Behind the Scenes at the Gallery of Humankind

3D models of some of our predecessors. (Photo: Thierry Hubin, RBINS)
22/06/2015
Behind the Scenes at the Gallery of Humankind
post by
Reinout Verbeke

In April, we followed the final preparations for ‘The Gallery of Humankind: Our Evolution, Our Body’, a brand new permanent exhibition at the Museum of Natural Sciences. This unique and ambitious project traces seven million years of human evolution and explores our bodies’ development from embryo to adult.

“Wow, the 3D projections look great!” says scenery designer Katelijne De Kesel, beaming. An external company was busy working with laptops and projectors on the upcoming permanent exhibition. They were adjusting the pixels for the fluorescent projections of the nervous and blood circulatory systems on the life-size white mannequins. It looked very promising, and as Katelijne explained, “The projections are visually appealing and a great way to show the processes that take place in our body on  their true scale.”

After three years of planning projects, doing research, developing scenarios (the first was 160 pages long) and creating and refining prototypes, the project was gathering momentum, “There are so many factors and different collaborators, both internal and external… I know from experience that even if everything isn’t perfect from the start, it has to catch up during the final phase.” Five weeks before opening, however, the deadlines were being met.

Nonetheless, we had to acknowledge the fact that a fossil hominid that new gallery’s museologists had hoped to get hold of was not available. Unfortunately, the furniture where he was going to be put was already in production, “but we’ll adapt” said Katelijne reassuringly. Of the 25 hominids chosen to illustrate our evolution, 16 were transformed into life-size 3D reconstructions- a task which turned out to be quite a challenge!  “We opted for wood, but it’s a natural material that doesn’t always come in the same thickness. The test models came out too big or had huge gaps between the layers.” However, when the first model- a Paranthropus boisei- was brought into the room, everyone let out a cry of admiration.

Home Made

With the sixteen reconstructions, from ‘Toumai’ to Homo sapiens, via ‘Ardi’, ‘Lucy’ and even the most recent Neanderthal, from Spy in Belgium, the museologists wanted to surprise visitors from the outset with the models’ resemblance to modern humans. It is the only place in Europe where you can view and compare so many full-size hominid reconstructions. Were they a lot smaller? Was their morphology closer to that of a monkey or a man? Katelijne says, “We wanted to represent the proportions of their bodies as accurately as possibility, and in order to do so we were constantly consulting scientists. And no, there’s no hair or skin colour because there is no clear evidence of their colouring.” That is why the digital images of the 25 hominids often have different options. For the 2D representations, like those in 3D, there was much toing and froing between the graphic designers and the paleoanthropologists. “It was sometimes frustrating, because a small modification of a 3D image requires longs hours of calculations, but the results, in particular the poster with the ‘group photo’ of the human family, aren’t bad at all” says Katelijne.

Family Tree

With the exception of the Ishango tooth (part of the collection that is over 2 million years old) the bones on display in the cases are casts. “The real fossils are still being studied,” explains Sophie Boitsios, a museologist, “and the Neanderthal fossils from Spy are in our safe for security reasons.” The majority of the stone tools, nevertheless, are original, and some of them were discovered in Belgium.

Everything was meticulously planned, even all of the furniture was built in proportion to the length of time that we think each hominid lived. “The exhibition must clearly show that human history didn’t run in a straight line, it’s like a bushy tree with several types of hominids co-existing at certain periods.” For the moment, we do not know precisely who our species, Homo sapiens, evolved from. About 3.5 to 1.5 million years ago several species of Australopithecus (of which ‘Lucy’ afarensis and africanus are the most well-known) lived in Africa. Our line Homo sp. developed from one of them about 2.5 million years ago. We are still writing the chapter about modern humans, who appeared 200,000 years ago at most.

Our culture, social structure and intelligence allowed us to quickly achieve world domination. For 40,000 years we have successfully been the sole surviving human species.

The Body Uncovered

“It was while creating this exhibition that I really started to understand how evolution led to the body we have today,” says Sophie. The body is explored in the second part of the exhibition which examines  the different stages of life, from embryo, to childhood, adolescence and reproduction. Nearly everything on display is real: a collection of hundred year old foetuses in formalin, children’s and adults’ skeletons and plastinated limbs (like those in the famous Bodyworld exhibition). “This section is extremely interactive, with Kinect games, an association test, a peer pressure exercise, and tablets with animations.”

Stijn Pardon, from the multimedia team was finalizing the animations when we meet. They are ‘motion graphics’ in the same style as those used in the howbigisbelgica.be campaign: simple, dynamic with a touch of humour. “We wanted the text and animations to be in harmony. We started thinking of scenarios last summer. We were looking for a good balance of pizzazz and enough information, relevant content that was also exciting and not prosaic.” Eight tablets cover different biology-themed lessons-on topics such as immunology, bones and girls versus boys- which are divided into 8 to 20 short clips. “We use the members of a family as recurrent characters. We also make use of metaphors, for example a sperm cell becomes a match and the egg a basketball, to really show their proportions.”

A Unique Double Exhibition

In the section dedicated to the human body, you can also find ‘evoboxes’, which show that evolution is still on-going: some populations are adapted to life at high altitudes, others have become immune to certain diseases, and yet others have become lactose intolerant.

“The exhibition about our evolution and our body is  unique,” explains Katelijne. “The two parts tell a universal story that speaks to all of us.” The exhibition is particularly popular with school groups. “It is a bit ‘provocative’ in that there’s quite a lot of nudity and the real embryos in formalin could be disturbing, but I’m happy that we can show them. At the end of the day, if you come to a museum, it’s to see something different.”

 

To find out more:

From Sahelanthropus to Homo sapiens, and from embryo to adult; explore the evolution of humankind and our body in our brand new permanent exhibition.

 

Click the photo above to see more pictures

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