Museum #1: The National Museum of Natural History

Today, after our fourth attempt at seeing the whole of the National Museum of Natural History, Boyfriend and I finally finished seeing all of the exhibits.

This museum is HUGE. Boyfriend and I do not recommend that you attempt to see it all in a day, or even in a visit.  For two “extraordinary museum visitors,” after four hours at NMNH today, we were feeling the museum fatigue set in; studies have shown that most visitors hit this point after a little more than half an hour. Take breaks, discuss with your museum-going partners, enjoy the cafes, ogle the elephant–do not try to take it all in at once.

NMNH, formerly the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of Man, has within its purview the history of the natural world, including animals, vegetables, and minerals, as well as the history of civilization. For the most part, the exhibits within the first half of this mission have been recently updated and are the most casual-visitor friendly.  As a result, juxtaposed against these amazing exhibits, the exhibits that focus on world cultures and human origins look outdated and focused on experts.

In my program, we talk about three types of museum visitors: skimmers (people who just want to look quickly and get a brief overview of the information), swimmers (people who want a moderate amount of information), and divers (people who want to read every single word and learn things that interest experts). The ideal exhibit, in theory, will have information geared at all of these levels of visitors. Boyfriend and I found our favorite exhibitions in the museum were successful at doing so.

Museums365’s Picks

1. The Sant Ocean Hall

Billed as the “largest permanent exhibition” at NMNH, the Sant Ocean Hall is a sweeping, beautiful exploration of life under, on, and above the sea. As far as skimmers, swimmers, and divers go, this exhibit offers something for everyone: interesting and large artifacts or reproductions with large quotes or headings associated with them, including Phoenix, a replica of a sperm whale hanging over the hall, a giant squid, and a living reef; as well as more focused information and smaller artifact drawers. Want to know the evolutionary history of whales from land to sea? You can get the tooth-based or the skeleton-based version. Along the way, cartoon whales help light the way to thinking deeper about big questions that relate humans to the ocean. Massive and immersive, the Sant Ocean Hall offers space for learning, respite, and reflection.

2. The Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals

This area is indeed three different galleries: one of geology, one of gems, and one of minerals. Calling the first hall a geology hall, however, hardly does it justice. As far as natural history is concerned, this is the hot rock and everything after: meteorites, the formation of tectonic plates (and the results thereof), how rocks are created, and how humans and rocks relate. Some of the best sections of this exhibit include

  • an explanation of meteorites, along with samples, and a great interactive about figuring out which rocks are Earth rocks and which are meteorites
  • a window overlooking the National Mall up to the Capitol above a discussion of the types of rock used in each building, as part of a larger DC-specific area of the exhibit right before the mock-up mines (which are also pretty cool!)
  • a number of interactive exhibits about earthquakes and volcanoes, including a run-down of each over the last fifty years, a real-time map of where they occur, and a database of all the volcanoes in the world with their histories and, in many cases, pictures

The minerals part is wonderfully set up for skimmers who just want to see pretty things and divers who want to look at the elemental structure and reasons for the colors and shapes of the shiny things. In his undergrad life, Boyfriend had a certificate in materials science, so this was an awesome exhibit to go through with him. Since the elements that comprise each mineral are listed, we spent a decent amount of time identifying the elements by their symbols and figuring out the effect of each on the mineral. For the swimmers, who like shiny things with a little information, the cases are set up by color, family, or crystalline shape, to allow these visitors to draw some conclusions simply by looking and connecting names.

And the gemstones? It’s the Hope Diamond and friends, and this gallery is packed. Fortunately, the Hope Diamond is on a rotating pedestal, so everyone gets a fighting chance.

Good for the Wee’uns

1. The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals

What’s better than one taxidermied giraffe? TWO taxidermied giraffes! This exhibit, right off the rotunda on the first floor of the museum, is all about us–or at least our closest relatives. Mammals are posed in action and alongside environmental flavorings to give us a sense of the savannah, the North Pole, or an American forest, among others. More than the well-placed familiar animals is a boatload of information: why is a giraffe’s neck so long? Do vampire bats really suck human blood? Also, meet one of our oldest ancestors–Morganacudon, or Morgie for short–in a brief film about a mammal family reunion! One of my favorite parts is in the African savannah exhibit, which shows scenes at a watering hole via television screens on the floor in front of the (second) giraffe and (both!) zebras. Lots of text at kiddie levels here, plenty of benches for taking a break, and bathrooms nearby in the Sant Ocean Hall.

2. The O. Orkin Insect Zoo

EEEEW! It’s a giant BUG! Fortunately, it’s behind a glass case, along with a whole bunch of its closest friends, like spiders and centipedes and HUGE WALKING STICKS. Sweet. And they’re alive! Museums only have dead things in them, right? Not this one. See a beehive in action, watch a Black Widow spider spin her web, and push buttons on an interactive exhibit showing the bugs around your house (Never fear! This exhibit is sponsored by Orkin). The cases are at kiddie level, including some interactives that require you to be at kiddie height for them to work. There are small stools available for standing and looking up or sitting down and resting. Bathrooms are most easily accessed down one level immediately inside the Sant Ocean Hall.

3. Samuel C. Johnson Imax Theater

In the interest of expediency, budget, and focusing on the exhibits themselves, we skipped this one for now. But, for $8.75 for adults, or $7.25 for kids up to age 12, you can see such shows as “Deep Sea 3D,” “Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia,” or “Journey to Mecca.” These might be a little too much for the really young set, but older wee’uns will enjoy the animals and landscapes up close and huge. Bathrooms available nearby in the Sant Ocean Hall.

Temporary Exhibits

1.  Nature’s Best Photography Show (Open until May 2, 2010)

Boyfriend here. Nature’s Best Photography Show is a quick exhibit that provides a lot of Oohs and Ahhhs. High quality photos of penguins, flowers, and the rest of the natural world are blended with some comfortable benches to provide a memorable break between the gift shop and the Imax theater.

2. Since Darwin: The Evolution of Evolution (Open until July 18, 2010)

As much about the man as about the theory, this exhibit does a good job of explaining the social context into which Darwin brought his ideas, the way they were developed, and the ways they have developed since his time. Nestled between the Hall of Mammals and the Ice Age hall, Since Darwin helps frame its neighbors as much as it is framed by them. This one is worth seeing, and is worth seeing with its neighbors.

3. Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake (Open until February 6, 2011)

Elissa again. This was one of my favorite exhibits the very first time I saw it with my buddies from the Museum Education Program.  Written in Bone explores what we can learn about the way people live from looking at their bones after they die. Part forensic mystery series of identifying 17th-century grave occupants, part exploration into how what happens to our bodies and what we put in them shows up on our bones, this exhibit provides a beneath-the-skin look at life today and yesterday. Attached is a Forensic Anthropology Lab where you, too, can solve forensic mysteries. One issue: you have to walk through the Western Civilizations exhibit to get here–and to get back to the rotunda, too–and that is certainly an exhibit that could use an update or a complete renovation, since the presentation style and text panels reflect a much older-style, less audience-focused school of exhibit production. Worth the walk to get to Written in Bone, though!

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About museums365

Museum educator, space lover, baseball fan, citizen history rabble-rouser.

Posted on January 18, 2010, in For the Wee'uns, History, Science, Smithsonian and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You totally took me back to my last visit to the museum! It’s been a few years, but reading about the exhibits here reminded me how much I love going around the mall.

    Best of luck seeing all the rest! I look forward to reading about it!!!

  2. Now that the Hall of Human Origins is open, do you think that would also have been one of your picks?

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