Chicago’s Field Museum must continue its historic mission of high quality scientific research

March 8, 2013 • 12:10 am

by Greg Mayer

At the end of last year, the Field Museum in Chicago announced that it was considering draconian budgetary cuts to, and even more ominous institutional restructuring of, its scientific departments. Jerry and I wrote about this here at the time, decrying the Field administration’s plans.

In January, Science published a news article on the situation. A number of us had been discussing various actions to protest the planned cuts, through petitions (change.org here), resolutions, critical commentary, and letter writing. In response to the Science piece, Jon Losos, Johannes Foufopoulos, Neil Shubin, Doug Futuyma, Ben Campbell, Scott Edwards, Jerry, and I wrote a letter to Science supporting scientific research at the Field Museum. The letter was published in today’s issue. The opening snippet:

Field Museum Science letter

The headline, which was written by Science, is appropriate: it refers to a famous line by the English scientist James Smithson, founding benefactor of the Smithsonian Institution, that we quote in our letter. Smithson wrote that his institution would be devoted to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge“. While many (especially newer) science museums can contribute to the diffusion of knowledge, only great natural history museums like the Field, with its priceless treasure of collections and and staff of outstanding scientists can contribute so much to the increase of knowledge. It is this mission that the Field administration threatens to give up, but must not dare, for shame, to abandon.

There’s another letter supporting science the Field Museum in the same issued, by Sophie Warny of Louisiana State University, arguing for the importance of natural history museums for practical applications.

Public outcry has worked before in saving some of the research departments at the Smithsonian. If  you have not yet done so, you can sign the petition linked above, or write to the Field’s President, Dr. Richard Lariviere (rlariviere@fieldmuseum.org ) or Board Chair John Rowe (postal address for both is The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605-2496).

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Mayer, G.C., J.A. Coyne, J.B. Losos, J. Foufopoulos, N. Shubin, D.J. Futuyma, B.C. Campbell and S.V. Edwards. 2013. Museums’ role: increasing knowledge. Science 339:1148-1149. (pdf; if link doesn’t work for you, email me and I can send you a pdf)

Joint post: Chicago’s Field Museum endangered by unwise budget cuts

December 27, 2012 • 5:31 am

I’ve lived in Chicago for more than 25 years, and have watched the Field Museum’s public exhibits degenerate from an educational experience to an entertainment experience. This isn’t unique to that museum: it’s happening everywhere as natural history museums seek to make more money by displaying dinosaur skeletons and offering ‘hands-on’ experiences and animated exhibits for  kids weaned on video games.

The mantra here is “user friendly.” And I deplore this trend.  And I deplore this trend.  Steve Gould wrote an essay on this topic, also bemoaning the dumbing-down of museums (see also Gould’s essay in Natural History, January 1994, and here and here on WEIT for moar):

As a symbol of our dilemma, consider the plight of natural history museums in the light of commercial dinomania. In the past decade, nearly every major or minor natural history museum has succumbed (not always unwisely) to two great commercial temptations: to sell many scientifically worthless, and often frivolous, or even degrading, dinosaur products in their gift shops; and to mount, at high and separate admissions charges, special exhibits of colorful robotic dinosaurs that move and growl but (so far as I have ever been able to judge) teach nothing of scientific value about these animals. Such exhibits could be wonderful educational aids, if properly labeled and integrated with more traditional material; but I have never seen these robots presented for much more than their colors and sound effects (the two aspects of dinosaurs that must, for obvious reasons, remain most in the realm of speculation). If you ask my colleagues in museum administration why they have permitted such incursions into their precious and limited spaces, they will reply that these robotic displays bring large crowds into the museum, mostly of people who otherwise would never come. These folks can then be led or cajoled into viewing the regular exhibits, and the museum’s primary mission of science education receives a giant boost. I cannot fault the logic of this argument, but I fear that my colleagues are expressing a wish or a hope, not an actual result, and not even an outcome actively pursued by most museums. If the glitzy displays were dispersed among teaching exhibits, if they were used as a springboard for educational programs (sometimes they are), then a proper balance of mammon and learning might be reached. But, too often, the glitz occupies a separate wing (where the higher admission charges can be monitored), and the real result gets measured in increased body counts and profits.

Well, perhaps fiscal constraints mandate such changes. But what is more serious for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History is that budget cuts are now about to seriously degrade its scientific mission, eliminating much of the behind-the-scenes research that is the soul of any good natural history museum. Public exhibits are merely the frosting on the cake, for not visible to casual visitor are the research collections and laboratories of the scientists that lie behind closed doors.

Museum-based research has been essential in studies of ecology, evolution, and natural history, and this kind of downsizing is a serious danger to work on organismal biology.  Alarmed, Greg Mayer and I co-wrote the following plea for the Field Museum to reconsider its rash decision. And we’re asking readers to help by writing a brief protest.

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Field Museum: Don’t savage your science!

by Jerry Coyne and Greg Mayer

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Field Museum of Natural History is about to engage in a budget-slashing reorganization that will all but eliminate science at that institution (our emphasis added):

Staff reductions would be aimed at curators and scientists, according to museum officials.

“This may turn out to involve shrinking certain areas of inquiry,” said John Rowe, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees.

The Field Museum is both an international research institution and a vital cultural attraction for residents and tourists, drawing about 1.3 million visitors in 2011.

The natural history museum is home to Sue, the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world and a Chicago icon. In the bowels of the museum and all around the world, Field scientists also are discovering new plants and animals—more than 200 last year alone—along with preserving rain forests and studying artifacts. …

[New Museum President Richard] Lariviere, who started in October, said he wants to use the cost-cutting measures as an opportunity to refocus the museum’s mission. …

Museum officials said they also expect to cut research staff as they seek to narrow the scope of its mission

Currently the museum is organized much like a university, with researchers divided into academic departments. Under Lariviere’s plan, that structure would be simplified into four broad areas: science and education, programming, fundraising and operations.

“Narrowing the scope of its mission” apparently means “deep-sixing most of the science.”

Lariviere, dismissed last year as president of the University of Oregon, said the Field’s future is “rosy” if they carry out this plan out, but in reality its future would be bleak indeed.

There are only a handful of great natural history museums in the U.S., and the Field is one of them. (Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where both of us received our doctorates, is another.) These museums have always had a dual mission of research and education, and in fact the research mission has usually occupied the lion’s share of the museums’ efforts. The public doesn’t realize that the research collections of the Field Museum hold a vastly greater number of specimens than those on public display.

Indeed, the Field Museum—like many others of its kind—uses “behind-the-scenes” access to its collections and its scientists as principal attractions for members and donors. It is these collections that scientists, both in-house and from other institutions, use to advance biology, geology, and anthropology. What are to become of these tremendously important, and literally irreplaceable, collections?

The research of natural history museums has been crucial for the development of evolutionary biology. Ernst Mayr, the “Darwin of the 20th century” who pioneered studies of speciation, did so at natural history museums (successively, the British Museum, American Museum, and Museum of Comparative Zoology), using the collections to formulate and test his ideas. The Field’s scientists continue this tradition, and have been enormously productive.

Jim Hanken, Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, had this to say to Nature and Scientific American:

It’s one of the great research institutions in comparative zoology, biodiversity and natural history, and it has been one of the leading centres of research for more than 100 years. There’s no way the Field Museum will be able to maintain its position of prominence under those circumstances.

As the Chicago Sun-Times noted, the Field is a “treasure [and] a responsibility”, and the current management can’t be allowed to savage what must be a resource for future generations. There’s a change.org petition to oppose this:

https://www.change.org/petitions/protect-research-at-field-museum-of-natural-history-chicago

and you can contact the management through info here (Dr. Lariviere’s email address is rlariviere@fieldmuseum.org ; remember-be respectful!) and Board Chair John Rowe and other Board members through info here (no emails; postal address is The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605-2496.) We ask readers to do this, and let the Museum and its Board know that you support science. Outcry by the scientific community and public can work— it saved the Smithsonian’s Conservation and Research Center a decade ago from a similarly ill-advised cost-saving refocusing of mission.

If you are in favor of research in organismal biology (and I hope that most of our readers are!), we ask you to sign the petition (which takes all of one minute) and write a short note to the management opposing these changes.

Thanks!

h/t: Matthew Cobb

Koch to fund renovation of Smithsonian’s dinosaur hall

May 4, 2012 • 6:11 am

by Greg Mayer

David Koch, billionaire industrialist and bankroller of right wing causes, has announced that he will donate $35 million to the National Museum of Natural History (aka the USNM) for an overhaul of its dinosaur hall. The New York Times’ Patricia Cohen writes:

In 2009 he gave the Smithsonian $15 million to create the museum’s Hall of Human Origins. And in 2006 he gave the Manhattan museum [i.e. the American Museum of Natural History in New York] $20 million to create the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing. This latest gift, the largest donation in the museum’s 102-year history, will result in the new dinosaur hall in Washington also being named for Mr. Koch. The total cost of the new hall, with 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, is estimated to be $45 million, a museum spokesman said.

According to this longer AP piece, it seems as if the renovation will extend to the other adjacent fossil halls, and not just the dinosaurs.

As noted by Cohen, Koch funded the Hall of Human Origins at the USNM, which Jerry (here and here) and  I reviewed here at WEIT. Koch’s funding also elicited some controversy, regarding whether his climate denialism would be included in the exhibit, which we also noted (here, here  and in the PS here) at WEIT.

The Academy of Natural Sciences at 200

March 27, 2012 • 7:52 am

by Greg Mayer

This year is the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the oldest natural history museum in the United States. Although now surpassed in size by some later-founded institutions, it is still one of the most important natural history museums in America, rich in types and other historically important specimens, and home to such luminaries as the paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope  in the 19th century and Ted Daeschler today. The Academy is celebrating its bicentennial with special exhibitions and web features, and the publication of a book, A Glorious Enterprise, by R.M. Peck and M.T. Stroud, with photographs by Rosamund Purcell. The New York Times has an article by Cornelia Dean, with a selection of images by Purcell and from the Academy’s archives and library, and further images can be seen at the University of Pennsylvania Press website (publishers of the book).

Two species of musk parrot from Fiji, painted by Titian Peale of the United States Exploring Expedition. Peale was a Philadelphia naturalist whose family had it's own museum, the Peale Museum; some of his collections, however, went to the Academy.

We’ve done museum reviews and discussed the merits of varying approaches to exhibition, notably the ‘interactive’ vs. ‘cabinet’ styles, here at WEIT a number times (see, for example here, here, here, here and here). Natural history museums grew out of the older “cabinets of curiosities”, and the original Academy exhibits were in this style (which is not quite the same as the newer style I’ve taken to calling the ‘cabinet’ style, which is influenced by the older tradition). Although I’ve been to the Academy several times, it has always been for research in the collections (which, at most natural history museums, vastly outnumber the specimens on display, and form the basis of the museum’s scientific mission), and unfortunately, I’ve never gotten to take more than a cursory walk through the exhibits. So, I should go to see the exhibits– and so should you!

The hind legs of whales

February 10, 2011 • 11:00 am

by Greg Mayer

Snakes are not the only tetrapods (or even lizards) to have lost their legs. Whales have lost their hind legs (the front ones are now their flippers), and we have a pretty good fossil record of how they did so, thanks in large part to the work of Phil Gingerich of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology (see his great whale evolution site here) and his collaborators.

Although whales lack external hind legs (except as rare teratologies), they do have internal rudiments of the hind limbs and pelvic girdle, as I was reminded during a recent visit to my and Jerry’s alma mater, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, where one of the Museum’s killer whale skeletons now hangs in the building across a new courtyard: note the remnant hind limb girdle at lower left.

Killer whale, Orcinus orca; note remnant hind limb girdle at lower left (the MCZ is the building in the background).

Here’s a closer view.

Killer whale hind limb girdle remnant.

In addition to the killer whale skeleton, there’s also a bottlenose whale skeleton; here’s its remnant hind limb girdle.

Bottlenose whale, Hyperoodon ampullatus, hind limb girdle.

Both whales were hung in this new building (which is where the MCZ parking lot was in my and Jerry’s days) at the initiative of the MCZ’s director, Jim Hanken. The figure below, from Phil Gingerich, shows some of the fossil whales through which limb loss has been traced.

Whale evolution.

Here’s his caption for the figure (go to his website for full citations to the papers mentioned):

Figure 1. Skeletons of the archaeocetes Dorudon atrox and Rodhocetus balochistanensis compared to that of Elomeryx armatus, which is here taken as a model for the extinct group of artiodactyls (Anthracotheriidae, s.l.) that we now think may have given rise to archaic whales. Pakicetus has a distinctive skull and lower jaw, but is not demonstrably different from early protocetids postcranially. Note changes in body proportions and elongation of feet for foot-powered swimming in Rodhocetus, then later reduction of the hind limbs and feet as the tail-powered swimming of modern cetaceans evolved in Dorudon.

A. Elomeryx drawing from W. B. Scott, first published in 1894. B. Pakicetus skull from Gingerich et al. (1983). Terrestrial interpretation is pure speculation: what little is known of the skeleton resembles Rodhocetus. C. Rodhocetus skeletal reconstruction from Gingerich et al. (2001). D. Dorudon skeletal reconstruction from Gingerich and Uhen (1996). Figure may be reproduced for non-profit educational use.

I showed photos of the hind limb remnants of Maiacetus, Basilosaurus, and Dorudon skeletons at the USNM in an earlier post.

(Thanks to Jon Losos for checking whale ID’s for me.)

Is there life in the Solar System?

October 6, 2010 • 8:14 pm

by Greg Mayer

Matthew recently asked if there is life on Gliese 581g— a newly discovered Earth-like (in some ways) planet (I’m tempted to say “class M planet“).  There’s also the question of if there is life in the Solar System (Earth doesn’t count)– on Europa, or Mars, or Enceladus, say. On the same trip that I got to see the Hall of Human Origins at the USNM, I also visited the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, and got to see the candidate planets and moons up close and personal. There I saw the exhibit “Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System“, a series of exquisite photographs compiled by Michael Benson.

Beyond title signage.

Compiled from the photographic results of what is now several decades of interplanetary probes and Earth satellites, the exhibit includes images of all the planets, the Sun, many moons, and a number of asteroids (a catalogue, with images, is available on Benson’s website, as is a wonderful set of wide angle views of the exhibit hall). The exhibit is, in a word, magnificent. The large format prints, placed on the walls without intervening cases, allows the visitor to examine every detail of the photos.

Images of Mars

The detail and high resolution turn the planets from objects of astronomy– moving points of light– to objects of geology, and even hydrology– out wash plains and hills, volcanoes and glaciers. They’re not quite objects of biology yet.  We, or our machines, will have to investigate on the surface more closely to see if that’s the case. Here are a few more of the over 100 images.

Mars-- note lander in foreground of lower photo.
Mars again
Glorious Saturn (the two bright dots are reflections, not moons or UFOs)

I can recommend this exhibit without reservation. It will be at Air & Space till next May.  A companion volume of exquisite photos, Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes (Abrams, New York, 2003) is available. (The exhibit contains newer photos, as well as ones from the book, some as recent as 2009.)

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.)

Another day at the museum

June 8, 2010 • 12:56 pm

by Greg Mayer

Last summer I made a visit to the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum of Natural History (aka the USNM), which I reported on here at WEIT. At the time, a couple of special evolution exhibits, tied to the Darwin bi- and sesquicentennials, were scheduled to open in September, and during my visit in March (mentioned at WEIT here and here), I was able to see both of these temporary exhibits.

Darwin’ Legacy, in the lobby at the 10th and Constitution entrance, consists of two large cases containing items from the Smithsonian’s archives and libraries– books, manuscripts, photographs– including a number of illustrations from the Zoology of the Beagle. It is arranged in what is called the “cabinet” style (referring to the origin of many museums in older “cabinets of curiosities”). This style is characterized by a high density of items of a diverse nature, each well-labeled. It is the style of exhibit which I generally prefer. Rich in its content, the exhibit merits close attention, and repays repeated viewing. Darwin’s Legacy will be up till Oct. 17.

Contrasting with this exhibit is Since Darwin : The Evolution of Evolution, which is designed in a more recent style, that might be termed “interactive”, although this is only one part of the new style. Steve Gould characterized this style as having fewer specimens and more overt pedagogy.

The exhibit, though lacking interactive features, does have few specimens, and a more didactic labeling and design, emphasizing bright colors and large fonts. It begins with Darwin’s life, work and predecessors, moving to an explication of artificial and natural selection, and islands as laboratories of evolution. It then discusses the tree of life, recent developments in evo-devo and genomics, and closes with a brief account of new species discovered by USNM researchers. Throughout the exhibit, panels are devoted to highlighting USNM scientists working in evolutionary biology, such as my colleagues Helen James and Hans-Dieter Sues. The newer exhibit style may be seen clearly in the following photograph, which shows the relative paucity of specimens, and a reliance on illustration, and large-font, but widely spaced, text.

The exhibit does, though, of course have specimens, and I liked the integration of text, image, and objects in two cases on snails and the domestication of dogs.

Since Darwin will be up till July 18, so you should see it soon if you get the chance. Neither of these temporary exhibits are worth a trip to Washington (though worth seeing if you are there). Probably worth a trip is the new Hall of Human Origins, which I just missed on my visit in March (see the NY Times‘ Edward Rothstein’s review here). I hope to see it myself this summer. A colleague who just came back from Washington reported favorably on it. He mentioned that in a small lecture space within the exhibit there was some presentation on climate change going on; this is curious, since the exhibit’s principal funder and namesake, David Koch, is a well-known global warming denialist.

On a final museological note, I can also recommend the National Museum of the Marine Corps, just south of Washington in Quantico, Va. The museum covers much of the history of the Marine Corps, although it has obviously been constructed to allow future expansion. When I was there in March there was a special exhibit on the photojournalism of Eddie Adams, famed for his photo of a Viet Cong being executed by a South Vietnamese policeman. The museum as a whole leans to the cabinet style in terms of the density and diversity of objects, but does have much didactic labeling. There are some interactive elements as well. In an interesting but not wholly successful exhibit designed to simulate coming ashore in a landing craft, the walls of the craft vibrated strongly as each (sound only) machine gun round struck the craft.

Note the painted sand and sea, just as in the USNM’s African waterhole “diorama”, in the Marine Corps museum’s lobby.

New human evolution hall at the National Museum of Natural History

March 22, 2010 • 8:59 pm

by Greg Mayer

Last Wednesday, the National Museum of Natural History (known to biologists as the USNM, the initials of its former name and still the identifying code on its specimen tags and labels) opened its newest permanent exhibit, the Hall of Human Origins.

I was at the USNM much of last week, mostly doing research in the collections and meeting with colleagues, but I always like to take a look at the exhibits, and I’d in part planned my visit to be able to catch the opening on the last day of my visit. Unfortunately, it turns out the exhibit was only open from 12-3, the rest of the day being reserved for media and VIPs, so when I went to see it a bit after 3 all I could see was one skull through a crack in a barrier. I’m planning another go at it this summer, but some of the original specimens, loaned by foreign museums for the opening, are likely to have been replaced by casts by then.

Edward Rothstein, the New York Times’ museum reviewer, whose reviews I always find interesting, did get to see it.  He gives it a mixed review. A hall worth “repeated, close viewing” suggests an exhibit rich in the diversity and number of its specimens, a characteristic of the “cabinet” style in museum exhibits, but he laments the poor execution of the computers and touch screens of the “interactive” style:

The hall bears repeated, close viewing, though children will also find amusements here, including the opportunity to come face to face with floor-level bronze models of their ancestors. But the two computer simulations at the exhibition’s end — one a simplified Sims-type game of cultural and environmental choice, the other a cartoonish vision of possible future evolutionary change — should be far more subtle. More wall text summarizing themes would have also helped: too much is left to the text of touch screens, buried inside menus of choices.

He also raises an issue that concerned me when the opening was announced last fall: that the exhibit might adopt some theological viewpoint:

There are times too when it seems as if the Smithsonian has almost gone too far in humanizing evolution, as if it were answering those who, on religious grounds, object to the evolutionary universe and its inhuman brutality. (A touch-screen F.A.Q. suggests simply that such visitors use the show to “explore new scientific findings and decide how these findings complement their ideas about the natural world.”)

At any rate, the exhibition’s focus doesn’t really give us a feel for the daring of the evolutionary vision, which is a tale not of progress but of accident, frightening in the moment, fortuitous only in retrospect.

At the exhibit website, I found the page for the Broader Social Impacts Committee. The committee consists of 14 people, all but one of whom are identified by their religion (including one “Humanist”). This is a rather odd composition and set of descriptors for a group concerned with broader social impacts– no historians, sociologists, political scientists. But as the website makes clear, the charge of the committee is to deal with religious issues. The following statement from the website, while straightforward in acknowledging the diversity of views, seems to prefer the last view (“interaction or engagement”), but its not clear to me what exactly this view entails:

There are a number of different approaches to the science-religion relationship. One approach is to see science and religion as separate domains that ask different questions focusing on separate interests in human life – for example, about the natural world in science and about God in religion. This approach depends on respecting and maintaining the distinctions but can sometimes overlook the ways in which scientific interpretations may have an effect on religious beliefs. Conflict is seen to arise when efforts are made to eliminate the separation that the first approach assumes. The strongest conflicts develop when either science or religion asserts a standard of truth to which the other must adhere or otherwise be dismissed. An alternative approach sees interaction or engagement as positive. Engagement takes many forms, including personal efforts by individuals to integrate scientific and religious understandings, statements by religious organizations that affirm and even celebrate the scientific findings, and constructive interactions between theologians and scientists seeking common ground, respect, and shared insight into how the science of human evolution contributes to an awareness of what it means to be human.

My full opinion will have to wait till I get to see the exhibit myself. One thing I’m looking forward to are the new reconstructions.  John Gurche, the renowned scientific artist, has made a set of incredibly detailed life reconstructions for the exhibit (seen here; check out the rest of his website for more paintings and sculptures), and Smithsonian Magazine has had two pieces on them.

Edward Rothstein’s final word:

But the retrospective vistas provided here are, nevertheless, compelling and illuminating. This was conceived as a permanent exhibition, meant to serve a generation of visitors, but it was also designed to be easily adaptable to the pressures of scientific advances and visitor tastes. The evolution continues.

A set of skull images released by the USNM.

(PS: On the way in to the museum that morning, Greenpeace protesters, dressed like law enforcement agents from the “Climate Crimes” unit, handed me a flyer denouncing David Koch, who contributed most of the funding for the hall (and whose name is on it). More on this angle at the Wonk Room and USA Today.)

New human evolution exhibit to open at the USNM

October 14, 2009 • 8:06 pm

by Greg Mayer

The Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History (known to biologists as the USNM) has announced that its new Hall of Human Origins, first announced in 2006 and originally slated to open this year,will open in March of next year. Normally this would be unadulterated good news; WEIT readers will recall the ‘thumbs up’ I gave the USNM’s exhibits in August. But a New York Times article [update 20.iii.2010: link now dead] says that

The museum also is establishing an advisory group called the Broader Social Impacts Committee to foster discussion on how scientific and religious perspectives on human origins can be compatible.

This is a cause of concern. Scientific institutions should not have an official theology. This sure sounds like they want to endorse Catholicism (at least of the John Paul II kind) or mainline Protestantism or some other religion that doesn’t object to science (much). I don’t see any problem in having it pointed out that, “Look, there’s a scientist who’s religious” (e.g. Ken Miller). [Added later: or pointing out, “Look, there’s a religious leader who accepts evolution” (e.g. John Paul II).] But to foster the claim they are “compatible” beyond that simple empirical point is not a scientific endeavor.

Curator Rick Potts is a little more reassuring as quoted in the Times, stressing the evidence of human evolution, saying that the exhibit will be a

place to look at the fossil evidence, to explore the fossil evidence and the archaeological evidence that informs about human evolution.