- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will open in the fall a new hall of mammals that will teach visitors about the evolution of man.

The west wing of the museum is being renovated to accommodate what will be the permanent, interactive exhibit called “The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals.” The exhibit will tell the story of mammal evolution and show that all mammals have a lot in common.

“There will be a big ooh factor because the exhibition was designed for families,” said Robert Sullivan, associate director for public programs at the museum, during a tour of the hall yesterday.

“It’s going to be a spectacular exhibit, and it is the largest single exhibition we’ve ever opened,” he said. The exhibit is scheduled to open Nov. 15.

The exhibit will feature 274 mammals and about a dozen fossils in a variety of environments — including polar, desert, rain forest and grassland.

When walking into the new hall, visitors will be greeted at an orientation center, which will invite the public to what curators will call a “family reunion.” Mr. Sullivan said that because human beings are mammals, they can get involved in “this unique experience.”

A welcome wall will be decorated with framed pictures, just likes the ones families display in their homes of their great-aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents. Only these pictures will depict animals.

The displays will show animals in ways that tell specific stories about how they have changed and adapted to make the most of their environment, whether arctic, desert, prairie or woodland. There are four discovery zones with interactive displays.

In the arctic area, visitors will be able to feel a blast of cold air as they walk by a polar bear waiting to capture an unsuspecting seal. Nearby, visitors will be able to touch a refrigerated model of a ground squirrel kept at typical hibernating temperature. Across the way, in South America, they can use flashlights to expose the reflected “eye shine” of nocturnal mammals.

A few steps away, visitors can check out the evolution theater to watch an eight-minute videotape that traces the history of mammals. They’ll also be able to touch the fossils of extinct animals and stand in a cast of ancient hominid footprints from Africa.

If they’re tired, visitors can sit next to Harriett, a bronze statue of a chimpanzee, which Mr. Sullivan said is the closest relative to humans. In fact, chimpanzees share 96 percent of human DNA, he said.

Creatures will include a pacarana, a rodent from South America, and a clouded leopard from Asia.“We will have all new taxidermy because we wanted to get each creature in an exciting pose,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Paul Rhymer, a third-generation Smithsonian taxidermist, and John Matthews — both internationally known for their artisanship — shaped the mounts into natural poses.

Among those featured are a mother fox and her young, the pacarana scratching itself, a sea otter, a black jaguar ready to attack and an Australian wallaby carrying its young in its pouch.

“This hall is about relationships over time — mammals with each other and then how they interact with their environment,” said Elizabeth Musteen, project manger for the mammal hall.

Mr. Sullivan said no animals were killed to be put in the display. Rather, they were obtained from existing collections or from zoos when animals died of natural causes.

The 274 animals on display are mostly new, Mr. Sullivan said, noting that many animals from a previous mammal hall had been preserved using arsenic. Those animals are usable for scientific research but not for public display, he said.

The exhibit is named for Mr. Behring, who contributed $20 million to the museum. Mr. Behring was a longtime trophy hunter and donated 27 animals to the exhibit.

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