I approached the new Hall of Origins with a bit of trepidation. How would I have time to review this exhibition, when my kids couldn’t wait to go to the Gem and Mineral Hall? I needn’t have worried. It was a huge hit with everyone in our group from 5 years-old to fifty. My cousin Anne summed it up as “amazing.”
The Hall of Origins connects visitors directly with their evolutionary ancestors. Visitors can join a Homo heidelbergensis at a campfire, compare themselves to a chimp, or morph into a Homo neanderthalensis.
Finding the Hall of Origins is confusing. If you come into the museum from the Mall entrance, go through the Sant Ocean Hall and make a left turn shortly thereafter. The entrance to the Hall of Origins is dramatic. You’ll enter a Time Tunnel with neon lights overhead and murals on either side depicting your human ancestors. You’re now ready to begin your journey time travelling back six million years ago. Note: You can also enter through the Hall of Mammals but this entrance has less impact.
On the right side is a display case with the skeleton of Lucy covered with fur (Australopithecus afarensis) The floor has reproductions of her fossilized footprints in volcanic ash (the oldest known human footsteps), which my kids, ages 5 and 9 enjoyed stepping in. On the right is a human family tree. A chart shows how similar Homo sapiens are to other animals and even plants. My 9 year old was intrigued by the fact that she is 60% genetically identical to a banana tree.
A little further along the opposite wall are a collection of exhibits under the heading Evolutionary Milestones that explore what makes us human. One exhibit explores the history of walking on two legs. I especially liked the understandable signage that explored the pros and cons of having a large brain or being a vegetarian. Rotating drums that compare the anatomy of chimps, early humans and modern humans were popular with the girls as was the model of the brain that opened up. They also enjoyed the video comparing the social behavior of humans and primates. A handaxe, the oldest of all tools, is on display. It had multiple uses, chopping wood, butchering animals and making other tools. Further along, exhibit cases explore burial practices, the beginnings of writing and other topics.
Three movie theaters use fossil evidence, video and animation to reconstruct a day in the life of early man. The one nearest the Ocean Hall is the most violent with a leopard attack. My five year-old watched this video a number of times. The videos were also a favorite of her 12 year old cousin, who liked the CSI aspect of it.
The most popular feature in the exhibition are the two morphing stations, where you can have a picture of yourself taken and watch it morph into an early human version of yourself. If you ever wanted to see a picture of yourself with thinning hair and enormous nostrils, here’s your opportunity. Seriously, it’s fascinating. You can even email the photo to yourself for posterity. Beware, though, the lines are long. It took 20 minutes at 11am during a spring break weekday. If you arrive at the museum at opening time, make a beeline for the morphing station. The templates are designed for adult faces and not children’s so it’s a little difficult to line up their tiny faces, but worth the effort. Be sure to check your spam folder when you get home as the email might end up there.
Beyond the morphing stations is the “Meet Your Ancestors” area. Artist John Gurche spent two and a half years creating realistic facial reconstructions of early man to scale. It’s impressive and moving to see these lifelike recreations. Seventy-six cast fossil skulls are also on display. Nearby is the rare tiny skeleton of the Homo floresiensis nicknamed the “Hobbit”.
My girls loved the recreation of a Paleolithic Cave with cave paintings accompanied by an audio of 35,000 year-old period flute music reproduced by a contemporary musician. Two computer games are offered. In the more appealing one, you can decide how humans will change as the earth changes. Will man develop webbed feet or wings? The other has a series of survival challenges.
A five minute media presentation “One Species Living Worldwide” is a good chance to take a brief break. It explores the origins of modern humans in Africa about 200,000 years ago and introduces us to people of all nationalities. The presentation emphasizes that the DNA of all humans living today is 99.9% identical.
Five life-size bronze sculptures by John Gurche installed throughout the exhibition make wonderful photo opportunities. Visitors are encouraged to sit on them and touch them. The best photo opportunity is the one where you can join Homo heidelbergensis at the campfire. Benches are scattered throughout the hall – helpful to tired parents and their children. A docent, who clearly loved his work, led my kids to the best photo opportunities and extolled the virtues of the handaxe.
Note: The new Hall makes no mention of Darwin or creationism.
Hours, Admission and Getting There
- The Museum is open from 10am to 7:30pm daily. Usually, it is open until 5:30pm but it currently has extended hours for the spring and summer. It is closed on Christmas Day.
- Admission is free.
- Parking near the museum is limited. The closest Metro stations to the National Museum of Natural History are the Smithsonian Station (Mall exit) and Federal Triangle (across Constitution Avenue) on the Blue and Orange line.
Restrooms & Food
There is a family restroom off the main Rotunda and many others throughout the museum. The museum has an Atrium Cafe on the ground floor. This Cafe offers more dining options. Outside of it is an ice cream/espresso bar. The Fossil Cafe is on the first floor.