New Hall on the Mall

A dazzling exhibition space celebrates mammalian diversity through re-creations of habitats on four continents

The hall combines natural history with state-of-the-art technology. D.A. Peterson: National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

The architects who designed the National Museum of Natural History early in the 20th century placed three spacious exhibition wings to the east, west and north of a soaring entry rotunda. But the grandeur of their design was compromised within a few years of the museum's 1910 opening. In the west wing, for instance, brick walls were built between the marble columns to provide office space, and eventually the wing was divided into four exhibition areas. Now the partitions have been cleared away (as they will be cleared from the north and east wings of the museum in years to come), and the wing, restored from floor to 54-foot-high skylight, has been reborn as the Behring Hall of Mammals, a spectacular new exhibition space in which the technology of display is as state of the art as the science.

The hall, which opens November 15, 2003 is a monument to the philanthropic spirit of California businessman Kenneth E. Behring, for whose family it has been named. Ken's gift of $20 million to the museum in 1997 launched the physical restoration of the building. In addition—in extraordinary addition, I should say—Ken has committed $80 million to the revitalization of the National Museum of American History. His overall commitment of $100 million is the largest private-sector benefaction to the Smithsonian since James Smithson bequeathed the fortune that established it.

The Hall of Mammals is a monument as well to our Smithsonian scientists, and in particular to Robert Hoffmann, a world authority on mammals and a former director of the museum. Only 20 percent of the museum's interior is exhibition space. The rest is home to the various great collections and to those who tend and study them. The behind-the-scenes labor of the staff establishes the intellectual and scientific foundations on which we present the collections to the world, in exhibitions for which the Smithsonian depends largely on private benefactors. (Federal funds—taxpayers' dollars—make up approximately 75 percent of the Smithsonian's annual budget, but because they do not support many activities that are fundamental to the expectations the public has of the Smithsonian, we must seek substantial additional funds each year from the private sector.) The Behring Hall of Mammals is a model instance of collaboration between the wisdom of our staff and the generosity of a donor.

Who qualifies for the hall? What makes a mammal a mammal, a credentialed member of the extended family that comprises more than 5,000 species (and readers of this magazine)? All those species share the following characteristics: hair, mother's milk and three inner-ear bones. Of course, what's so striking about mammals is not their similarities but their differences. How did they come to be so diverse? The epic story deserves an epic telling, and thanks to a team that includes co-curators Bob Hoffmann and distinguished paleobiologist Kay Behrensmeyer, the new exhibition provides just that. Using fossils of ancient mammals and 274 meticulously prepared specimens, it draws visitors into environments re-created from four continents—where, for example, audiences will join animals gathered around an African water hole as a rainstorm breaks, or crouch with lions watching from grasslands nearby. And anyone who’s ever aspired to view the world from inside a termite mound will finally get his wish.

An especially notable inhabitant of the new hall is Morganucodon oelheri—"Morgie," in curatorial shorthand—a contemporary of the first dinosaurs, approximately 210 million years ago. Reconstructed from fossil evidence, Morgie is among the earliest species with truly mammalian characteristics. Given that this rodentlike creature was likely the ancestral source of mammalian genes, be grateful for all the subsequent mysterious, disconcerting turns evolution took as mammals contended with conditions on earth over a couple of hundred million years. The family lost Morgie, but it did, in time, gain Mozart.

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