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Exploring Human Origins: What Does It Mean To Be Human?
Human Origins Hits the Road!
The Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program has completed its first tour across the U.S. with the traveling exhibit, Exploring Human Origins: What Does It Mean To Be Human? Developed in partnership with the American Library Association and made possible by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and support from the Peter Buck Human Origins Fund (Smithsonian), this exhibit offered the content of the Smithsonian's Hall of Human Origins to communities around the country by bringing this temporary exhibition to 19 public libraries. The exhibit tour began March 31, 2015, and was completed April 28, 2017. The exhibition and its associated public events, including formal community conversations and science programs, engaged audiences to explore the wonder of the scientific discoveries concerning human evolution and how these findings connect to diverse personal and societal perspectives about who we are as a species and why it matters.
The purpose of this traveling exhibit and accompanying programming was to further a national discussion, through community conversations, on the life sciences and to build opportunities for audiences to connect their personal lives and viewpoints with the scientific exploration of human origins. The exhibit was hosted by a diverse range of communities across the nation, from major urban centers to more rural areas that had few opportunities to otherwise access the research discoveries and programming the tour provided. To tailor the experience of this exhibition to different locations, each library has assembled a panel of community members from diverse religious, educational, civic, scientific, and other backgrounds. These consultation panels helped create unique programming for each library and assisted in facilitating the community discussions and other programs.
Exploring Human Origins featured a 1200-square-foot display with panels, interactive kiosks, engaging media presentations, 3D skull casts, and a life-sized Neanderthal mother and child statue. The exhibition was designed to communicate compelling messages concerning the emergence over time of the defining features of Homo sapiens and the relationship of our species to the natural world. In contrast to a focus on particular fossils and species, our exhibition invited library patrons to explore the milestones in the evolutionary journey of becoming human – from walking upright, creating technology, and living in variable climates to developments of the brain, society, symbolic language, and the exceptional presence humans have become in the history of life.
In seeking to promote a respectful national dialogue about human evolution, the exhibit tour invited conversations at the local level. One of the highlighted programs of Exploring Human Origins was an evening community conversation titled “Exploring the Meanings of Human Evolution: A Community Conversation”, led by Dr. Connie Bertka and Dr. Jim Miller, the co-chairs of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Broader Social Impacts Committee, and members of the Smithsonian staff. The discomfort felt by many people about evolution, particularly at the nexus of scientific and religious perspectives, has resulted in a lack of opportunities for the public to participate in conversations that encourage discussion of both the science of paleoanthropology and personal understandings of human origins. Our approach aimed to address openly the variety of religious and cultural perspectives that intersect with scientific findings on human evolution, and to create room for discussions through civil and open dialogue that invites the public to voice their personal insights. In addition, we sought to explore with the public the idea that scientific and religious perspectives on human evolution need not inherently conflict, and that excitement about human origins research is not limited to scientists.
An afternoon or evening science program titled “Exploring Human Origins: What does it mean to be human?” was offered in each community. Dr. Rick Potts gave a general public talk about the latest research in human evolution and provided an overview of the exhibit’s themes and messages. An initial conversation invited the audience to offer their own perspectives on the exhibit’s theme of what it means to be human. The talk explores how fossils, archeological finds, and genetic studies shed light on our connection with the natural world and the origins of sharing, caring, and innovation.
There was a two-to-four hour educators’ workshop for area science educators (teachers, museum educators, homeschoolers, etc.). The workshop offered a unique opportunity for local educators to converse about how to present the subject of human evolution. Dr. Briana Pobiner, who leads the Human Origin Program’s Education and Outreach efforts, discussed educational approaches developed by the Smithsonian with input from Dr. Connie Bertka, co-chair of the Smithsonian’s Broader Social Impacts Committee. The workshop provided educators an opportunity to express their experiences, conflicts, and apprehensions about teaching human evolution. The workshop also introduced local educators to the online, print, and other resources the Smithsonian made available to them and their students, as well as a set of skull replicas that was donated to each community for ongoiong educational use.
The libraries also hosted a special event for religious leaders and prominent members of faith communities on the topic of human evolution. Following a tour of the exhibit left by Dr. Potts, Dr. Connie Bertka and Dr. Jim Miller led participants in a discussion with their colleagues regarding questions the exhibit may raise for their communities. This event also introduced the clergy to the work of the Broader Social Impacts Committee and resources at the intersections of science, evolution, human origins, and religious faith.
In addition to these programs, all of the libraries hosted additional programs before, during, and after the exhibition was on display. These programs often include book discussion groups, documentary screenings, panel discussions, children’s activities, lectures on a variety of subjects relevant to human evolution, and more.
External Media Coverage
The itinerary of our traveling exhibition is listed below.
Orange County Library; Orlando, FL May 9–June 5, 2015
Panel Discussion at the Smithsonian
On October 6, 2017, representatives from 17 of the 19 libraries that hosted Exploring Human Origins gathered at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History for a debrief meeting after the project concluded. Part of that meeting included a public panel discussion moderated by exhibit curator Dr. Rick Potts in which representatives from four of the libraries discussed how this complex and challenging subject was received and celebrated in their communities. The event was live webcast on the National Museum of Natural History's USTREAM channel; you can watch the video of the panel discussion here.