I’ve been exploring the “public persona” of particular hominin fossils as part of my Famous Fossils book project. While are originally “famous” in scientific circles, it is through the fossils’ presence in museums and other media spaces that the fossils begin to inform non-scientific audiences. From the Smithsonian to Sterkfontein, these fossils take on a certain air of celebrity, captivate audiences through dioramas, casts, and reconstructions all of which range from scientifically thoughtful to truly bizarre.
The Bubbles Exhibit from Sterkfontein and Maropeng Interpretive Centers in the Cradle of Humankind is one of the most unexpected museum displays I’ve come across in my research thus far. Originally designated a UNESCO site in 1999, the entire swath of paleoanthropology sites For the paleo-adventurous, Maropeng provides a boat trip through the Tunnel of Time, where one floats comfortably from the Cretaceous to the Pleistocene, tooling around volcanoes, ice floes, and recorded pterodactyl screams toward the Hall of Ancestors which houses the Bubbles Exhibit.
The Bubbles Exhibit suspends casts of fossils from the ceilings of the galleries, backlit by a soothing electric blue hue. The casts themselves are housed in acrylic bubbles dangled from different heights in the main exhibit space. The walls around the bubble clouds have diagrams of geological excavations and historical photos of the fossils on display. These acrylic and cast combos show specimens from a variety of geographic locations – most in South Africa, but many from other paleoanthropological sites around the world. A couple of the bubbles, like the ones with a Neanderthal fossil, have artists’ reconstructions of the hominin faces next to them. Other bubbles, like Taung, have the stories of their discovery laser-cut into the plastic in front of them. And some bubbles, like the Piltdown Hoax, aren’t even fossils, yet gesture toward the historical early days of paleoanthropology.
The pattern to the bubble clustering has proven to be perplexing. Since Maropeng prides itself on being a paleo-tourism destination, rather than a strict natural history museum, I chalked the exhibit up to not-so-hard-hitting-but-still-generally-true science that the Maropeng Interpretive Center had to offer. Seeing the Bubbles Exhibit twice over the summer (in Sterkfontein and Maropeng), gave me pause and begged the question of why. Why this exhibit? Why bubbles? And why display fossils in this way? Why twice? What are we to take away from the bubble experience?
Symbolic of links in the proverbial Great Chain of Being? Nodes in a phylogenetic tree? Spheres of scientific influence? Art?