Smithsonian Institution: Hall of Human Origins
The gallery offers an emotional and intellectual journey through human evolution posing the question to visitors, “What does it mean to be human?”
- Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History
- David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins
- 15,000 sq. ft.
- Exhibit Design, Graphic Design
- Washington D.C., USA
- Year Completed
Since the Smithsonian and its team are leaders in the study of human origins, our goal was to conceive a powerful set of spaces and experiences to both immerse visitors in the science and to emotionally connect them to their ancient hominid ancestry.
There were multiple objectives for the Gallery. It needed to be flexible enough to accomodate new discoveries; it needed to take visitors into the depths of the scientific research; it needed to help visitors understand that modern humans are connected to ancient human species through the powerful forces of evolution; and it needed to give visitors access to the factual details as well as the powerful fundamental milestones in human evolution. Overall, the gallery needed to establish a new experiential precedent in the presentation of human origins to balance immersion, innovation, and scientific engagement.
Our design showcases a chronological journey of 7 million years of evolution that can be experienced from the past until today, or vice versa. The timeline is shown on a giant, sweeping, curved evolutionary wall spanning virtually the entire length of the gallery. The wall is punctuated with monumental sculptures that signify the major milestones in human evolution from bipedality through to symbolic thought. The long vista piercing into the main hall reveals a dramatic wall of stratigraphy showcasing ‘Human Characteristics’ as iconic sculptures, with abundant fossil highlights and interactives within an undulating wall of sedimentary layers. Adjacent to the wall, visitors encounter a series of media installations called ‘Snapshots in Time’.
Since human fossil evidence is fragmentary, minimal, and often difficult to understand, the gallery offers a rich palette of design techniques such as multimedia installations, immersive environments, powerful tactile sculptures /interactives, as well as direct encounters with many real fossils to chronicle a detailed history of human evolution.
Bold new interactive experiences allow visitors to engage in scientific exploration, uncovering how scientists have come to understand human evolution and the analytical methods by which they work. Interactive media was designed to foster social collaboration, even amongst strangers.
The design incorporates large-scale multimedia environments (such as a time tunnel that transports visitors through 7 million years of human evolution). Custom sculptured artworks bring visitors face-to-face with their distant hominid ancestors, personalizing the content of the gallery, as the encounters in the gallery help bring the fossils to life. Multimedia installations immerse visitors in the world of early hominids to better appreciate the complex stories that fossilized bone fragments alone cannot easily communicate.
Since the science of human origins, is a fast evolving area of research, display modules in the exhibit were deliberately designed in such a way that they could easily be updated by the museum as the science itself evolves.
The gallery design of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins purposefully builds a meaningful connection to our ancient human ancestors with encounters that stimulate both the head, and heart. The resulting design features are dramatic yet elegant, effectively conveying the message of the exhibit in an inviting and thought-provoking space. The exhibition was considered such a success as a communication too, it was turned into a travelling exhibition and sent out to across the United States to teach the science of evolution in places where evolution was thought to be a contentious issue.
The media response to the gallery was deeply enthusiastic:
“The show humanizes evolution. It is in part a story of human triumph“.
Edward Rothstein, The New York Times
Project Specific Work
As part of our contract, R&P did the media direction and procured and delivered the media for the project.
R&P helped the Smithsonian to develop their first iPhone app, “Meanderthal.” The app was based on the popular face morphing AV interactive within the gallery. In this interactive, visitors see themselves connected to their early ancestors in a fun and engaging way.
R&P provided additional graphic design services for marketing the new gallery opening. They designed the exterior building banners that featured some of the key specimens from the gallery.
These hung prominently from the main mall entrance to the museum. R&P also designed the invitation for the opening gala event. The concept of the invitation was ‘uncovering what makes us human’. As the recipient pulls open the card from its sleeve, they reveal the characteristics that make us human, one of which is the opposable thumb which the recipient had to use to open the card!