March 13, 2010
by Canadian Architect
On March 19, 2010, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC will unveil the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, a new permanent gallery showcasing six million years of human evolution. The hall is named for David H. Koch, a pre-eminent American philanthropist, chemical engineer and executive vice president of Koch Industries, Inc., whose gift enabled the museum to create the new $20.7-million hall.
Reich+Petch Design International’s four-year collaboration with the Smithsonian’s team of scientists, curators and exhibits team has culminated in a wondrous 15,000-square-foot, media-rich gallery that immerses visitors in a fascinating environment dedicated to the discovery and understanding of human origins. “The study of human origins is among the most vibrant fields of science and one that draws much public curiosity,” said Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the museum, whose research and vision is the foundation of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Initiative.
Through a body of evidence that includes bones, fossils, skulls and skeletons, the gallery design connects visitors to our ancient human ancestors with encounters on both an intellectual and emotional level. The gallery experience will balance content that is scientific as well as personally emotive. Visitors will be immersed in a unique, interactive museum experience illuminating the major milestones in the origin of human beings and covering the sensitive topic of climate change, survival and extinction that have characterized humans’ ancient past.
According to Stephen Petri, Principal and Senior Designer, “Our design challenge was to bring the past to life, while keeping the artifacts relevant and accessible to the visitors. In this gallery, visitors can actually engage with the fossil evidence and can see the ‘detective work’ that leads to scientists understanding our past. Wherever possible, the exhibit makes it clear that each fossil represents a real person with a unique story.”
The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins establishes a new benchmark for visitor-centered
museum experiences. The stories of the gallery are presented in a rich palette of design techniques: multimedia theatres, immersive environments, interactive devices and direct encounters with fossils. The design uses both large-scale multimedia installations and custom-carved sculptures to bring visitors literally face-to-face with our distant ancestors, helping to personalize their stories. Multimedia plays a critical role in connecting the richness and complexity of the human story to the evidence.
Reich+Petch not only designed the gallery and the multimedia concepts but was contracted to produce the final animations and led the team of world class AV companies such as XLR8 Design and Chedd Angier Lewis to produce the final products.
A key design feature of the gallery is the three-dimensional sculptural installations which show the physical realities and similarities of our distant ancestors. At the central point of the Hall, visitors will be surrounded by eight dramatically life-like facial reconstructions of species spanning from over six million years of evolutionary evidence found across 5 continents. The reconstructions are displayed with an appropriate facial expression and at their correct head height and size. Each reconstruction represents the existence of an individual. Visitors are encouraged to focus on the physical and facial characteristics, sparking the imagination of visitors and personalizing their “human” connection. Computer interactives allow visitors to study these ancient faces and then morph their own faces into extinct species.
The new exhibition hall will be complemented by ongoing research and education programs, which are all key components of the museum’s broader Human Origins Initiative. The initiative focuses on the epic story of human evolution and how the defining characteristics of our species have evolved over six million years as our ancestors adapted to a changing world.
Reich+Petch Design International is a leading exhibition design firm with offices in Toronto and Washington, DC. They have a long history of working with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History as contracted designers. Reich+Petch has designed other exhibits and galleries for the Museum, including the award-winning Behring Hall of Mammals, one of their most visited galleries. Reich+Petch creates experiences that enable visitors to better understand the world and their place in it.
“We have developed a strong working relationship with the Smithsonian’s museum staff and are deeply committed to ensuring that our galleries showcase cutting-edge design and at the same time stay true to the content and messaging that are so critical to their success,” states Petri.
The Museum welcomed more than seven million visitors in 2009, making it the most visited museum in the United States. This gallery’s premiere also marks the 100th anniversary of the Museum’s opening.