October 14, 2009

David Koch donates $15 million for human evolution hall at Smithsonian

Billionaire David H. Koch is donating $15 million for a hall in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History dedicated to the story of human evolution over 6 million years.

The 15,000-square-foot hall will be named in honor of Koch, who is executive vice president of Koch Industries Inc. of Wichita.

The nearly $21 million Hall of Human Origins will follow milestones in history — when humans started walking upright and started speaking, for example — as well as the impact of climate change and extinction of ancient species. It's scheduled to open on March 17, 2010, marking the museum's 100th anniversary on the National Mall.

Koch, an engineer trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he was pleased to support the exhibit. It was his first major contribution to the Smithsonian.

"The program has the power to influence the way we view our identity as humans, not only today, but for generations to come," he said in a statement.

"The exploration of human origins helps to tell us about how we came about and also helps place our own existence," said curator Rick Potts, director of the museum's Human Origins Program.

This will be the Smithsonian's first permanent exhibit focused solely on human evolution. It will include hundreds of fossils, reconstructed faces of early humans and 75 cast reproductions of skulls. Interactive features will show the human family tree and current research around the world.

The museum also is establishing an advisory group called the Broader Social Impacts Committee to foster discussion on how scientific and religious perspectives on human origins can be compatible. Potts said many people of deep religious faith also want to understand "how the science informs who we are.

"We've been very careful . . . to produce an exhibit that's welcoming for everyone," he said, "an honest place to look at the fossil evidence, to explore the fossil evidence and the archaeological evidence that informs about human evolution."

Koch, who lives in New York City, was the Libertarian Party's vice presidential candidate in 1980. He has been a donor to political causes as well as educational, medical and cultural groups.

His political donations haven't worried Smithsonian curators because of his emphasis on science and culture, Potts said.

"What we find in David Koch is a person who's committed to doing things for the American public that has no relationship to politics," Potts said. "He has an ability to separate that out, and so do we."

Another major funder of the project is physicist Peter Buck, co-founder of Subway restaurants, who gave $15 million to fund ongoing research and to begin new education programs. The funds will establish the Peter Buck Chair in Human Origins at the museum.

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