The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History’s newest occupant in storage appears as if it’s been waiting for the new Biological Science Building’s opening — scheduled for summer 2018 — for a long time. A strikingly lifelike replica of an extinct relative of humans commissioned by the museum is ready for its place on the museum floor, where it is expected to attract many spectators to the museum.
The reconstruction is of Australopithecus sediba, an extinct human relative that walked the earth about 2 million years ago. The museum commissioned the sculpture from the Daynés Studio in Paris, the same firm that reconstructed the hominid Lucy for the Field Museum in Chicago. A. sediba is most likely not a direct ancestor of humans, University researcher Michael Cherney said, and is more likely a side branch of the human family tree. Cherney is in charge of organizing evolution-based exhibits, and described the evolutionary history of humans as being more of a “bush” than one single branch, and A. sediba represents one offshoot of that bush.
Amy Harris, director of the Natural History Museum, said she thought it was important to recognize the vastness of human ancestry — and that A. sediba could help museum visitors do so.
“One of the points that we want to make is that there is a big family tree behind us, and this is one of the distant relatives that lived in the distant past,” Harris said.
Cherney said the Natural History Museum specifically commissioned the reconstruction to be of A. sediba because it would be a unique reconstruction — one that people would have to come to the University’s museum to see.
“We wanted something that would be a little more unique, a little more new,” Cherney said. “Sediba is a fairly recent discovery, so it’s something that you just won’t see as many places, and it’s a little more attractive to us for that reason.”
Cherney hoped the reconstruction will be a major attraction when it is unveiled next year. Having seen the reconstruction in person, Cherney described it as a captivating experience that he thought would grab the attention of museum visitors.
“I think people will definitely come to the museum to specifically see this reconstruction,” Cherney said. “It’s going to be something that when you see it you’ll tell your friends about it — it looks really remarkable.”
Harris echoed Cherney’s sentiments, saying other exhibits like this tend to hold people’s attention for the longest time in museums, and she felt it would be the same with this reconstruction here at the University.
“We wanted to have some exhibits in the new museum that we call ‘wow’ experiences, exhibits that are really memorable, that will hold people’s attention as well as be educational and in keeping with our mission, and this really fit the bill,” Harris said. “We knew that other museums have similar reconstructions, and their visitors spend a long time looking at them, and that’s something that we thought would be really exciting to have in our museum, to have something that’s so striking and surprising that people would stop and really look at it and think about it and remember it.”
LSA junior Anna Minnebo, who works at the University’s Museum of Paleontology, said she was very excited to see the reconstruction, and she felt it would offer people a perspective that the museum couldn’t offer before.
“There was no example of what they look like as living breathing creatures, only skeletons and fossils, so it kind of sets it apart from what was previously shown in that way,” Minnebo said.
She said she thinks the reconstruction will provide museum visitors with an opportunity to reflect on our species as a whole.
“Whenever anybody learns more about where we came from as a species, it’s always eye-opening, because it makes you think about your place in all of it,” Minnebo said. “I think especially when you’re able to look at a creature that’s not that different from yourself face to face, yet millions of years old, it is always really impactful.”