Arts Desk

Souvenir from Natural History’s “Human Origins” Opening: Me as a Neanderthal

neanderthaljon

Yes, that's me. I look like the kid in Jumanji.

I took it in what is now my favorite photobooth in D.C., in the National Museum of Natural History's new, permanent David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins (more on that namesake below), which opened this morning to the press, and this afternoon to the public. Like several features of the engrossing and rigorous exhibit, the booth playfully stresses a scientific consensus that, increasingly, feels under assault. And yet: Maybe it's because I was fidgeting while I took the picture, but somehow, this hardly strikes me as something that will sway evolution's most hard-headed deniers.

Even the exhibit's serious, academic bulk feels defensive: The phrase "Humans evolved over millions of years in response to a changing world" is among the first things visitors see upon entering the hall; during a press event this morning, those words were projected onto several screens, and repeated by two of the presenters, the museum's director, Christián Samper, and the director of the Human Origins Program, paleoanthropologist Richard Potts. The statement—simple, unequivocal, subtly coded—suggests a science that's aware of its politics. And so this instructive exhibit is also deconstructive: In order to be above politics, it has to undo it.

kochPolitics also entered the room in a different way: As I walked toward the museum on Constitution Ave., a protester from Greenpeace handed me a flier that read "WANTED FOR CLIMATE CRIMES." Beneath that it showed the names and faces of David H. Koch and his brother Charles G. Koch, the respective executive vice president and CEO of Koch Industries, a petroleum and chemicals company that is one of the largest private corporations in the U.S. The back of the flyer alleges that David Koch, the "Human Origins" exhibit's largest benefactor, and his brother provided millions in funding to climate-denial groups through their nonprofit foundation, citing the Koch Foundation's tax filings. (David Koch was a libertarian presidential candidate in 1980, and the brothers are well-known supporters of libertarian causes.)

I asked a public relations officer what the museum thought of the eight or nine protesters outside, and of Koch's views on climate change. She told me that the museum is funded both publicly and privately, a line that Samper repeated later during a question-and-answer session. He then shared an anecdote: When he and Potts first met with Koch in New York several years ago, the executive showed him a fossil he had dug up himself at an archaeological site. In other words: The climate-change denier had no beef with evolution. Even some opponents of science defend it on other fronts.

I'll have a full review of the exhibit soon. But it's worth noting, especially on March 17, the 100th anniversary of the Museum of Natural History's founding, the political tightrope that public science institutions have to walk in 2010.

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