially helpful because I saw everyone at the exhibition was intrigued by the dioramas (Figure 3).
    Even with the abundant amount of information, curators use a presentation template throughout the rotunda for easy learning. “History of Human Evolution” fuses two different sciences to reinforce each other, which can become complicated and overwhelming. By fitting all the information in a specific format it allows a reader to become familiar with a style and feel comfortable when approaching new material. For instance, the two panels facing each other from across the room include the following format: an all capitalized bold header that names a type of humanoid, followed by a short descriptive paragraph, then a map and photograph to the right and a smaller description to the left (Figure 4). The exhibit uses a simple template for the four types of placards used in the exhibit.
    Similarly, the “Hominid Hall” uses a signage pattern throughout the exhibit. Specifically, curators use circular panels called TimeStones as a time period bench marker (Figure 5). The circular label is the same shape and scattered throughout the exhibition. Similar to the ”History of Human Evolution,” uses repetition in the signage formats to make moving through the gallery predictable, and therefore generally more comfortable for visitors.
    With regard to the text itself, the “History of Human Evolution” includes text that extract meaningful connections between visitors and the artifacts on display. For example, many of the diorama’s panels use photos of modern day individuals to compare how some traits from prehistoric times carried over to today (Figure 6). It requires the diorama to be relevant to the real world.
    Language also reinforces the narrative of humans being connected to the fossils and to one another. All the panels use phrases such as “When and where did our species…” and “Scientists are confident that we emerged in Africa…” Word choice guides visitors to think about the exhibit’s narrative, which is to acknowledge fellow humans in the exhibit and beyond (Figure 7). This phrasing pattern is repeated throughout the exhibit and functions to reinforce the exhibit’s narrative.
    Like the wall text pattern, there is a rhythm to the exhibit display. The rotunda is symmetrical, with four glass dioramas and six skeletal models facing each other from across the room. Thus, visitors engage with a specific template in the wall text they read and with the displays they view (Figure 8).
    Also, the “History of Human Evolution” engage visitors with visually compelling displays. The four glassed dioramas are especially intriguing because the models are so lifelike, “realism stamped by the presence of pesky flies on their shoulders” wrote one New York Times critic. Even if the wall text is geared toward adults, people of all ages crowd around the dioramas. Initial attraction to the displays entices them to pay closer attention to material.
    Unlike the “History of Human Evolution,” the “Hominid Hall” has many glassless dioramas, which envelops the visitor in an experience rather than presents them with artifacts (Figure 9). This technique is best suited to engage younger audiences because it is allows them to not only read, but touch and see.
    Exposing the models in the “Hominid Hall” requires strong lighting, which illuminates the space for visitors with visual impairments. This is in stark contrast with the “History of Human Evolution’s” dimly lit space that has lights pouring out from underneath the panels.
    Interactive pieces in the “History of Human Evolution” exhibition invites visitors of all ages to interact with the material. Most notably is the center section of the exhibition with the Telltale Tracks panel, which features the Laetoli footprints. Positioned under Plexiglas, curators recreated the fossilized hominid footprints so visitors can compare their own feet with it (Figure 10). On the other side of the interactive model is a small diorama of two Australopithecus Figures, models of what the hominids that left the footprints must have looked like. This allows visitors to compare their own physique next to the couple (Figure 11). This is an effective technique to engage visitors because all they need is their imagination.
    The interactive activity successfully articulates the exhibition’s narrative of having visitors understand the similarities they have with prehistoric ancestors and with fellow humans. More importantly, the simple diorama is positioned for any visitor to easily interact with it. The Laetoli footprints display does not require strenuous activity for either an older adult or a child to do to use it. This approach is much more successful that than the “Hominid Hall’s” interactive displays.
    One interactive display in the “Hominid Hall” is a single-file line of model hominids from primate to Homo sapiens as a visual rendering of an old evolutionary concept (Figure 12). The accompanying text asks, “What’s wrong with this line-up?…We now know that the hominid family was more diverse and our evolution was more complex.” Here, the text does not support the display, rather it points out what is wrong with it. This can be confusing because it lacks a reinforcing mechanism that is used in the “History of Human Evolution.”
    The overall design reinforces the “History of Human Evolution” exhibition’s narrative. Visitors must make their way through the gallery in chronological order, but not following a straight line. The path is arranged in chronological order as indicated on the map (Figure 13). Twists and turns of the trail mimic how human evolution did not follow a straight line either.
    The exhibition also provides visitors different formats to understand the material. Its use of fossil and molecular evidence collectively reinforces one another to construct the narrative of human evolution. “History of Human Evolution” employs scientific theory to construct an argument that can withstand criticism.
    A competing concept of Evolution in America is Creationism, a religious belief in humanity, life, the Earth, and the universe are the creation of a supernatural being, most often referred to the Abrahamic God. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky allows visitors to “Experience the Bible and history in a completely unique way—walk through the pages of God’s Word and encounter creation, corruption, catastrophe, Christ, the Cross, and consummation through a number of engaging exhibits.” The Creation Museum verifies its claims with Bible scholars, a seemingly less reliable source than hard evidence as molecular science and fossils. This approach is unlike the “History of Human Evolution.” At the American Museum of Natural History, they carefully arrange scientific evidence to create a more credible exhibit that can withstand scrutiny. “History of Human Evolution” presents its artifacts and continually contextualizes the objects on display to make its scientific biases visible to visitors.
    In 1921 the American Museum of Natural History erected the “Hall of the Age of Man,” it was the only major exhibition in the United States to present an in-depth investigation of human evolution. The displays traced the story of Homo sapiens, which illuminated the path of human evolution and examined the origins of human creativity. Then in 1993, “The Hall of Human Biology and Evolution” opened. The exhibition began with human biology and transitioned to human evolution, then to fossil records and other evidences of early humans. It ranged from the molecular and genetic level to the emergence of human beings, and included archeological excavations and findings, reconstruction and discussion of humanoids, early human evolution, and human diversity. That exhibition closed in September 2005 to make way for its more up-to-date replacement, Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, which opened on February 10, 2007.
    Early into the American Museum of Natural History’s existence, it dedicated a space to human evolution. This fits in perfectly to the museum’s mission statement “To discover, interpret, and disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.” Exploring evolution is part of ever organism’s natural world.
    Any public presentation of human evolution is a controversial topic. Museum staff, however, took the proper precautions before fully realizing the current “Human Origins.” As a test case, the Museum mounted “Darwin” from November 19, 2005 – August 20, 2006. It explored the life and discoveries of naturalist Charles Darwin, whose observations in the 19th century forever changed the modern biological science. It was very popular and incited “very little negative response” explained museum’s senior vice president, Michael J. Novacek. The good reviews boosted the Museum’s confidence to create the permanent Spitzer Hall of Human Origins.
    Also, the “Human Origins” curators acknowledge that many people in the United States are skeptical and vocally oppose the concept. In a corner of the exhibition, a video plays several scientists professing the compatibility of their evolution research with their religious beliefs. The video highlights the human capacity to combine creative expression and science to explain where we came from, drawn from myth, religion and pre-Darwin science. Presenting this also underlines the exhibition’s theme to connect humans through science and now creativity.
    Considering all the changes “Human Origins” has undergone, past collections may have been reused, or at least, inspired the modern day exhibit. Moreover, a majority of the items on display are reconstructions from fossil and other evidence of what these ancestors probably looked like. Museum scientists and technicians have recreated the faces and bodies of the famous Lucy skeleton and Neanderthals (Figure 14). Although these may be new to the collection, they recharge the space and concept of evolution, which is worth the costs.
    As noted on the online educational materials the “History of Human Evolution” compliments many of the other Halls in the Natural History Museum, which broadens the study of evolution and characteristic of humans and other organisms.
    First, the Hall of Biodiversity on the first floor has a colorful display of the spectrum of life, reveals the variety of Earth’s living things. It includes more than 1,500 organisms and organized by similar characteristic. Here, visitors can broaden their concept of evolution from humans to fellow organisms on Earth.
    Second, located on the first floor, the David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth provide an overview of geology, a foundational study for paleontology. Specifically, the “How the Earth Evolved” section explains how fossils have been used to understand Earth’s past. Then the “How Do We Read the Rocks” segment describes how rocks are analyzed to determine the age of the fossils found inside them.
    Third, on the second floor is the Hall of African Peoples, the continent that is continually mentioned in the “History of Human Evolution” as being the continent from which all anatomically modern Homo sapiens first arose. Therefore, the Hall of African Peoples provides a platform to reflect on the longest-human-inhabited continent in the world.
    Fourth, the second floor houses the Hall of Asian Peoples Fossils and artifacts found across Asia and Europe chronicle a history of early humans, from Peking Man (Homo erectus) to the development of early human settlements. There is also a grave of a Neanderthal boy.
    Fifth, located on the third floor is the Hall of Primates which provides visitors a compare and contrast with other primates. Specifically, the following cases in the Hall of Primates compliment the Kempner Gallery:
    • The siamang display case, which shows the strength and flexibility of the primate shoulder.
    • Illustrations of how the primate skull, senses, and reproduction have changed over time.
    • Skeletons of a young and adult human and chimpanzee (Homo sapiens section).
    Sixth, the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of Mammals and Their Extinct Relatives wing
    shows the diverse lineage that gave rise to humans. The specimens are displayed according to evolutionary relationships, not chronology. The following displays are especially relevant to the “History of Human Evolution”:
    • A skull of Proconsul, an extinct primate similar to the common ancestor of humans and apes (Insectivorans, Archontans, and Glires section).
    • The nonlinear evolution of the horse.
    • Skeletons of mastodons, cave bears, saber-toothed cats, and other mammals that lived concurrently with Ice Age humans.
    I encourage the museum to take initiative and increase lighting for the dioramas in the “History of Human Evolution” for visually impaired visitors. The entire exhibition is dimly lit with lighting from behind the labels and glass vitrines. I speculate that visitors with vision issues feel some dioramas are too dark and put a strain on their eyes. Facilities management team, exhibition team, and/or visitor’s services team can coordinate this effort. It is a minor improvement that can make the ergonomic feel of the space more comfortable for visitors. Increasing the lighting inside the dioramas will require a few sets of lights and will put little strain on the financial budget.
    The strength of the “History of Human Evolution” exhibition is its meaningful grand narrative, connecting diorama displays to visitors. It can, however, improve on engaging children more by having some of their online education material made available to visitors on site.
    For instance, the American Museum of Natural History can print reusable handouts and make them available at the entrance of the exhibit. This will benefit a visitor who is not part of a school group or who does not depend on online access. Natural History museums typically have children that are nine years old, thus the Museum’s Hall of Human Origins: Exhibition Activity Sheets for Students Grades K-4 can help parents engage their children with the exhibit (Figure Activities K-4).
    As noted in this piece, the exhibit displays are visually compelling and hold people’s attention to further investigate the topic (Serrell 2006, 41). Moreover, the overall design of the exhibition continually reinforces the narrative that human evolution is a shared history we ought to acknowledge (Serrell 2006, 41). Another strong point of the “History of Human Evolution” is how it uses its text, photographs, and labels to make the experience more meaningful to visitors because it connects them with what is behind the glass (Serrell 2006, 41). Compared with the “Hominid Hall,” its text, photographs, and labels rely on evidence to construct a narrative about the diorama and keep it there. This detachment was also a criticism on the American History Museum of Natural History’s 1993 “Hall of Human Biology and Evolution.” Therefore, the “History of Human Evolution” gallery has also evolved since its antecedent exhibit, and has done so for the better.

    MacFadden, Bruce J, Betty A Dunckel, Shari Ellis, Lynn D Dierking, Linda Abraham-Silver, Jim Kisiel, and Judy Koke. “Natural History Museum Visitors’ Understanding of Evolution.” BioScience 57.10 (2007): 875-883. EBESCO. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.
    “History of Human Evolution” (2012), American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.
    Wilford, John Noble. “Hall of Human Origins – Exhibition – Review – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. New York Times, 9 Feb. 2007. Web. 1 Nov. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/09/arts/design/09orig.html?r=2&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1353242100-Pm1ZzHdFWbf95zD/ppyw9Q>.
    According to the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins introductory wall text, they “Present scientific evidence, from fossils to genes, pertaining to the origin and evolution of the human species – the characteristics that are shared by all other forms of life, and more specifically, those characteristics that make us distinctively human.”
    officially opened to the public on February 9, 2002. Sdma
    Wilford, John Noble. “Hall of Human Origins – Exhibition – Review – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. New York Times, 9 Feb. 2007. Web. 1 Nov. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/09/arts/design/09orig.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1353242100-Pm1ZzHdFWbf95zD/ppyw9Q>.
    Eugenie C. Scott (with forward by Niles Eldredge) (2004). Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction. Berkley & Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. p. 114.
    “What’s Here | Creation Museum.” Creation Museum – Creation, Evolution, Science, Dinosaurs, Family, Christian Worldview | Creation Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://creationmuseum.org/whats-here/>.
    One exhibit at Kentucky’s Cration Museum is the Verbum Domini (“The Word of the Lord”) is made up of more than two dozen rare Bible manuscripts and artifacts from the famed Green Collection. This exhibit highlights the efforts of brave Bible scholars some of whom lost their lives in the often dangerous work of Bible translation and celebrates God’s Word throughout the ages.
    It was supported by a gift from the Spitzers, the parents of Ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York. Katheryn C. and Thomas L. Kempner pledged $1 million to name the Kempner Gallery of Human Evolution within the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins.
    Wilford, John Noble. “Hall of Human Origins – Exhibition – Review – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. New York Times, 9 Feb. 2007. Web. 1 Nov. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/09/arts/design/09orig.html?
    “For Educators.” American Museum of Natural History. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2012. <http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/human-origins-and-cultural-halls/anne-and-bernard-spitzer-hall-of-human-origins/promos/for-educators/%28offset%29/10>.
    According to the American Museum of Natural History’s 2011 Report, visits by school groups have since resumed and the Museum is once again a leading field trip destination, welcoming more than 400,000 students in organized groups each year.
    The museum also has many educational initiatives such as operating science-rich after-school programs in elementary schools in the South Bronx, developing materials and training to enable community groups and other organizations to offer hands-on after- school science activities.
    In 2007 MacFadden, et.al. researchers found that the knowledge of key evolutionary concepts exhibited by high-school students and adults who visited natural history museums. Ninety-five percent of the study participants understood relative geological time (superposition), but only 30 percent explained biological change (microevolution) in terms of natural selection, and 11 percent explicitly rejected evolution. In general, museum visitors have an incomplete understanding of evolutionary concepts. For example, while participants have a good understanding that fossils represent evidence for evolution, they have a poor understanding of the mechanisms of evolution. Natural history museums can foster visitors’ understanding of evolution by integrating this content—particularly concepts that are difficult to understand—throughout all relevant exhibits and public programs.
    Zittel, Andrea. “RSS The Hall of Human Biology and Evolution .” Frieze Sep. – Oct. 1993: n. pag. Frieze Publications. Web. 9 Nov. 2012.

    “For Educators.” American Museum of Natural History. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2012.

    MacFadden, Bruce J, Betty A Dunckel, Shari Ellis, Lynn D Dierking, Linda Abraham-Silver, Jim Kisiel,
    and Judy Koke. “Natural History Museum Visitors’ Understanding of Evolution.” BioScience
    57.10 (2007): 875-883. EBESCO. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.

    “What’s Here | Creation Museum.” Creation Museum – Creation, Evolution, Science, Dinosaurs, Family,
    Christian Worldview | Creation Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

    Wilford, John Noble. “Hall of Human Origins – Exhibition – Review – New York Times.” The New York
    Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. New York Times, 9 Feb. 2007. Web. 1 Nov.

    Zittel, Andrea. “RSS The Hall of Human Biology and Evolution .” Frieze Sep. – Oct. 1993: n. pag. Frieze
    Publications. Web. 9 Nov. 2012.

Log in to post a response.