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Meet Your Cousins, Claws And All

The skylight glows high above the massive exhibition hall, returned finally to the look its designer had in mind nearly a century ago.

Furry creatures large and small already pose in lifelike displays across the room as workers scurry past, readying lighting here and display stands there.

The Smithsonian is preparing to welcome visitors to the mammal family reunion.

When the doors open to the public on Nov. 15 there will be 274 specimens on display in the new hall of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

It's a trip through the history of creatures that survived the age of dinosaurs and began to diversify 65 million years ago, spreading to nearly every corner of the globe, explained Kay Behrensmeyer, co-curator of the new exhibit.

Museum Director Christian Samper, leading a tour of the project Thursday, said it's the largest renovation the museum has undertaken and will employ the latest in technology to offer families a learning experience.

The new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals — named for a major donor — occupies one of three original wings of the museum, which opened in 1910.

Originally designed as a large open area, the space was divided up into small rooms and offices during the war years and never returned to its original state, explained Robert Sullivan, the museum's associate director for public programs.

Now it's being restored to that original look of open space with towering walls and natural light, and filled with mammals — animals that nurse their young — ranging from manatees and dolphins to a clouded leopard, tiny shrews and an exotic platypus. Even the millions of human visitors expected to walk through are mammals.

"Fundamentally, this exhibit is about evolution," said Behrensmeyer, displaying a tiny neck vertebra from an ancient giraffe and its massive counterpart from the modern animal.

"Giraffes didn't just whistle and get a long neck," she said. Rather, that feature evolved as a feeding adaptation.

It's that sort of adaptation the museum hopes to explain in the exhibit — the great diversity that has developed in mammals as they adapt to their environment, said co-curator Robert Hoffmann.

The displays will show animals in ways that tell specific stories about how they have changed and adapted over time to make the most of their environment, whether arctic or desert or prairie or woodland.

An eight-minute videotape traces the history of mammals, and visitors will be able to touch the fossils of extinct animals and stand in a cast of ancient hominid footprints from Africa.

There are four discovery zones with interactive displays including lights, audio, video, computer displays, flip doors, push buttons and moveable objects.

In the Frozen North zone, for example, visitors will be able to touch a refrigerated model of a ground squirrel kept at typical hibernating temperature, while in South America they can use flashlights to expose the reflected "eye shine" of nocturnal mammals.

While the mammal hall is planned as a permanent exhibit, there will be one section that changes periodically so new ideas can be introduced with exhibits showing regions not included in the permanent displays.

The 274 animals on display are mostly new, Sullivan said, noting that many animals from a previous mammal hall had been preserved using arsenic. Those preserved animals are still usable for scientific research but not for public display, he said.

Sullivan stressed that no animals were killed to be put in this display. Rather they were obtained from existing collections or from zoos when animals died of natural causes.

Behring, the donor that contributed $20 million to the museum, was a longtime trophy hunter and donated 27 animals to the exhibit.