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What it means to be human: Smith and the Smithsonian exhibit

image of a homo sapien man from the Smithsonian Institute

Image from the Smithsonian Institution.

A Smithsonian Institution exhibit exploring what it means to be human will be making a rare visit to Illinois, thanks in part to an emeritus professor at Illinois State University.

The traveling exhibit, Exploring Human Origins: What Does It Mean to be Human?, will be at the Peoria Public Library from June 17 to July 14. The touring exhibit will make only 19 stops in the nation, and the library in Peoria and a spot in Skokie are the sole locations in Illinois to host Exploring Human Origins.

Image of Fred Smith

Illinois State University Professor of Anthropology Fred H. Smith and an old friend.

Surrounding the exhibit in Peoria will be more than 300 casts of ancient skulls from Illinois State’s collection—a collection that University Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Biological Sciences Fred Smith helped build. “The casts are from our University teaching and research collection of fossil and human materials, as well as comparative primate materials,” said Smith, who organized the objects with library representatives at all five branches of Peoria Public Library. “It’s an impressive collection, which stacks up against any university collection in the state.” Smith added no human bones will be in the exhibit. “By international law, human fossil remains stay in the country of origin, but we have anatomical casts of lots and lots of bones.”

The library approached Smith to assist with the application to host Exploring Human Origins more than two years ago. A natural fit to help bring the exhibit to Illinois, Smith has spent more than 40 years unearthing the secrets of early humans throughout the world. Through his extensive knowledge of paleoanthropology (the study of human evolution), Smith was at the forefront of predicting modern human’s link with Neandertals, which has only recently been confirmed through genetic testing.

“Anything that helps people understand their own biological origins is important,” said Smith, who worked with the library to secure the exhibit along with more than 50 other applicants across the United States. “I’m a teacher through and through, so any possibility of helping people understand the things I research, I’m going to go for.”  

Once the Peoria Public Library was chosen, Smith journeyed to Washington, D.C., as part of the coalition of representatives hosting the exhibit. “We were able to preview the exhibit, and I could see it would foster a community dialogue of what it means to be  human,” said Smith.

Image of a statute from the Smithsonian Institute.

Image from the Smithsonian Institution.

“The Board and staff of Peoria Public Library are thrilled with the collaboration and outstanding support Dr. Smith has provided for this exhibit,” said Trisha Noack, project coordinator for the traveling exhibit. “His efforts have greatly enhanced our ability to provide this learning experience to the broader community.”

A series of talks from Smithsonian scientists and experts from around the state will highlight the exhibit. Speakers will include Smith; Rick Potts, a Smithsonian paleoanthropologist and curator of the Exploring Human Origins exhibit; Mark Wagner, the director for the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale; a panel of experts from the Smithsonian Human Origins Program; Michael Wiant, director of the Dickson Mounds Museum; and Daniel Gebo, a professor of anthropology from Northern Illinois University. Find out more about the speakers at the library’s exhibit website.

The exhibit will also feature a workshop for teachers and a tour for clergy. “One of the big problems some people have with evolutionary science is the feeling that it runs contrary to their religion,” said Smith. “Religious explanations are extremely important when talking about what it means to be human, but you can’t interpret religion through science, any more than you can try to interpret science through religion.” Those interested in registering for either event should email programmingdept@ppl.peoria.lib.il.us or call (309) 497-2143.

Smith hopes the exhibit sparks discussion that leads to greater understanding. “It’s good to have these community and religious discussions. The idea behind this traveling exhibit is to encourage dialogue–not just about human evolution, but how other people look at humans, the environment that shapes us, and our common ground.”

Exploring Human Origins: What Does It Mean to Be Human? was organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the American Library Association. This project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and support from the Peter Buck Human Origins Fund.

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