Growing up in Virginia, my classmates and I were often taken on field trips into Washington, DC, to explore the variety of cultural riches on offer. My favorite museum was (and still is) the National Museum of Natural History, thanks to its amazing collection of dinosaur fossils. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum opened in 1910 and “is dedicated to inspiring curiosity, discovery, and learning about the natural world.” (Quote source.) With over 127 million artifacts spread across the area of 18 football fields and the most visitors of any museum in North America, I’d say it fulfills its mission!
Dinosaur Hall is understandably the most popular section of the museum, with fearsome, fully-intact specimens looming over passers-by, their sharp claws and monstrous teeth enough to send shivers down your spine. The exhibit leads you on a journey through time, illustrating how the world’s animal life evolved over the millennia and how many became extinct. A glass-enclosed Fossil Lab provides a glimpse into the field of paleontology, as experts carefully extract fossils from rock before your eyes.
If you are hoping to get up close and personal with these dinosaurs, make haste as the exhibit is closing April 28, 2014 to undergo major renovations and won’t reopen until 2019.
But the Natural History museum has a lot more to offer than just dinosaur bones. The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals is home to an impressive collection of 274 animals, beautifully preserved and presented in astonishingly life-like positions. Big cats are frozen mid-leap, their startled prey just out of reach; a gangly giraffe dips its long neck for a drink; a hippopotamus opens its mouth wide to show off its impressive tusks. Animal lovers young and old are sure to be delighted!
This Downton Abbey fan enjoys browsing the National Gem Collection, the star of which is the infamous Hope Diamond. Currently weighing in at 45.52 carats, this grayish-blue diamond is literally the stuff of legends. Originally discovered in the early 17th century, the diamond was given to Louis XIV of France, who had it cut down (from a mind-boggling 112 carats) and incorporated into the crown jewels. It was stolen during the French Revolution and resurfaced in England some 20 years later where it was sold to George IV of England. After King George’s death in 1830, Henry Philip Hope purchased the gem, which thereafter bore his name. Evalyn Walsh McLean, an American mining heiress, acquired the diamond in 1912 and had it set into the stunning necklace we see today.
In addition to dazzling jewels, the Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals contains a vast array of minerals, rocks and ores, including nine Martian meteorites and a one pound piece of Californian gold. Recreated mines illustrate how precious materials are retrieved from the earth and the dangers involved. I was amazed by the endless variety in shape and color of the many minerals on display.
I wasn’t as impressed with the section of the museum dedicated to ocean life as when I was a kid, probably because the 45-foot whale hanging from the ceiling seemed somehow smaller. The gallery also looked completely different, having undergone major renovations and reopening as the Sant Ocean Hall in 2008. While it may be hard to compete with childhood memories, I did enjoy watching the colorful fish flit around the new 1,500 gallon aquarium.
More interesting is the Hall of Human Origins, which delineates the evolution of mankind over the past six million years. Several skeletons of early humans are on display and interactive exhibits show how we are related to other living things. Did you know that the genetic make-up of humans is 60% similar to that of banana trees and 98.8% similar to chimpanzees? The gallery also includes several creepily realistic models of what our early-human ancestors would have looked like, as well as a photo booth so you can picture yourself as a neanderthal. (Feel free to Insert your own joke here about an ex-boyfriend.)
National Museum of Natural History Address: 10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC Entrance Fee: None
Have you been to any of the Smithsonian museums in DC?
Which exhibits do you like best?