Roaming to the National Museum of Natural History

roam: verb - To move about without purpose or plan; to wander.

I am spoiled rotten to live so close to the Smithsonian Institution. If you’re not familiar, the Smithsonian is a group of museums, galleries, and a zoo that are located in Washington DC. I will admit with great shame that I have only visited a couple of the many locations, but the trouble is they’re so amazing that I end up returning to the same one(s) over and over.

I recently took my niece to the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), since at the end of April the Fossil Hall dinosaur exhibit will be closing for renovations – FOR FIVE YEARS. As any good auntie should be, I was panicked and made sure, come hell or more winter weather, that I’d get her there.

Now of course, being a standard 4 year old, she was only mildly interested in the bones, particularly after  overhearing someone say the phrase, “dinosaur gummies,” in reference to candy available at the gift shop. These were essentially the only dinosaurs she was thereafter interested in, but I persevered.

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“RAAAR” is dinosaur for “I love you.”

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One of my favorite things about the ancient life section of the NMNH are the dioramas. In fact, no matter what museum or nature center or interpretive site I visit, I love old dioramas. They are a spectacular homage to handmade art and the artists that designed them, particularly in a time before our advanced digital media. There is something incredibly soothing and beautiful about miniature versions of life-sized natural phenomena, especially if it’s recreating something in 3-D that we’ll never get to see in real life.

The best example I have to offer is this diorama of ancient sea life. Now, there were other dioramas, and there was certainly a wonderful description of all the pictured lifeforms, but one does not take detailed notes at a museum whilst also chasing a 4-year old through an area with “Please Do Not Touch” signs, so I apologize. Suffice to say, this is one of several excellent dioramas.

prehistoric sea

I mean come on, is that not just spectacular? It looks like an ethereal painting, but these are lovely little models. I can almost feel the gentle movement of the ancient ocean.

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These are the remains of a terrifying, enormous, meat-lusty demon bird! Or, well, actually we think now that it just ate plants. It’s Gastornis, if you’re wondering.

Fossil Hall is splendid, but a bit overcrowded with dinosaurs – perhaps one reason they’re planning to renovate. I will be heartbroken if the dioramas disappear into the abyss, but such is the lot of old interpretive models in the age of technology.

The Museum has oodles of winding exhibits and halls, including exhibits on the evolution of man (complete with a wall of known hominid skull replicas), ancient sea life and more recent Pleistocene life, a hall of giant gemstones and mind-bending minerals, an insect hall, and a spectacular mammal hall. There are also exhibits on ancient Egypt, and a large hall of African cultures; these vex me and this time around we passed right through them without stopping. Early non-white cultures are regularly paired with animal life in museums: it is a stubborn relic of early anthropology and a skin-color obsessed society to compare indigenous cultures to wildlife, and it irritates me. That, of course, is never the intention of such exhibits, but for me there’s no other real reason to have a hall of African cultures squeezed between the Insect Hall and the restrooms. This isn’t a problem restricted to this museum, either: it’s a regular theme in natural history museums all over the Western world.

Moving on.

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Mastodon from the front.

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Interactivity is the key to getting kids involved and excited. New exhibits and renovations at NMNH show that this is a priority there. This shot comes from the insect exhibit.

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Goliath Birdeater (Theraphosa blondi), inaccurately named as birds are not a main part of the tarantula’s diet BUT OH MY LORD WAS THAT A BIGUN.

At the Insect Zoo, they do live demonstrations and we arrived just in time for a tarantula feeding. It was a different tarantula than the one pictured above, and the staff member informed us that tarantulas only need to eat like one cricket a week – isn’t that amazing?! Anyway, he warned us that she might not be interested in her food, and she wasn’t – the cricket crawled around for what seemed like forever as all the visitors sat in a tight circle, holding our collective breath and waiting for the strike. When she finally did strike, it was so fast and deadly that my best buddy and I yelped and grabbed each other and made lots of “Ohh! Whoaaaa!” sounds that ended up making the staff member lose his train of thought and laugh at us. Sorry ’bout that, NMNH. :) We’re the excitable type.

Also, I could tell it was spring for reals despite the bad weather because all the bugs were having bug sex. Here are some horny butterflies I captured in the live butterfly exhibit (where a butterfly landed on my niece and basically made her week because “That butterfly loved” her and was her “best friend.”)

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I thought this was particularly interesting: the museum had a bee colony, but it collapsed and the exhibit is currently empty. If you can’t read that print, I’ve rewritten it below:

Where are the bees?

In the fall of 2013, our bees exhibited symptoms of a parasitic infection. We treated the hive and they showed signs of recovery. Sadly, the weakened bee colony was not able to defend their hive and it was invaded by wax moths and small hive beetles, and even wasps further reducing the colony’s numbers. There is a small population remaining, they tend to congregate, off exhibit, on the back of the hive.

We are currently working to install a new colony of bees.

For more information about honey bees and their diseases, please visit http://www.ars.usda.gov and search for colony collapse disorder.

Insect Zoo Staff

This is so incredibly relevant to what’s happening in North America right now with all the bee disasters and I wonder if visitors reading the signs posted by the staff even realize the connection. (For more info, learn about attracting native pollinators here and taking more action here.) I’m always a supporter of explaining why an exhibit is empty rather than not explaining, because – like this one – it could become an opportunity for education.

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This life-sized whale model suspended from the ceiling ended up being one of my favorite parts of the day. As we entered the exhibit, I pointed up to it and asked my niece, “Do you know what that is?” Her answer, cross my heart, was as follows: “Yeah, it’s a whale! A big whale! Made of SCIENCE!”

So, there you have it, folks. Whales are made of science.

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Here’s one of my favorite pieces from the Hall of Mammals: a scene from the African savannah, preserved for people to ponder and experience. As a sidenote, the specimens in the Hall of Mammals are all beautifully preserved and taxidermied.

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Did you know that humans share the same number of neck vertebrae as the giraffe? They’re just a little different in, uh, size. Tuck that fact away for your next dinner party.

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This is from the mineral wing and I’m really sorry, but I have no idea what it is. Besides really, really cool.

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And THIS is my good buddy, Archaeopteryx. He’s a dinosaur. With feathers. And I love him.

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This time around, I got to visit the NMNH’s relatively new Qrius area – and it did not disappoint. If you’re too far away from DC to visit, check out Qrius here – there are lots of interactive online goodies for you to play with. Qrius is aimed at teens and tweens, but younger kids can definitely benefit – my niece certainly did. Pictured above is some of the artwork outside the entrance. Sorry for that awful flash, but isn’t it fun? I love art like this. (Don’t try clicking on that “play” symbol, it’s not a video, that’s part of the art!)

So Qrius is set up with a whole bunch of exhibits where an interactive screen can guide you through a hands-on experiment at a small station. You can actually sign up for a little passport and record the exhibits you completed. But that wasn’t the coolest part. All the way in the back, protected like a little alcove of wonder, is the specimen area.

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Well-lit and staffed by friendly, upbeat docents, the specimen area was stacked with drawers which were full of an incredible variety of artifacts: preserved birds, invertebrates, plants, mammal parts, reptile parts, shells, and fossils.

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If you look carefully, you will see red tags in the drawers, and those are all attached to the specimen boxes. Tags come in three colors: red, yellow, and green. Red means the specimen stays in the box, yellow means a docent will help you get it out, and green means feel free to open ‘er up and touch!

If any of you are new to this blog, let me fill you in: I love to touch stuff. I never grew out of that part of my childhood – I’m just a very tactile person. I want to touch flower petals, catch frogs, and I’m antsy to know what things I’m not allowed to touch feel like (like the fur on a bat, which is like rabbit fur if you’re wondering – I found a dead one once and couldn’t help myself). So an exhibit like this? YES.

And not only do you get to take things out of boxes that you’ve maybe never seen before and will never see again, you get to explore them with microscopes, hand lenses, and an informational computer system that can tell you more about them. I was in heaven. I could have stayed in this room, which was smaller than the public restrooms, all day.

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I loved these huge shells and wanted to play with the abalone, on the left, so we pulled that one out. (My lip balm is there for size reference – these shells were huge.) I knew beneath that lovely reddish shell was a rainbow of shiny colors, and I wanted to show my niece. She was pretty excited about the hand lens, so she stuck with that while we adults played with the fancy projecting microscope.

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But nature wasn’t all, folks!

There was also a wide section of cultural artifacts from all over the world. Now, I know earlier I was complaining about mixing random indigenous cultures into a natural history museum, but I think Qrius did the whole culture-in-a-natural-history-museum thing right: many of the specimen drawers were labeled with things like “Toys and Dolls” and inside were examples from all over the world. The artifacts represented lots of cultures, not just ancient ones or African ones, and provided a really cool opportunity to interact with things we may otherwise never see.

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Here’s a traditional, carved wood printing block, the kind that’s used to make textiles. Notice the green card and information that you can relay into the digital system to get more information. As a printmaker, I was so excited to see this block!

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My niece was pretty stoked about this piece, since she has a drum set at home. This was a drum in the style of Native American tribes from the Pacific Northwestern part of the continent.

Then the day was over, and we were all happy and tired and educated.

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Thanks for joining me on this roam! Have you been to the Museum? What’s your favorite exhibit or memory?

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Posted on March 10, 2014, in Roaming and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Roaming to the National Museum of Natural History.

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