Being Human Hall Re-opens, Brings New Science Experiences

Looks of awe and amazement filled the second floor of the Perot Museum last month as the newly renovated Being Human Hall was revealed. In an educational partnership with Uplift Luna Preparatory School 4th graders were invited to explore the new hall.

“As a museum, we are five years old, and we are committed to ensuring we are changing just in the way that science is changing,” Linda Silver, Ph.D., CEO of Perot Museum, said. “We don’t ever want to be one of those museums where 20 years later the exhibits are exactly the same. Science changes, and we need to be reflective of that.”

The renovation has been in the works for two years. New experiences include viewing a preserved human brain and spinal column, testing your agility and hand-eye coordination through maze balance boards and a large-scale “Operation game-style” buzz wire activity, trying on a prosthetic running blade, examining regional accents, and learning about an early human relative ‘Australopithecus afarensis.’

“The experience is the same, but the learning is very different,” Silver said. “It was important for us, as we are starting to redo all of this, and we will in the course of the next 8 to 10 years change most of what is in the museum, in a way that is more accessible to more people. We have all the text in English and Spanish. It is a lot more experiential and a lot less text heavy. You are reading less and doing more. They are having a lot of fun, and they are learning at the same time.”

Not everything in the hall changed though, there were a few favorites that stayed.

“It was important for us to keep a number of things we knew guests loved from before like the wooden mirror wall,” Silver said. “Also our bio lab has also been popular, so we kept that but changed a lot of the workshops in that space.”

Katy Ottwell, a 4th grader at Uplift Luna Preparatory, enjoyed exploring the hall.

“It is cool,” Ottwell said. “There is so much to do. I want to do this and that. There is a lot of things I want to do.”

One of the activities Otwell did was the virtual reality experience of the Homo naledi chamber, a cave in South Africa where fossils of an ancient human relative were found in 2013.

“I picked up lots of fossils, and I looked around into different tunnels,” Ottwell said. “I could see all the fossils. The fossils turned blue when I touched them and picked them up.”

The scientist who made the virtual reality exhibit was Becca Peixotto, Ph.D. She is one of the six people who has been able to go into the cave.

“One of the reasons we have the VR for this is this particular cave chamber is really hard to get to,” Pexiotto said. “Among the challenges is an 18 centimeters squeeze that you and all your equipment have to fit into. There have only been a handful of people that are alive today that have been in that chamber, and I am one of them. This [VR] gives young scientist an opportunity to get in there and explore by using some fun technology.”

Peixotto most recently traveled to the cave in March to get footage for the VR experience.

“We had this small camera that would fit into the cave, and we took photos and videos with this 3-D camera,” Peixotto said. “It is tricky, because it is completely dark in there, so we had to use head lamps to light the area, so you could see.

The fossils were discovered in November of 2013 and now the public has access to them through this hall, which is amazing.

“Paleoanthropology has this long history of people finding fossils and then the world doesn’t hear about them for decades, because it does take a long time for them to make analysis, but we are using a little bit different models,” Peixotto said. “We are sharing the scientific process in real time as we go. Then we are bringing big groups of scientists to work on this project. Over 150 scientists from all over the world are here working on these fossils, all the different aspects of them, people who specialize in the teeth or the feet. We bring them all together, so we can do 10 years of analysis in 6 weeks.”

The re-opening weekend of the Being Human Hall also attempted the world record of the highest number of ancestry tests being completed at the same time. Saturday morning on the re-opening weekend, participants lined up outside in the museum’s courtyard to complete the DNA testing at the same time. The results of the record attempt have not been announced yet.

Written by Tricia Sims