Smithsonian Institution: Hall of Mammals
Smithsonian’s Hall of Mammals is a beloved highlight for Washington DC visitors. Featuring the multimedia thunderstorm at the African watering hole, striking specimen installations and family-focussed discovery zones, the gallery is a top destination.
- Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History
- Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals
- 22,500 sq. ft.
- Exhibit Design, Graphic Design
- Washington D.C., USA
- Year Completed
The National Museum of Natural History asked R&P to design their new Mammals Hall and have it open to the public within a very tight 30-month timetable. This had never been achieved before; typically, the Museum allots five to seven years for large projects.
R&P was also tasked to create a contemporary and dynamic design approach that did not rely on traditional natural history dioramas. The Head of Exhibitions wanted to excite and engage visitors with an approach and design aesthetic that reflected the freshness of the newly revitalized Heritage Hall, while showcasing the artisanal craft of museum artwork and the spectacular mammal specimens.
As a major and permanent gallery within one of the most visited museums in the world, the exhibits would also have to be robust enough to survive intact on this national stage for its 30-year lifespan.
- This is a fabulous exhibit that sets a new standard for science museums…Larry Small
Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in the Washington Post.
“The new mammal hall has drawn huge crowds, and is not only dazzling, full of simulated lighting and thunder and rainfall, with animals leaping out of nowhere, but also a fabulous promotional tool.”
-Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post reviewing the Behring Hall of Mammals
Throughout the gallery, the displays are like modern theatre sets where the specimens pose like actors on minimal stone and terrazzo platforms punctuated with only essential props: an Acacia tree, a strip of dried grass, or a thorny bush.
The space is carefully choreographed under the theme of a ‘Mammals Family Reunion’, describing subjects including diversity, common mammal characteristics and evolution. The visitor is surrounded by stunning displays from the collection to the central gallery and side halls, all organized by geographic area. Kid-focussed discovery zones throughout welcome families to explore.
Situated under the most dramatic architectural space, the Central Africa gallery is focussed on a moment of dramatic transformation, set at an African watering hole. Using digital backdrops, digital screens inset into the floor, an audio installation and graphic scrims the space transform from a dry day on the Savannah where animals jostle at the watering hole to a dark, intense rainstorm that marks the start of the rainy season.
At the heart of the gallery, in front of the award-winning Evolution Theater, the evolution story is thoughtfully shown in a shrine-like space for Morganucadon Oehleri, our oldest mammal relative yet discovered.
Smithsonian’s Hall of Mammals represented a turning point in natural history exhibition design across North America. R&P is proud of our intense effort to develop the project and of the deep relationship we have fostered with NMNH. Over two decades, this special partnership has had a lasting impact on our firm and our work, including the Museum’s Hall of Human Origins, Butterfly Pavilion and their latest major Hall, Deep Time.
R&P collaborated closely with the architectural team for the historical restoration of the gallery space, within one of the oldest and most important spaces at the Smithsonian. We were asked to have the gallery design completed and documented for competitive tendering within 8 months to allow the exhibits to be fabricated as a subcontract to the General Contractors. R&P developed a set of drawings along with costing to take advantage of this innovative process. Each exhibit was arranged to allow the base building contractors to produce many exhibit elements, such as raised floors and major structures, within the architectural construction.
Project Specific Work
R&P provided additional graphic design services for marketing the new gallery opening. When the museum’s special event team was planning out the gallery’s opening party, they came to R&P to design a special invitation. Knowing that the U.S. capital is full of similar black tie events throughout the year, we recommended that we do something different. Using photos of their actual specimens and with the help of a bow tie shaped die cut, the animals are dressed up inviting guest to join them to the “Mammals’ Reunion Party”.