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Deconstructing Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at AMNH

February 9, 2012

In contrast to the Islamic Lands galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the design in the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins is much more prevalent. Which follows reason. On one hand, the Met is displaying its collection as a way of showing the effect of the spread of Islam on art and artifacts. On the other hand, The Hall of Human Origins starts from a topic: how humans came to be as a species, what makes us similar and different from other species, and what’s so special about our species. The exhibition elements serve the sole purpose to tell this story.

When you enter the exhibit, before you even get to the three topics above, you’re in an area that answers the question “how do we know all this?” To the left is a section on DNA and to the right is a section on fossils. With so much space, media, artifacts, and panels dedicated to these two types of evidence, I couldn’t help but think that it’s a reaction to creationists (a video later in the exhibit is explicitly so). One thing is for sure, the first impression of this area is this exhibit is going to be loaded with information. It feels so rich with information, there’s no way I was going to be able to move through it at a good pace an pick up more than half of it. It feels a bit daunting. The presentation of the information is enticing however. There’s plenty to see, touch, and hear.

The purpose of the second gallery is to allow us to “walk through time” from the first humans about 6-7 million years ago until the first homo sapien, about 15,000 years ago. The signs indicate that there’s a particular way that you’re supposed to walk through the gallery in order to view the story of our evolution in chronological order. The sign says, “just has human evolution did not follow a straight line, neither should you.” This left me a little confused. What exactly does it mean that it didn’t follow a straight line? And then that also initially made me feel that I wasn’t supposed to follow their map. After all, the path on the map may not be straight, but it is linear. So as a visitor, I’m thinking: “Evolution wasn’t a straight line, but it was linear,” not quite sure what that means.

What I liked so much about this gallery was the traditional dioramas in it, those that you would typically find at a museum of natural history. While the exhibit may be entirely modern in style, it’s a bit of a relief that the designers didn’t do away with all traditional forms of exhibition for a museum like this. It was almost comforting to see this familiar exhibit display. The other thing that caught my eye was the use of a very consistent visual style to call out how long ago each element was from. That’s the central idea of this gallery, as we “walk through millions of years of history.” We’re given a clear idea of how time is moving. I found myself looking for this graphical cue in each display in order to keep my “temporal bearings” as I viewed the exhibit.

The next area we walk into is called the Symbolic World. It looks at creative expression in early humans to give us a sense of how they made sense of their world. Using the “viewport” of such artifacts to draw these conclusions is extremely effective in getting this idea across and making me feel that I’m “getting my money’s worth” from the exhibit. It’s also a nice break from looking at bones, fossils and DNA models.

The last gallery ends with the concept of what makes humans so special, focusing on biology (like the brain), language, music, art and a few other elements. This area felt a little too “loose” for me. In other words, I had to work a little harder to understand why I was looking at what I was looking at. The display at the front of the gallery, the ones that tells us why we’re looking at these elements is very text-heavy and this idea is buried in it. If you breeze by that panel, you don’t have a sense of why there are all these displays. I’m not sure how I would approach this differently, and perhaps since the subject matter here is a a lot more disparate, it’s a problem that isn’t easily solved within the realm of exhibition design.

Overall, the exhibit scores fairly high for me. If I would change anything, I would take some stuff away, it almost feels too rich in content. So much so, that it feels daunting. Other than that, the style, flow, lighting, artifacts, and media are all very well presented and were definitely engaging.

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