GNSI DC: March 2004 Meeting Report-
Mammals on Parade!
by Mary Parrish and Britt Griswold

Figure 1.  An African bull elephant is the centerpiece of the entrance rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History. Note that the height of the ceiling on each floor is shorter as they go up in order to exaggerate the perspective. Photo by Chip Clark.

One of the highlights of the year for the GNSI D.C. chapter was a tour of the newly renovated Mammal Hall at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Smithsonian Institution.  We had a great turn out on March 16, 2004 of approximately 25 members for the fabulous tour led by Sally Love,  NMNH Exhibit Developer assigned to the renovation of the hall.

Sally led us not only through the new hall, but though the trials and tribulations of designing the hall, demolishing the old, contracting design firms, major construction, fund raising, scientist/designer/writer meetings (“pencils were thrown”), and all the ups and downs inherent to a large project such as this. 

The National Museum of Natural History opened in 1907, and is a beautiful example of Beaux Arts architecture. The original NMNH architects used skylights, and light, open space to give the exhibit space the appearance of great openness and expanse.  Even perspective was used in their architectural design to achieve this effect - each floor was built shorter than the one before it in order to exaggerate the perception of upward space (Fig. 1). 

Over the years, exhibits staff covered the skylights, removed decorative moldings, altered the original color of the walls, divided the space, and otherwise modified the original architecture to accommodate new exhibits.  These exhibits ranged from the popular chicken coop design of early years (Figure 2), through the beautifully constructed dioramas of mammals in their environments and mammal display cases built in the 1950s (Fig. 3).

Figure 2. This exhibit from the mid 1900s (in what eventually became the Mammal Hal)l showed the public what a chicken coop looked like. This figure also shows the false ceiling added to the Hall that blocked the original architecture and skylights. Later renovations blocked the windows seen at the back of the room. Figure 3a. Example of the Mammal Hall prior to the recent renovation: Diorama. Figure 3b. Examples of the Mammal Hall prior to the recent renovation: Specimen display.

Five years ago, a generous $20 million gift from California real estate businessman and big game hunter Kenneth Behring was donated to the museum that was specifically designated to update the Rotunda and renovate the Mammal Hall. After careful planning, the museum exhibit staff decided they would like to return to the beautiful original architectural design of the museum while at the same time develop a very contemporary exhibit.  The new exhibit would also encompass a new philosophical shift.  Rather than showing mammals as part of their environments, the new exhibit uses simple, open settings to keep the focus squarely on the specimens and illustrates the many ways in which mammal diversity has been driven by their evolution and adaptation to changing environments for millions of years (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. a) a bronze cast of a chimp joins visitors to watch a movie about mammal evolution. Photo by Mary Parrish. Figure 4. b) the original Beaux-Arts architecture with skylights can be seen above the taxidermied mammals in the newly renovated hall. Photo by Mary Parrish. Figure 5. Two of the 274 taxidermied specimens on display in the new Mammal Hall. Photo by Mary Parrish.

The Mammal Exhibit team (Exhibits and Education staff, plus 2 Natural History curators) hired a design firm and collaboratively established an initial concept design. Sally considers Natural History exhibits a “high maintenance” client (this is because we have very high standards when it comes to scientific accuracy and high aesthetic quality) and they expect the designer to work to those standards. Much thinking, experimenting and rethinking goes into the creation of an exhibit design and execution; including consultations with scientists, and “test marketing” concepts to museum visitors. Unfortunately the design firm’s partners had a parting of the ways after much initial work was done, and the team found themselves trying to work with a different set of designers. It soon became clear that this set of designers could not match the museum’s vision, and a new design firm was selected. However, many valuable months were wasted in the process.

The new firm quickly pointed out that the plethora of presentations crammed into the first draft of the design would leave too little room to handle the flow of people through the exhibit. The team confirmed this by laying out a mock full size floor plan on the national mall outside the museum and walked through it.  Eventually a revised design reduced the content of the hall by 40% to allow more walking space and in the process tightened up the theme and focus as well.

With oversight by the project’s general contractor, many subcontractors were needed to create the exhibits: multimedia, animation, audio for the African soundscape, sculpture, taxidermy, and illustration, to name a few. 274 taxidermied mounts (Fig. 6) prepared by extremely skilled taxidermists, and a dozen replica bones and fossils appear in the hall, many available for touching by visitors. The illustration work was subcontracted to several artists. Exhibits provided over 1000 reference photos and other materials to help guide the creation of the graphic style and content of the visuals.

When the Smithsonian commissions art for their exhibits, they always try to purchase all rights, so they will have unencumbered reuse. With the designers, the team will help establish style guidelines for the artists selected, and the illustrator then prepares concept sketches, which are subject to major revision to get the right feel and look exhibits group is looking for.  This project ran into some difficulty during this phase. The fabricator commissioned much of the artwork without allowing the time necessary for reviews and approvals. However the grand opening was set in stone. Remember the donor of the money for the exhibit is a retired businessman. Five years were needed to work though the process; he was afraid he would not be around for the opening if it took much longer!

Fortunately, museum exhibits are an evolving process. The Mammal exhibit team will revisit areas that need improvement. And finally the team will conduct visitor testing and interviews to determine how well the exhibits meet the goals that were set out for project.

Figure 6.  Sally Love discusses the taxidermy process for the collection of animals chosen from Smithsonian specimens and Kenneth Behring's personal collection. Photo by Britt Griswold. Figure 7.  GNSI members enjoy a private tour of the new NMNH Mammals Hall. Photo by Britt Griswold. Figure 8. Alice Tangerini sits with the bronze Chimpanzee to view the mammal evolution animation. Sally Love says the chimp both attracts and repels children. Photo by Britt Griswold.

Families, the NMNH primary visitor audience, are the audience the exhibit is designed to please.  Many of the exhibits are geared towards the educational needs of young children – although there is a great deal of information any adult would enjoy learning. A website describing the new hall and containing a great deal of information about mammals can be found at starting May 31, 2004.

More images:

Mammal Hall Past
Mammal Hall Present (our tour)

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