The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins

Review

of an Exhibition

by Evan Cooney

Published on March 21, 2012

  • Description:

    The Hall of Human Origins – Technology and Accessibility

    The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins (HHO) is located in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, DC. It is a sizeable L-shaped exhibition hall, with a vast array of material to cover – several million years worth of hominid evolution. Rather than attempting to beat visitors over the head with vast reams of facts and evidence, the HHO poses two fundamental questions: what is the current state of human evolutionary theory (what do we know), and in what ways does the evidence lead to those conclusions (how do we know it). To help facilitate the conversion of complex scientific theories in to easily-accessible educational content, the museum utilizes technology that is simultaneously basic in nature, and critical to the exhibition.

    The HHO is located between the Sant Ocean Hall and the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, and can be entered from either end without significant affect on the experience. Entering from the Ocean Hall side, the entrance passage is lined in video screens presenting the timeline that is to be examined in the HHO itself, allowing visitors to prepare themselves for the long history of the human species that they are about to encounter. One of the first exhibit stations as one approaches from this direction is a basic interactive of the family tree of modern man. The representation works on multiple levels, as groups of hominids are represented both chronologically as one moves up the tree, and in family clusters along major boughs. It makes clear that multiple species coexisted, and that it is not a linear progression from earliest ancestor to modern humans – some branches died off without successors, while others integrated back together or disappeared under circumstances we do not know. Each of the various species is represented by a reconstructed image that lights up. A small podium has basic questions on it about information that can be learned from the tree image. Pressing the button next to the question will illuminate the images that compose the answer. This extremely simple interface – a light up picture with a few light switches – works for different levels of knowledge, inquiry, and understanding, and provides ample opportunity for family interactions as well as personal interaction.

    Near the family tree, a pair of computers are built in to a wall-mounted station. These computers are well identified as being an FAQ of sorts about human evolution. Multiple layers of touchscreen menus allow users to select categories of inquiry they wish to pursue, and then select from frequently asked questions within that category. The no-doubt thorny issue of religion is not avoided here, but is instead one of the category options users can select if they so choose. Users can also enter questions of their own to ask, which presumably are gathered, and if intriguing enough, or frequently enough asked, may be responded to and added to the FAQ. At the time of my visit, one of the two stations was suffering a touchscreen malfunction and was unfortunately unusable, though on previous occasions this has not been an issue.

    While the cases against the museum’s outer wall are focused largely on the “what do we know?” portion of the HHO’s approach, the opposite side is devoted largely to “how do we know it?” Several large theater-like areas are present, each of which is backed with a video wall that plays clips in response to user input. Input is received from large buttons that match up with objects of interest in front of the screen. In one theater, for example, the focus is on the tool-making site at Olorgesailie. Four archaeological finds are recreated in front of the screen, featuring casts of bones and tools found at the site. Pressing the associated button brings up footage of a Smithsonian curator describing the items, and how evidence that can be gathered from them. A bone at a certain layer in the ground, showing signs of being scraped by stone tools, while elsewhere in that same layer, stone scraping tools are found. These make possible certain conclusions about activities at this location when it was active, hundreds of thousands of years ago. The approach is very straight forward and easy to understand, and is presented in a manner that makes perfect sense, even to a non-specialist. Again, this technology is very simple (press a button, see a video clip) but it allows the visitor to customize their experience, move at their own pace, and gain valuable information in an easily digestible manner.

    The third major interactive technological station in the HHO is a pair of computer games near the Mammals Hall entrance. Both games operate with large touch screens that are easily reachable by young visitors, and pose questions that challenge visitors to think, without being overwhelming in the slightest. The first game is based on the idea of governing a nation in such a way that the human race survives. A series of ten yes/no questions ask the visitor what they would do as ruler of their country, in order to handle certain challenges. Players must balance needs like health and happiness with economics and stability. This game can be played by three people at once (each with their own screen), and will keep track of everybody, so you can see how your results compare to those of others. Next to this is a different game, in which players “evolve” a future human, based on pressures the species may face. The cartoony graphics make it instantly appealing to younger visitors, who enjoy creating humans with hooked hands, elephant-like legs, and other outlandish traits. Though it runs the risk of Lamarckism, it still subtly gets across the point that evolution occurs in response to pressures, and we really cannot tell now what the future will hold for humanity.

    Other technology is present in the HHO, and follows the same general principles as that discussed above. It is generally simple, functional, and contributes to the experience. The hall is well-designed and enjoyable for visitors of all ages and intellects, and the use of simple technology goes a long way towards the goal of making a complex biological system easily understandable to all. The Hall of Human Origins is on the first floor of the museum, and is a permanent exhibition. The museum is open every day year-round except December 25th, from 10:00am until either 4:00 or 6:00pm, depending on the season.

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