how a Cape City museum exhibit is rewriting the story of humankind

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Image your typical human evolution museum show. You stroll right into a dimly lit house with glass containers on white plinths or roped off areas. There are heaps and plenty of bones. Possibly a little bit of historical past on how these bones have been collected, and photos of the well-known folks – normally males – who collected them. Usually there are reconstructions of what these human ancestors may need appeared like: dark-skinned and hairless ape-people, strolling, principally bare, holding stone instruments, and even being hunted.

However the place are you? How does such an exhibit show you who you might be and the way you got here to be? We don’t suppose it does. So, in 2018 we have been amongst a gaggle of human evolution researchers who determined it was time to do issues in a different way. The result’s Humanity, a brand new human evolution exhibit that opened in September 2023 at Iziko South African Museum in Cape City.

The exhibit presents an in depth have a look at the problematic historical past of palaeoanthropology; it additionally makes an attempt to decolonise the story of human origins. To take action, it appears at how human evolution has been portrayed previously, in ways in which reinforce western biases and alienate and dehumanise residing Africans. Then it really works to take away these biases and make our understanding of human evolution scientifically correct, broadly related and inclusive.

That is a part of a broader reckoning taking place in museum follow globally. Many establishments are reconsidering their collections and their roles as members in colonial follow, together with theft of artefacts and our bodies. It’s important to think about how museums proceed to alienate exactly the people who find themselves owed reparations.

We discovered an unlimited quantity whereas growing this exhibit, which is now a everlasting fixture on the museum. Our hope is that these 4 central classes may assist different establishments regionally and internationally to rethink how they painting human evolution – and to grasp why it issues.

A studying course of

1. Make the co-creation course of as inclusive as doable:

The Humanity exhibit was created by way of a collaborative course of involving curators, researchers, collections managers, designers, conservators, educators, artists, heritage practitioners, neighborhood members, public members, procurement specialists, service suppliers and directors.

On this course of, our plans modified typically, when a variety of lenses confirmed us the place content material and design missed the mark. The product is radically totally different from what we thought we’d create. It’s richer for that.

2. Lose the “nice white explorer” narrative:

The historical past of human evolution is historically instructed as a narrative of white male exploration and discovery. South Africans be taught at school and thru the media about Raymond Dart, Robert Broom, Phillip Tobias, Lee Berger and different principally international, English-speaking white males who’re related to necessary fossil discoveries within the nation.

In distinction, we centred the exhibit’s story on the variety of individuals in South Africa and the way that variety got here to be.

This was performed by way of portraiture, genetic testing and interviews about cultural id to discover, by way of people, what makes them “them”. Interviewees spoke within the South African languages of their alternative. This exploration of our collective humanity was used as an inroad for understanding how evolution has labored to form us into what we’re as we speak.

A part of the exhibit focuses on the truth that the DNA of any two folks is 99.9% similar.
Becky Ackermann, Creator supplied (no reuse)

3. Personal the problematic previous:

Early South African palaeoanthropologists didn’t solely discover fossils: additionally they typically engaged in colonial, racist science, learning and measuring residing folks as fashions for our “primitive” ancestors.

Learn extra:
Archaeology is altering, slowly. Nevertheless it’s nonetheless too tied up in colonial practices

Even the iconography of human evolution has racist, colonial overtones. A Google Picture seek for “human evolution” will flip up a trove of photos depicting evolution as a line of hominins transitioning from extra ape-like to extra human-like. Usually the sooner ones are extra hunched, hairier, and darker, suggesting a hyperlink between black our bodies and primitiveness, whereas the top product is a striding white man.

We put in place plenty of interventions to take care of this legacy. The exhibit brazenly discusses race and racism, in addition to the historical past of palaeoanthropology and establishments like Iziko Museum in propping up racist science. That is essential as a result of, though racial classes are meaningless biologically, they’ve had adversarial social results.

The theme of human connection is threaded by way of the entire exhibit. This exhibits how human evolution will not be linear, however slightly a braided stream – a view in keeping with cutting-edge science. It additionally exhibits how the origin of our species is pan-African, and contains contributions from past Africa, and the way this has made humanity extra variable and extra resilient.

4. Break the glass containers:

In all probability the most important shock as we developed this exhibit, at the very least for these of us raised going to museums, was how alienating museums truly are to most individuals.

Museums are a western notion. Placing heritage objects behind glass and on pedestals in sterile areas will not be solely alienating, it may be downright offensive. The Humanity exhibit doesn’t match conventional museum aesthetics.

A fully thatched room that resembles the inside of a large hut. Pieces of stone have been affixed to one wall in a braided pattern and there are text boxes next to the design.
The exhibit highlights the truth that human evolution will not be linear.
Robyn Walker, Creator supplied (no reuse)

As a substitute, guests are drawn right into a welcoming house enveloped in a reed construction that resembles a large basket, or a hut, staring up on the African sky. A wall of 100 handaxes is there to be touched, as are some necessary fossil casts. Gone are the scientific illustrations and realistically painted previous landscapes. As a substitute, tales are communicated utilizing artwork that’s acquainted to everybody – pictures, movies, animations, comedian strips and graffiti.

Everybody’s story

The story of humanity is everybody’s story. A narrative of migration and mixing, and adapting to new contexts. It’s a story of the connection of individuals alongside the lengthy braided stream of our shared origins. It is crucial that we inform it that method.


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