Teaching old fossils new tech tricks

A look at a recently revamped exhibit in New York's American Museum of Natural History, which inspired last year's hit Ben Stiller movie. Photos: New look for exhibit

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
NEW YORK--Here's the first thing you have to know about the Anne & Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History: It takes some digging to find it.

In order to get to the newly revamped exhibit, which opened on February 10 with a tech-savvy face-lift, I had to use a museum floor plan to navigate my way past dueling moose in the Hall of North American Mammals, around some rats and badgers in the Small Mammals display, and through a corridor of totem poles in the Northwest Coast Indians exhibit. Then I made a wrong turn and found myself staring down an enormous model of a centipede in the Hall of New York State Environment. I was a little bit grossed out, but clearly my sentiments were not shared by the three small children who were jumping around with excitement at the sight of giant bugs.

"I love the big worms! They are so awesome! They have ten thousand thousand legs!" one of them squealed.

Hall of Human Origins

Kids absolutely love the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), which exhibits everything from meteorites to stuffed elephants to dinosaur fossils, and the recent success of the Ben Stiller movie Night at the Museum, which was inspired by the museum, has only upped the craze. Attendance at the AMNH is soaring: when comparing the winter of 2006 to the winter of 2007, "there was a 15 to 20 percent increase" in ticket sales, according to Michael Walker, the museum's senior publicist. When I visited the museum on a weekday morning, it was packed full of visitors, mostly school groups on field trips. When I walked into the 9,000-square-foot Hall of Human Origins, there were so many children around that I felt like some kind of ill-fitting endangered species.

But even though younger visitors to the museum might gush over giant centipedes, this is the digital age, and looking at something behind glass just isn't enough anymore. After all, the dioramas in Night at the Museum were really only cool when they came to life after dark thanks to a mummy's curse. (There are, by the way, no mummies in the real AMNH.) Consequently, the museum has been gradually revamping its exhibits with digital video displays, touch-screen computers, and redesigned dioramas to fit the past decade's advancements in technology.

The AMNH's famed dinosaur halls, which take up the entire fourth floor, were closed for three years for an extensive makeover in the mid-1990s. The Hall of Biodiversity was renovated several years later, and the Halls of Ocean Life and Meteorites were tweaked in 2003. The Spitzer Hall of Human Origins is just the latest step: previously known as the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution, it had been long overdue for a face-lift.

"This seems to be a trend among not only natural history museums, but science centers and even art museums around the country (are showing) more of an interest in getting an interactive element into the exhibitions," Walker said.

Where the old Hall of Human Biology and Evolution had once been an austere set of skeleton casts and dioramas depicting Neanderthals who looked like they'd stepped out of Geico Auto Insurance's "So Easy, A Caveman Can Do It" ad campaign, the refurbished Hall of Human Origins is a multimedia wonderland.

Consequently, where the old Hall of Human Biology and Evolution had once been an austere set of skeleton casts and dioramas depicting Neanderthals who looked like they'd stepped out of Geico Auto Insurance's "So Easy, A Caveman Can Do It" ad campaign, the refurbished Hall of Human Origins is a multimedia wonderland. The old dioramas are still intact, but the surrounding explanations and diagrams have been replaced with more information, better graphics, and often video or interactive touch-screen displays. The walls are decorated with a pattern that was derived from a digital image of the bone tissue from the famous australopithecine fossil known as "Lucy." (The 1974 discovery of the 3-foot-tall "Lucy" was one of the most pivotal moments in piecing together the timeline of human evolution.)

Some of the old displays have been more creatively enhanced. One smaller diorama, a miniature model of an excavation site at La Micoque, France, has had its archaeologist action figures replaced with hologram-like projections that show videos of scientists moving around the site while an accompanying audio narration explains what's happening.

But simply bringing the technology in the exhibits up to speed isn't enough. High-tech advancements are also rapidly changing our knowledge of human evolution itself, and consequently the contents of the Hall of Human Origins also were treated to an overhaul.

Many of the new additions reflect recent developments not only in anthropology, but in genetics: for example, there's a vial of 40,000-year-old Neanderthal DNA on display, extracted by geneticists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. There's also an interactive map that shows the migration of Homo sapiens from Africa to the rest of the globe, with up-to-date information provided by recent discoveries in DNA evidence. Additionally on display is a cast of the skull of the recently unearthed miniature human specimen known as "Hobbit," the controversial fossil that may point to a new ancient species of hominid.

Some of the most innovative technology at the Hall of Human Origins, however, dealt not with recent discoveries but with concepts that are still being deciphered. One section of the exhibit concerns traits and skills thought to be exclusively "human"--language, art, music--and explores their roles as defining characteristics of our species. This is still very debatable. One glass case contained something seemingly out-of-place in a hall full of fossil casts--a robot called Robotic Action Painter, or RAP, which has been programmed to create original and unique paintings, and which has been held up as an example of how art may not be a solely human capability.

But, disappointingly, only a small corner of the hall was reserved for some of the most up-to-the-moment developments in human evolutionary science: the controversy over the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools, as well as how our knowledge of humanity's origin contributes to our perception of the future. Perhaps it's because the hall was cramped for space in the already-packed AMNH, but I wished that more of the new-media resources had been devoted to explaining future extinctions, the debate about laboratory-propelled "evolution," sustainable growth, as well as Stephen Hawking's controversial assertion that humanity will have to expand into space if it wants to last another millennium. All those topics were given barely a few sentences on a single display.

And despite the introduction of new technology and interactive exhibits, there's a chance that some of the AMNH's younger visitors are focusing on the new sights and sounds rather than the science behind them. As I was leaving the Hall of Human Origins, I walked past a group of 9- or 10-year-olds who were ogling some fossil casts of extinct lemur-like primates.

One of them pointed to a fossil and shouted to his friends, "Look at these little reptiles!" Guess he wasn't reading the "primate" label.