Mar
01

From the Secretary: Celebrate a century of Smithsonian history and millions of years of human evolution

The National Museum of Natural History under construction in 1909.

The National Museum of Natural History under construction in 1909.

One hundred years ago, on March 17, 1910, the green-domed National Museum of Natural History— the largest museum ever built on the National Mall—opened its doors to the public. Today MNH is the world’s most visited natural history museum with 7.5 million annual visitors and 30 million more online. Within the building, whose square footage is equal to 18 football fields, staff care for the world’s largest natural history collection: 126 million specimens, including 30 million insects, 4.5 million plants, 7 million fish and 2 million artifacts, drawings and photographs. Far from resting on its historic laurels, the museum enters its second century in an exciting era. Web sites such as the new Ocean Portal and ambitious initiatives such as the Encyclopedia of Life, the Global Genome Project, and Deep Time are reaching new audiences and making the museum an increasingly important resource for our nation’s teachers and learners.

Exhibit of Atlas lions from the Teddy Roosevelt African Expedition of 1909 on display in the Natural History Building, United States National Museum, shortly after the museum opened in 1911.

Exhibit of Atlas lions from the Teddy Roosevelt African Expedition of 1909 on display in the Natural History Building, United States National Museum, shortly after the museum opened in 1911.

On March 17, MNH will highlight its yearlong celebration of its centenary by opening the $20.7 million David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. Years in the making, this exhibition is based on important new discoveries.  It recounts the epic story of how a single human species emerged over time and spread worldwide. Visitors may be surprised to learn that during most of this journey, two or more species of early humans existed simultaneously. After several million years, only one lineage survived and led to…us!

The Hall of Human Origins is part of the museum’s larger Human Origins Initiative. The exhibition’s lead curator, Rick Potts, holds a newly endowed Peter Buck Chair in human origins.  Rick is one of the world’s leading paleoanthropologists and has developed the understanding of human origins the hard way, by working in the field in remote locations around the world.  This exhibition is the culmination of his life’s work and that of his team.

A recreation of this 30,000 year-old handprint, found in France’s Chauvet Cave, represents one of the earliest expressions of human creativity. (By Donald Hurlburt and James DiLoreto)

A recreation of this 30,000 year-old handprint, found in France’s Chauvet Cave, represents one of the earliest expressions of human creativity. (By Donald Hurlburt and James DiLoreto)

The exhibition illuminates how successive cycles of environmental and climatic change affected the evolution of the human species over the past 6 million years. A time tunnel introduces us to earlier human species. Visitors will be able to look into the eyes of distant ancestors in forensically reconstructed models. A human family tree, more than 75 skull reproductions and virtual tours of research sites illustrate our ancestors’ increasing brain size, technological expertise and artistic creativity.

The 15,000-square-foot hall asks a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The exhibition details humanity’s defining characteristics—physical, intellectual, aesthetic, and social. As Rick explains, the exhibition explores “how those traits emerged during one of earth’s most dramatic eras of environmental change.”

The 3.2-million-year-old skeleton of Lucy shows her species, Australopithecus afarensis, walked upright but also was still accustomed to climbing trees. (Photo by Chip Clark)

The 3.2-million-year-old skeleton of Lucy shows her species, Australopithecus afarensis, walked upright but also was still accustomed to climbing trees. (Photo by Chip Clark)

We understand that the concept of human origins can be sensitive and, in some cases, touching on people’s closely held beliefs. Potts and the museum have approached these issues thoughtfully, assembling an advisory committee with members offering a range of perspectives that will sponsor events and support dialogue about science and religion. The committee is co-chaired by Connie Bertka, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and a lecturer in contemporary issues in science and religion, and Jim Miller, an official with the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith.

Virtually every human society shares a fascination with humanity’s deep past. As one of the nation’s major scientific and cultural institutions, the Smithsonian understands its responsibility to share with the public the findings of science regarding how evolution has shaped all living things, and how our species has changed through time. A reading of Smithsonian history shows a remarkable consistency in how the Institution has sought to help increase the public understanding of science, including the scientific theory of evolution.

I encourage you to visit this fascinating exploration of the past we all share. A Web site, educational and public programs, and a companion volume, What Does it Mean to be Human, complement the permanent exhibition.


Posted: 1 March 2010
About the Author:

Wayne Clough is the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Since beginning his tenure in July 2008, Secretary Clough has overseen several major openings at the Smithsonian, including the Sant Ocean Hall at the Museum of Natural History and the reopening of the American History Museum. He has initiated long-range planning for the Institution that will define the Smithsonian’s focus for the future. More about Secretary Clough…