Last in our student series is the first to make me jealous. Saskia Lascarez Casanova was a Smithsonian intern this past summer. I’ve been behind the scenes at the Smithsonian twice, and I can attest to what an amazing opportunity this must have been! Saskia reviews her visit to the Human Origins exhibit at the National Museum of Natural Science.
Human Origins: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural Science’s exhibit on the origins and evolution of our ancestors.
This past summer, I was privileged enough to intern at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and with that internship came lots of perks! My favorite one was the unlimited access to museums. We had special “museum day” outings where all Smithsonian interns got to go to select museums around the National Mall before opening to the public and explore the exhibits, along with behind-the-scenes events and access to various lectures. My first museum day was at the National Museum of Natural Science (NMNH), and I quickly realized that just an hour would not be enough time to explore the vast 1.5 million square foot museum.
The most impressive exhibit by far was the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, which holds skull reconstruction of what our ancestors would have looked like, spanning the last six million years, down to the purported height along with incredible detail, making them seem life-like.
The Human Origins Hall opened to the public in March of 2010, marking the museum’s 100th anniversary and inaugurating the intensive work of over 100 researchers from as many as 60 different educational and research organizations around the globe. Having just finished my introduction to anthropology class, this was a great chance to test the knowledge I had just learned and further educate myself on the subject. The 15,000 square foot exhibit begins with Lucy— one of the earliest hominins ever found, and continues on to show the different aspects of life during those times, like the new tools produced, the adaptation to social life, the use of symbols and their meaning, and the different changes that brought about the extinction of the Neanderthals.
Throughout the exhibit, there are various interactive tables and screens, which allow users to further look into certain topics. Archaeological field site information and interactive snapshots let you explore the methods archaeologists used to process their finds, along with a small overview of how the site was found and who was credited with the find. There is also an interactive family tree and a camera, which takes a picture of you and shows you what you would have looked like as a different species. The “One Species Living Worldwide” theater plays a 5-minute video, which tells the story of our adaptation and survival and takes you through the entire history of Homo sapiens.
This exhibit took me an hour alone to explore, and that was one corner of one floor out of three. I visited the NMNH on two other occasions, and spent a total of about 12 hours in the museum walking the three floors and soaking up the different exhibits. If you ever get the opportunity to go to the National Mall, be sure to make the NMNH your first stop as this is the second most popular museum and fills up quickly! Mammal Hall, Butterfly Pavilion, and the Bones exhibits are others worthy of mention, although Butterfly Pavilion is usually sold out up to hours in advance. And you cannot leave without seeing the Hope Diamond along with the entire Geology, Gems, and Minerals section. There is even a section dedicated to Egypt and the mummification process. If you cannot make the trip up to D.C., do not worry! All of the permanent exhibits in the NMNH are accessible online through their virtual tour webpage, but be warned, you will spend hours looking through it all!
For further exploration:
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural Science’s Virtual exhibitions
Human Origins Exhibition information page
Human Origins: One Species, Living Worldwide Video
More information on Lucy