The Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History

October 5, 2010 • 9:53 pm

by Greg Mayer

The Hall of Human Origins, a new permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History (aka the USNM) opened last March (at which time I got only a peek), and over the summer I finally got a chance to take in the whole exhibit. Like Edward Rothstein of the New York Times, whose review I noted in an earlier post, I have somewhat mixed feelings. There are many excellent displays in the hall, and it does bear “repeated, close viewing” (which is to my mind the highest praise for a museum exhibit), but there are also lost opportunities, slack use of space and objects, and, frankly, abdication of curatorial responsibility.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m a fan of the “cabinet” style in natural history museums. This style emphasizes well-labeled displays rich in the number and diversity of specimens and objects on display. An alternative style, which I’ve taken to calling “interactive”, is characterized by sparse specimens, large fonts, blank space, and interactive displays. Along with the late Steve Gould, I’m less fond of this style. First, some of the good stuff. The hall opens with a number of reproductions of well-known hominid skulls, such as this Paranthropus boisei (one could quibble with some of the taxonomy adopted in the exhibit, but it’s not a major concern of most visitors, and I’ll use what’s in the labels). For complex three-dimensional structures, such as skulls, the ability to walk around, look under, and touch the object greatly enhances the visitor’s grasp of the object, and I applaud taking some of the skulls out of the display cases, and putting them into the hall and the visitor’s hands.

Paranthropus boisei, KNM-ER 406

The following two skeletons, nearly complete, of Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, are well-labeled, and, placed side-by side, allow the visitor to compare and contrast their form, while the signage guides the eye to particularly interesting parts, and their interpretation.

Homo erectus (left) and Homo neanderthalensis

The exhibit includes a number of life reconstructions of hominid heads by John Gurche. Any life reconstruction must be a work of art as well as science, and is, of necessity, in part speculative. Gurche is well-known for making his art as informed as possible by science, and the fact that corresponding skulls for most or all of the life reconstructions are in the exhibit allows the visitor to compare the art with the inspiration.

Paranthropus boisei (skull pictured in first photo in post)

I also liked some large bronzes scattered about, which, like Gurche’s life reconstructions, are both art and science, and, like the skull casts, walk-aroundable. They reminded me of Carl Akeley’s famous bronzes, found at museum such as the Field in Chicago, and the American Musuem in New York.

Mother and child

Paleoanthropological materials (bones, tools, art) are sufficiently rare that even great museums like the USNM must rely on reproductions for most of the display materials. This is a disappointment, but understandable.

Ancient art works– note that they are all casts

But some aspects of the hall, generally those in the more “interactive” style were less successful to my mind. Here is the theme of the hall–  “What does it mean to be human?”– which to me seems an ill-formed question, not subject to any clearly comprehensible response. I was tempted to say, “Fortytwo.” Note that the exhibit designers quickly translate the theme to a different, and more answerable, question.

The hall’s theme.

Some early parts of the hall don’t seem to make good use of the space available.

A really lost opportunity is presented by a “cave wall” with fine reproductions of cave art, but little or nothing to guide or inform the visitor as to the import of what is displayed. There is some interpretive signage, but it’s in another case, not closely adjacent. As Edward Tufte has urged, we should integrate our images, words, numbers, and –for museums– objects; keeping all within an eyespan. These are thrilling achievements by among the earliest of human artists, but we are given little to go on in interpreting them, and our appreciation stays at a purely aesthetic level.

Horse and hands
Lion (?) heads

The part of the exhibit I found most wanting is the reproduction of a famous cave painting known as “The Sorcerer”, an anthropomorphic figure that combines deer and man.  The reproduction is fine.

The Sorcerer

But the signage (enalrged below) is not fine. The question “What do you see?” reflects a trend in pedagogy and museum display that is thought to be ‘active’, and ‘inquiry’ based. But you can’t make intelligent inquiries into something about which you know nothing. Are those the antlers of a caribou or a red deer? Are the dark markings in the leg similar to the bones or the muscles? And do they look like parts of a deer or of a man? What other paintings, if any,  are on this wall? Have any artifacts or bones been found in the cave? What animals lived in the area at the time? Without addressing these and many other questions, your inquiry goes nowhere. You may have an opinion, and it may feel good to have your opinion asked for, but your opinion is worthless– it is an uninformed speculation at best. The curators have abdicated their responsibility to provide the necessary context, and to share with us their informed opinion. They may of course be wrong, and further discoveries or reflection might lead us and them to another interpretation, but this does not excuse them for not letting us know what they think. I do not want to know what the visitor next to me sees, or even what I see; what I want to know is what is seen by the men and women who have studied this painting and its context most thoroughly, and reflected on it most deeply.

What do you see?

There are of course the now requisite interactive displays. (Note the question on the right!) Jerry has been to the exhibit on his current east coast tour, and he will likely have more to say about this aspect when he posts about it.

Can the concept of evolution co-exist with religious faith?

Overall, I’d give the exhibit a B- ; it does, as Edward Rothstein said, repay close and repeated viewing, but it could have been more.

An odd item I’ll close on are the curious politics of David Koch, chief funder of the exhibit (it’s actually called the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins). As I noted before, he’s a global warming denialist, and, as Frank Rich of the New York Times recently detailed, along with his brother, he’s a major funder of the tea party movement. Since tea partiers tend to be creationists, this is a real head scratcher– what is Koch thinking? The people he’s funding would probably want the USNM shut down. (I did keep an eye out for anything about climate in the exhibit, but noticed nothing untoward.)

50 thoughts on “The Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History

  1. I went to check out the Human Origins page on the Smithsonian‘s website. The heading of the page asks, what does it mean to be human? There is a box where you can fill in 140 characters or less with your answer. Greg, you called it an ill-formed question, and I think it gets some ill-informed answers. Here are two…
    To serve God and do His word. – Matthew Glass, Booneville, AR
    Knowing I am created in the image of God, which connects me to every human ever conceived, or who ever will be. – Sharon Clement, Kansas City

  2. Did you also visit the recent exhibit on evolution at the HMNH during your stay in Cambridge? It was put up explicitly to counter the country’s anti-science nonsense. I would have thought that be relatively unnecessary in MA, but I saw a Baptist church sign advertising Ben Stein’s Expelled on Route 2 just a mile or two away from campus!

    1. The USNM reproduction matches quite closely the figure produced by Henri Breuil, one of the early and prolific students of cave art. The photomontage I have available to me (in Bahn, P.G. and J. Vertut. 1999. Journey Through the Ice Age. Seven Dials, London) is much less clear, but photos are limited by lighting, angle, and magnification in a way that a human observer is not. The depictions of early recorders also benefit from the fact that the images had not yet undergone the deterioration that has occurred subsequent to their discovery due to disturbance. So, it is a fine reproduction of one of the early and careful observer’s depiction.


      1. 12 years late to the party, but the image was also verified by Jean Clottes: “…the photo of the Sorcerer you refer to is truncated at the top (which is why you cannot see the antlers: in any case, the antlers were engraved and are as a consequence far more difficult to photograph than the painted lines)… Breuil’s tracing is quite honest and admitted by all specialists who have seen the so-called Sorcerer in the cave (I have seen it myself perhaps 20 times over the years (last time about one month ago) and I can assure you that it is quite well preserved and genuine!”

  3. Greg says “I did keep an eye out for anything about climate in the exhibit, but noticed nothing untoward”.

    As climate change has been a major driver of human evolution [e.g. Climate Change and Human Evolution
    Behrensmeyer, Anna K
    Science (Washington) [Science (Wash.)]. Vol. 311, no. 5760, pp. 476-478. 27 Jan 2006 ] it would be a travesty not to discuss this in any exhibition of the subject. The whole area of ‘who’ sponsors ‘what’ is obviously difficult particularly now museums are under huge pressure to make cuts. In the UK we do not have the tradition of wealthy people (with tax breaks) funding museums & research institutions to the same extent as the US, & they rely far more on public money which is about to be cut drastically & will result in many museum closures in the coming year. Having someone like Koch finance the place no doubt worried the Museum authorities & I hope they stipulated that there would be no interference with the ‘editorial’ judgement of curators.

    It disturbs me though.

    1. There was quite a bit on climate change in the exhibit (as there should be), just nothing untoward.


      1. Climate changes involvement within “Evolution” are no different than climate changes involvement within “Species Adaptation”.
        Everything that evolves has an origin. All matter evolves from this same origin. There can be no life…and no life forms have ever originated on this planet or any other where oceans have not once existed. Our oceanic origins are a fact! The iron in our blood is similar to that of hematite…consisting of 70% iron oxide…and 30% oxygen. This amazing grounding element known as hematite…an oceanic element, can be found in abundance upon both the moon as well as the Red Planet better known as Mars. It is no accident that this “bloodstone” is extrtaterrestrial as well as terrestrial. Many Geophysicist like Xong Dong Song at NYU believe that there is a 500 mile ball…an “iron” orb within the Earths core that spins in the opposite direction of the Earths rotation…which gives us the biproduct called gravity. Lunar magnetism ties in with the tidal rhythyms of the human heart…giving a rhythymic rhapsody known as life.
        see this cool vid that my team and I have made…
        That’s just my guess!

        Rich Tellman
        Director Of Research And Explorations
        Fossilfields Discoveries

  4. “reflects a trend in pedagogy and museum display that is thought to be ‘active’, and ‘inquiry’ based. But you can’t make intelligent inquiries into something about which you know nothing. ”

    Don’t I know it. It is a fine line between getting students engaged (to be more than human photo copy machines) and, well, making them aware of their own ignorance and informing them to remove it.

    In mathematics, it took a long time of concentrated effort by the finest minds to come up with the big results. Hence thinking that somehow an average student can make the same discovery on their own is, well, beyond absurd.

    1. A lot of this “interactive” “what do you think this means?” strikes me as a cheap current trend.

      For example, my local newscast program features “Call, email or text us what you think of this __________ news storie”.

      Later in the broadcast, they highlight some of the “selected” responses.

      So, they turn current news into a social competition for your thoughts being “showcased”, and, of course, no complex thought will survive the selection process. It will be less than a 15 second soundbite.

      So, I feel that Coyne is correct, that these “interactive” portions of the museum displays are wasted space for the real serious viewers, but are mainly “mental candy” for many attendees.

        1. Now that you mention it, perhaps the problem with modern education is that is necessarily a balance between 1)old fashioned education and 2) the massive entertainment aspects of society and life which compete with the young minds for attention.

  5. There’s nothing odd about Koch’s politics. He’s a libertarian, and was the Libertarian Party’s VP candidate in 1980. Libertarians align with liberals on social freedom issues and with conservatives on economic freedom issues. Simply put, libertarians oppose big government in any form.

    Because the Tea Party movement is seen as opposing big government, many libertarians support it. It’s a mistake to assume that the Tea Party movement is purely an effort by the religious right.

    In general, libertarians are strongly pro-science, and many scientists have strong libertarian sympathies. Libertarians are also much, much more likely than the general public to support evolution against creationism and ID, and to oppose the anti-vaxxer nonsense. And, yes, many of us are climate skeptics. But then, many of us are also gnu atheists, as I’ve been for 50 of my 57 years.

    So, there’s nothing inconsistent in Koch’s support for evolution while he maintains skepticism about AGW. You needn’t fear that he’s a closet creationist. One doesn’t imply the other.

    1. WTF does the science of ‘AGW’ have to do with looneylibertarian political views? Your half-baked hatred of Big Gummint should have nothing whatsoever to do with your evaluation of climate science.
      I’m not getting the logical connection you seem to be implying here.
      Unless it’s thinly disguised corporation fandom.*shrug*

    2. Without “big gub’mint” how do you propose legislation for science funding or vaccine efficacy? Will Koch act as an altruistic, privatized science advisor? Will the Libertarian Party become the arbiters for determining science education policies? What is the rubric for assessing the sliding scale of what is considered “big gub’mint?”

      1. Definition: Big Government (adj, n): Any spending by governmental entities that benefits people poorer than you.

      1. Which would be a true-true-unrelated proposition.

        Nobody says that you have to be a liberal Democrat to be an atheist. Nor do you have to be in lock step with the consensus opinion. I’ve had fairly vociferous disagreements with many people here — but hardly think that disqualifies them from either expressing their opinion or for us to share a common perspective on many other issues.

        In this instance, the issue at hand is whether the grant provided for this exhibit might carry with it a hidden agenda based on a political perspective. As far as I can tell from this brief review, it does not.

        However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

        To use a purely hypothetical analogy: If Bill Gates were to declare himself unconvinced that smoking had adverse health effects, would we not look more carefully at all of the money he’s pouring into anti-HIV efforts in Africa? Just to make sure that there are no hidden caveats that would be detrimental to those affected?

        You’re declaring that we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Others are saying that we need to make sure the gift isn’t really a Trojan horse of some sort.

        But your characterization of us as all being in lock-step with one another is clearly at odds with the evidence.

        Put the straw away, please.

        1. Kevin, I was referring to comments like “looneylibertarian,” “big gub’mint,” or your own, “Big Government (adj, n): Any spending by governmental entities that benefits people poorer than you.” Comments like these, glibly portraying libertarian-ish opinions as necessarily rednecked or plutocratic (there’s quite the juxtaposition) are frequent on sites such as this one and among many of the atheists with whom I’m acquainted.

          I make no accusation that atheists in general demand political uniformity amongst themselves. I just find amusing that some atheists trumpet their rational intellect while smugly, unjustifiably thinking they know all there is to know about the Kochs and libertarianism after reading a piece in the New Yorker.

          I have no problem with people who aren’t libertarians, and I could understand the reaction to Robert had he posted some nonsense about how Democrats are communists. But Robert’s post was sober and respectful, so the reaction struck me as juvenile and excessive.

          “If Bill Gates were to declare himself unconvinced that smoking had adverse health effects, would we not look more carefully at all of the money he’s pouring into anti-HIV efforts in Africa? Just to make sure that there are no hidden caveats that would be detrimental to those affected?”

          Non sequitur. Failing to be persuaded by scientific findings regarding smoking wouldn’t logically entail or suggest nefarious motives that might affect funding for AIDS treatment.

          That said, anyone receiving funding from anywhere should make sure no adverse strings are attached.

          1. Jason,

            I agreed that ridicule is no substitute for an argument.

            However, lacking specific proposals from Libertarians (for instance which government programs or agencies should be deleted in their view) we are often left with iconic figures like Rand Paul. And he seems to the the real deal: A living, walking, talking looneytune.

            If I were a Libertarian, I think, based on the candidates and an positions advanced by the Tea Party people, I would be actively distancing myself from the Tea Party people (there is no coherent party or organization, as far as I can see.) If Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Christine O’Donnell (sp?) are your (the figurative you, not you personally) gang, then politically, I want nothing to do with you.

            It would seem a logical conclusion to draw, that if you are aligned with figures such as those mentioned above, that you are politically opposed to what most on this site and, for instance Pharyngula, stand for politically. It seems an obvious Faustian bargain to “us”.

            1. “It would seem a logical conclusion to draw, that if you are aligned with figures such as those mentioned above, that you are politically opposed to what most on this site and, for instance Pharyngula, stand for politically. It seems an obvious Faustian bargain to “us”.”

              Yes, I have huge disagreements with the people you mention on many issues, but I consider reducing the size of government a very important issue. Similarly, I have huge disagreements with most of the people who comment here and on Pharyngula, but that doesn’t mean I don’t read what all of you have to say and think about it.

              When it comes to the science/religion debate, I am about as strongly anti-accommodationist as it is possibly to be, but I recognize the dangers of polarization as well. It would be easy enough for me to think of Jerry and PZ as “idiot liberals”, and therefore disregard what they have to say, just as it’s easy for many commenters to think of me as an “idiot libertarian” and therefore disregard what I have to say.

              To point out the obvious, none of here are idiots. Far from it. I think we need to avoid demonizing and dismissing people because of their political beliefs. Many here demonize me because I’m a libertarian, just as many of the right-wingers demonize me because I strongly support evolution, gay marriage, abortion on demand, and many other “liberal” political positions.

              So, if you want to dismiss me because I am a libertarian and because I’m skeptical about AGW, fine. I think people are not monolithic, but nuanced. I prefer to converse with people who recognize that just because we happen to disagree, even on some important issues, doesn’t mean we can’t agree on many issues that are at least as important, and it certainly doesn’t mean that either of use thinks of the other as a bad person. So, while I abhor Jerry’s and PZ’s positions on some issues, I also appreciate and agree with what they have to say on many other issues.

            2. “However, lacking specific proposals from Libertarians (for instance which government programs or agencies should be deleted in their view)”

              Republicans have indeed largely chickened out of identifying specific government endeavors they would stop. But *libertarians* have promulgated many ideas along those lines. For example, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Henry Hazlitt, and Robert Nozick, to name some famous modern libertarian philosophers, wrote multiple books* delineating government initiatives they thought immoral or unworkable, and propounded concrete ideological frameworks for libertarian thought.

              And the Cato Institute, America’s preeminent libertarian think tank, regularly makes specific proposals as to what should be cut, such as in its Handbook for Policymakers and on its subsite Downsizing the Federal Government.

              I don’t endorse everything from the aforementioned parties, but I think they show libertarians do have specific, identifiable ideas for what government should look like and how to make it so.

              * From Friedman, I’d recommend Capitalism and Freedom. From Hayek, Constitution of Liberty. From Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson. From Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

              “we are often left with iconic figures like Rand Paul. And he seems to the the real deal: A living, walking, talking looneytune.”

              Rand Paul doesn’t consider himself a libertarian, and this libertarian is glad not to have him. (I had read a good article that sums up my thoughts on Paul, but I can’t find it now. So I’ll say his views on immigration, abortion, and foreign policy trouble me.)

              “If I were a Libertarian, I think, based on the candidates and an positions advanced by the Tea Party people, I would be actively distancing myself from the Tea Party people”

              I’m unsure the “Tea Party” is a monolithic group whose views are so easily pigeonholed. As you said yourself, “[T]here is no coherent party or organization.” David Boaz has a good take on this: “Social Conservatives Left Behind?” Were the “Tea Party” an ideologically uniform movement in favor of Republican business as usual, social conservatives wouldn’t be fretting about their role it, nor would neoconservatives writing in The Wall Street Journal (of whom libertarian Will Wilkinson posted a nice takedown).

              That said, I wouldn’t consider myself a “Tea Partier” because I distrust populism. And I wonder where the hell these people were when Bush was raising domestic spending more than any president since LBJ, trampling the Constitution through illegal wars and means to prosecute them, wasting billions of dollars fighting said wars, violating civil liberties at home, and profaning federalism and the First Amendment in such instances as the Terri Schiavo fiasco.

              “It would seem a logical conclusion to draw, that if you are aligned with figures such as those mentioned above, that you are politically opposed to what most on this site and, for instance Pharyngula, stand for politically. It seems an obvious Faustian bargain to “us”.”

              That’s not a logical conclusion. Faustian bargains are the lifeblood of politics; people who disagree with each other on many things, and maybe even revile each other over them, nevertheless come together all the time to push an agenda they consider more important. Think of the colonies joining forces for the American Revolution, or Republicans and Northern Democrats to preserve the Union, or the Western Allies and the USSR during World War II. The modern “Tea Party” isn’t comparable to those great partnerships, but I think they demonstrate “guilt by association” doesn’t work any more in politics than it does elsewhere.

              As I said, I’m not a “Tea Partier.” But when Democrats are failing to reign in American empire, continuing the gradual erosion of civil liberties that has transpired since the Cold War, refusing to stand up for religious tolerance and sexual freedom, and expanding the corporatist political-military-industrial complex… I don’t think a tenuous alliance between “Tea Partiers,” who so far at least passionately mouth a desire to curtail some of that, and some libertarians is outrageously objectionable.

            3. Robert: I consider it Faustian because aligning to everything else that (many, not all) Tea Party people proclaim themselves to stand for, very specific things such as prayer in schools, teaching creationism, “closing the borders [right after my family gets in]”, privatizing Social Security [making it insecurity], etc. in exchange for a vague proposed solution (to which problems exactly?) of “no big government”, seems to be selling out vital principles.

              I don’t agree that political compromise equals Faustian bargains. It may occasionally, but usually these are strongly highlighted in public discourse for what they are.

              More later …

    3. “Koch was the Libertarian Party’s VP candidate in 1980”

      Yes, but since then he seems to have taken a hard-right turn.

      Is the Tea Party a religious movement? Look at Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, etc.

    4. “Actual” libertarians who still support the Tea Party are deceiving themselves.

      I recognize that the Tea Party started as a libertarian movement, but that’s not what it is any more. “Actual” libertarians — whom I think are wrong, but at least intellectually honest — would be well-advised to abandon the movement.

    5. Robert,

      Simply put, libertarians oppose big government in any form.

      Please define “big”.

      Please state which programs or agencies of the Federal government of the US (I’m assuming we’re talking about the US here) you would delete, had you your way in this.

      Though you state that the Libertarian view is “simple”, the Federal government and our society most definitely are not simple. Solutions to the problems you seem to be concerned about are unlikely to be solved by the proposed solution, “no big government.”

      It seems to me that you are identifying a proposed solution (no big government, which remains an undefined proposition) rather than identifying the problems you wish to address and then applying problem-solving techniques to them. I think this is what rubs people here the wrong way: At least the appearance of putting the cart before the horse.

      It seems to me that it is your task to demonstrate or explain or prove to the people (whatever forum you like) that life would be better under your plan.

      I look at how things were for people before things like the FDA, FAA, Social Security, Medicare, the EPA, the SEC, the FCC, and many other Federal government entities, and how things are for people now, and it seems to me that things are better now. Much, much better.

      1. This would include the paid-for-by-medicare scooters of the Tea Party.

        One cannot help but notice the engulfing irony with such phrases as “don’t tread on me” coming from a faction that could use (and often does benefit from) ample tread. It’s akin to the “keep your eyes on Jesus” bumber sticker. One might find it useful to keep their eyes on the road.

  6. Nice post Greg. Thanks for the critique of the USNM. I agree with your preferences in museums. The new style of big graphics, empty space, and computer screens puts me off. I can get that anywhere. What I can’t get anywhere and what I most want from the museum is to see the artifacts and specimens (or reproductions) which give me that thrill of being in touch with ancient things (or things I haven’t seen in real life.)

    I love walking under the Arch at Orange, for instance, and thinking of the Roman legions marching (and the local Gauls hauling wine to market) through this same arch, on this same ground. Same kind of thing with museums for me.

  7. I recently visited the Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and I was disappointed to see that it features a video display which includes Francis Collins proclaiming that while science is the way to explore the natural world, he also believes in a personal God, and finds science and faith to be complementary. I have written an open letter to the AMNH — please help pressure the museum to have this display revised or removed!

  8. Can the concept of evolution co-exist with religious faith?

    FAIL! Evolution is a fact and a theory, and a predictive theory isn’t an abstract (“theoretical”) idea but a more or less concrete creation.

    The idea that evolution can co-exist with religious faith is a concept. Yes, there are statistics that say people can accept the fact of evolution while maintaining faith in creationist religion. But as WEIT never tires to point out, that is a category error, humans aren’t consistent.

  9. What I call “interactive” does not consist of pressing buttons and staring at a screen. I’ve had numerous loud arguments with people about such exhibits in the past (mostly exhibits related to physics and chemistry). I get especially loud when the physical concept to be presented is easily and effectively demonstrated and yet some moron had decided to replace a learning experience with some dull computer display. Physics and chemistry exhibits which I’ve built in the past have very few words, the experiments are presented in a simple form, and absolutely nothing is faked.

    I can’t think of any interesting interactive display for evolution except perhaps showing and comparing fossil fragments, but that can also be accomplished with a cabinet and perhaps multiple casts of the same fossils – and you don’t have to line up to play with the few available computers.

  10. The comment about Koch’s politics was just a bit of a throwaway observation, and not the main point of this post. But I will note that a recent survey reinforces the point that tea partiers “are mostly social conservatives, not libertarians”, and that almost half of them identify as “part of the religious right or conservative Christian movement”.


    h/t Andrew Sullivan: The Tea-Partiers: Christianists, Not Libertarians

    1. The fundamental premise of libertarianism is reason and limits on government, which I wholeheartedly subscribe to. I cannot understand how any so-called libertarian can find common cause with people who want the US government to be a christian theocracy.

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