An Edinburgh exhibition brings our ancestors to life - just ignore the tacky elements. Deedee Cuddihy reports
At first glance, the new exhibition running at the City Arts Centre in Edin burgh seems to have everything the sensitive exhibition-goer would loathe. There is an entrance archway made of obviously false boulders; big footprints to point you in the right direction; a cartoon figure marking the children's information panels and a truly hideous logo of a hairy ape man brandishing a large animal bone. Welcome to Missing Links Alive!, a "landmark" show designed by the Danish-based United Exhibits Group.
The first two words of the title refer to the story of human evolution, and the last refers to the way the story is told through the use of animated, life-size figures placed in realistic settings.
Many people who visit this ambitious show during its three-month run will take immediately to the concept of large video screens set into Flintstone-esque units; the screeds of printed information mounted on back-lit boxes standing like rows of vending machines (meant to look like the packing cases that fossil remains are crated up in), and the advanced "animatronic" replicas of real scientists "talking" to you about their discoveries.
Others will, at first, be a bit sniffy about this decidedly theme-park presentation and may also wonder about the wisdom of displaying rows of anonymous skulls in glass cases. But gradually, they will probably find their reserve thawing as they warm to an exhibition which, in the end (and despite all its faults) really does engage the visitor in the continuing mystery of human evolution. They may even find themselves connecting, in some weird sense, with the figures representing our earliest ancestors.
The information in the show is based on four distinct hominid groups: Australopithecines (or Southern Apes for short), Homo erectus, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons (in that order). There is a life-size diorama representing each group, as well as a wide-screen video presentation from a scientist specialising in that field. Sound quality is somewhat variable as is the delivery, with leading palaeontologist Maeve Leakey appearing the most ill at ease.
Our earliest ancestors, the ape-like Australopithecines, lived more than four million years ago and if the figures in the Missing Links exhibition are to be believed, they were a pretty sorry looking and very hairy bunch. They walked on two legs but could not talk or even wield a stone axe, and they had a terrible time fighting off hyenas and crocodiles, an android version of which slithered out of the bushes during the show, opening its huge fierce jaws.
More interesting were Homo erectus, who lived two million years ago and, at the City Arts Centre, are observed in a setting of long grass against a dramatic African sky with the sounds of insects and animals audible in the background. Homo erectus could make tools and hunt successfully, and remains show evidence of social bonding. But scientist Alan Walker says "they weren't just like us. They were smart by ape standards, but in human terms they had the brains of a one-year old."
The Neanderthals, a mere 400,000 years ago, seem much closer to us. There are nine figures - one a baby in its mother's arms - dressed in animal skins, sheltering beneath a rocky cliff, apparently burying one of their dead. The wind howls and a fire burns.
"How did the Neanderthals differ from us?" asks the American scientist on the video screen. He invites us to observe a figure standing slightly apart from the group, dressed in jeans and a tartan shirt, making grunting noises.
The Cro-Magnons group surfaced only 30,000 years ago and are represented decorating a cave with drawings of animals and handprints, which were discovered in caves in Africa, America and Australia, as well as Europe. Some experts say our ancestors, who also carved tiny figures from ivory and bone, may have put their handprints on the walls in an effort to reach the spirits they believed lived behind them.
All sets are backed up by basic question-and-answer information panels designed for children, quiz sheets and "interactives" including a test-your-strength against the Neanderthals gadget and a mirror that lets you see your face on a hairy ancestor's head.
Missing Links Alive! City Arts Centre, Edinburgh until July 12Further information and schools bookings: 0131 529 3962