Hall of Human Origins, National Museum of Natural History

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Museum Assignment/Exhibit Analysis (10%)

1,000-word essay, typed, double-spaced, plus notes

Due Monday, September 19 or Tuesday, September 20
Hall of Human Origins, National Museum of Natural History

Group museum visits are scheduled for Friday September 9th and Saturday September 10th, but you can also visit on your own.


  • to examine the role of context in shaping how we understand evidence. Understanding how context and perspective shape meaning in this assignment will help prepare you to analyze multiple perspectives in your larger research project

  • to analyze the use of interpretive questions of the kind you will use to focus your own research this semester. An interpretive question, as the name suggests, is open to interpretation and has a range of possible answers, more than one of which may be accurate or plausible. As a result, an interpretive question is can be approached from multiple perspectives. Interpretive questions tend to start with “Why?” or “How?”

Process Overview:

For this assignment, you will focus on the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, a recently opened permanent exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. In order to make the best use of your time at the museum, you will need to familiarize yourself with the website first: http://humanorigins.si.edu/. Spend a good 20 minutes browsing the site, making sure to explore the interactive floor plan as well as other features. Your instructor may also give you a more specific assignment to guide your browsing.

The Hall of Human Origins asks the question, what does it mean to be human? The exhibit offers a variety of possible answers to that question, ranging from

  • the cerebral: use of symbols, ability to imagine the impossible

  • to the social or affective: gathering at the hearth, burial customs

  • to the physiological: walking upright, larger brain size, ability to adapt to changing environments.

All of these answers focus on evidence: Think of the exhibit as a collection of narratives, each of which offers a piece of evidence, explains what that evidence tells us, and how we know that it tells us this.
Your assignment is to write a 1,000-word essay in which you first examine and analyze three contiguous pieces of evidence offered in the exhibit—three components that demonstrate how the curators have organized this question-answer-evidence narrative—and then offer an alternative narrative based on the same evidence, a different way of interpreting the evidence. Ask yourself, what is not included in the story the evidence presents? What questions are not asked or answered? Another way of saying this is what other narrative(s) does the evidence make available to visitors?

The essay is the final step, but much of the work for this assignment will come at the museum and after, as you review, refine, and revise your notes, and make an outline of the finished paper. This means that, as the writer and field researcher, you should plan on taking extensive notes: summarize or copy down text; take pictures of artifacts, images, and statues. Document your visit: take a picture of yourself, alone or with your classmates, near one portion of the exhibit.

Instructions for your time at the Museum:

  1. Spend at least 45 minutes looking through the entire Hall of Human Origins. Once you have an overall sense of the exhibit, focus on the area that interests you the most. (An “area” might be the Smithsonian Research Station or the section focused on body size and shape.)

  1. From within that area, choose a non-verbal artifact or fossil that particularly intrigues you. Your choice can be something large or small. It can be two- or three-dimensional. The only requirement is that it be something that conveys meaning without words and that you can successfully describe without reference to what surrounds it.

Note: Keep in mind that the exhibit primarily includes two kinds of non-verbal artifacts: representations based on scientific evidence (such as pictures, videos, sculptures, and dioramas); and representations of scientific evidence (such as casts of fossils). There is a limited amount of scientific evidence itself (actual fossils as opposed to casts; there is one of a Neanderthal enclosed in a glass case). Be sure you know what category of non-verbal artifact you are looking at.

  1. As if you were preparing to describe your piece of evidence to someone who has not seen it, take detailed notes on your item. Try to ignore everything around it and focus on the artifact itself. Do not shy away from ambiguity; if the artifact is hard to categorize precisely, that may be an important factor in how it is used as evidence in this exhibit. Begin to consider the (multiple) ways your artifact could be used as evidence.

  2. Note: You may take pictures to help you remember the details, and you may include images in your essay. But your primary responsibility to your readers is to represent the object in words. Readers should not need to see the pictures to understand your paper.

  1. Once you have made notes, step back to examine your artifact in context. Choose two items from the immediate surroundings that offer a perspective on your piece of evidence or help to shape its meaning. (One of these may be a verbal text or description.) Once again, take detailed notes. Focus on the proximity and relationship of these items to your object.

  1. Now, think about how all three items are being used in the exhibit to answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Which of the seven traits listed above (walking upright, gathering at the hearth, etc.) do your items illustrate? How do they answer the question? What kinds of evidence do they offer? And then, what questions do they not answer? What questions do they not ask? What different evidentiary narrative(s) can you construct for your collection of items?

Finished paper:
When you are home from the exhibit, use your notes to write a 1,000-word essay that first analyzes how the organization of materials within the Hall of Human Origins shapes an answer to the interpretive question, “What does it mean to be human?” and then demonstrates at least one other possible way of interpreting the evidence, substantiating your claims with reference to three specific pieces of evidence from the exhibit.
As you would with any formal essay, make an outline that includes an introduction, thoughtfully organized supporting points (drawn from your notes), and a conclusion. The thesis of your essay will be your claim about how context and organization shape meaning in this exhibit. It’s up to you where to state and reiterate that thesis, but you will be evaluated on the clarity of your argument and the coherence and organization of your supporting evidence. You are encouraged to include visuals in your paper, but these should not substitute for text.
Your finished essay must be:

  1. Typed

  2. Double spaced

  3. In 12-point, Times New Roman font (no larger)

  4. With 1-inch margins

  5. Include word count

  6. Stapled (no covers or folders)

  7. Edited and with spelling checked

Turn in your notes stapled to the back of your essay.
INSTRUCTIONS ON TRAVEL TO THE MUSEUM: The easiest way to travel to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum is to take the GMU shuttle to the Vienna Metro Station and travel on the orange line to the Smithsonian Metro stop. The approximate travel time from the Sandy Creek stop to the museum is about 1 hour and 15 minutes. 
GMU Shuttle

The times of departure for the GMU shuttle are listed on the website: http://shuttle.gmu.edu/masontometro.html

Sandy Creek stop is absent from the Mason to Metro schedule, but comes every half-hour. 

A Metro map is located at: http://www.wmata.com/rail/maps/map.cfm

You will take the orange line from Vienna station to the Smithsonian station. 
National Mall

A map of the national mall can be found at: http://www.si.edu/visit/maps.htm

Note the location of the Smithsonian (Independence Ave) Exit. 
Have fun, and don't forget to bring the assignment with you.

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