A New Habitat

Mammal Hall at Natural History Museum Opens Saturday

Posted November 12, 2003 at 3:16pm

The wall resembles any other display of family pictures. The affectionately organized picture frames are hung in a prominent location in the house and flaunt the family’s most charming and finest moments.

What’s different about these pictures, however, is that the portrait wall is not in a home, but in a museum, and the subjects are not humans, but mostly animals.

This portrayal of a typical human tradition is what the curators of the new mammal hall at the National Museum of Natural History used to illustrate the theme of the exhibit — that all mammals, including humans, share numerous common traits.

With the opening of the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals — appropriately titled “Welcome to the Family Reunion! Come Meet Your Relatives” — the five-year renovation of the museum’s west wing will officially come to a close Saturday, marking the first time the wing will see its original design since 1910.

In the five-year renovation of the 25,000-square-foot space, the hall has undergone a total facelift to make room for the new exhibit.

The brick walls between the wing’s support columns that were installed to provide office space during World War I were removed, the windows were replaced, the skylights were uncovered, and the color was returned to its original creams and browns.

Additionally, workers had to put in overtime to get the actual exhibition ready for the public, ending years of research, organization and preparation by the museum’s “mammal team.”

“The Behring Family Hall of Mammals sets a new standard for museum biology halls in both content and design,” Robert Sullivan, the museum’s associate director for public programs, said in a statement. “It combines a passionate and detailed commitment to research with fresh interpretive displays.”

The exhibition emphasizes how, as the world changed in the past 210 million years, mammals have evolved and diversified and displays mammals in settings that tell specific stories of their evolution and adaptations over time in response to their changing habitats.

“It’s not just ‘these are cool mammals,’ it really tells a story,” said Sally Love, the hall’s exhibit developer. “We really made every scene and case a story.”

A display of a giraffe, for example, pairs a neck vertebra of a modern giraffe with a fossil of a much smaller vertebra of an ancient giraffe.

Also, a set of monkeys is displayed in thick foliage to illustrate the interactive calls they use to communicate.

The exhibition also features a sound-and-light show that conjures a rainstorm to end the dry season and a chance to walk in the 1.5-million-year-old footprints of early hominoids.

The new hall is a monument to the philanthropic spirit of California businessman Kenneth Behring, who donated $20 million to the museum in 1997 to update the museum’s rotunda, support a traveling exhibit and develop a new hall that bears his name.

The west wing gallery was intended to house mammal exhibits, but the luminous hall with the 54-foot-high skylight was compromised to house the Smithsonian’s Freer collection of Asian art in 1912 and the U.S. Bureau of War Risk Insurance with office space in 1917. In later years the west wing held a bird and marine life exhibit.

“The Beaux Arts style [in the hall] focused on volume, light and nature as a spectacle, all elements that were lost from the hall over time,” Sullivan said in a press release. “We aimed to bring that look back to the space.”