Exploring DC: The National Museum of Natural History

The exhibition space is the size of 6 football fields.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

I have been to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC twice in my life. The first time was at least 25 years ago, and I have vague memories of dinosaur skeletons, but that’s about it. So I treated my recent visit as if it were the first time. It was that level of excitement for my nerdy self. And even if I could remember visit number one, I suspect a lot has changed in the past 25 years. For one thing, we all had to wear pandemic masks, of course, but we also passed through metal detectors and had our bags searched. It was well worth the minor sacrifice in freedom to enter this place, which, like all the Smithsonian Museums, is absolutely free.

As I entered the museum, I was comparing it to visits to other Natural History museums I’ve seen. New York City. Ontario. These are my favorite types of museums, and they’re all massive, but this one in DC is even more gigantic. The exhibition space is about the size of 6 football fields, and that doesn’t even take into account the other 3/4ths of the building, which is off limits to the public, and houses offices and labs and the like.

More than 7 million people pass through these metal detectors every year. I will never get over the fact that it’s free because I attempted to go to the one in New York City on one of the free days it used to have, and the security guard bullied me into paying up anyway even though I couldn’t afford it and subsequently couldn’t have lunch. That’s my primary memory of that place. (I was a lot younger then. If they even have free days now, I wouldn’t put up with that foolishness at my age.) First impressions count for a lot.

But like I said, the one in DC is free, and we went right in, not to be confronted by a hostile guard but rather by a dinosaur skull that is bigger than me. Talk about a first impression! Holy moly.

Given this place’s size, and the fact that we only had about 4 hours to enjoy it, we had  to resign ourselves to the fact that we were going to miss a lot. But I believe we did catch all the highlights.

For example, out front is a replica of one of only 17 remaining colossal stone heads that were produced by the Olmec culture in what is now part of Mexico, at around 900 BC. As a Latin American Studies major, I have always wanted to see one of these heads. The replica is a faithful reproduction of the original 6-ton basalt monument. I wanted to kiss it on the lips.

The Olmecs transported the stones at least 93 miles and it took them years to create the finished product. The original of the head in DC is located in the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, Veracruz. Even seeing the replica was a heady experience. (Sorry. Had to.)

We also saw the famous Hope Diamond, pictured below. When you see a diamond that huge (it’s 45.52 karats, and more than an inch across at its widest point) it is hard to believe that it’s real. The display said the diamond is more than a billion years old. That’s another thing that’s hard to imagine.

This diamond was discovered in the 1600’s in India, and has been recut and reduced in size twice. Louis XIV of France had it first. Then in 1792 it was stolen during the French Revolution. No one knew where it was for 20 years after that. Then it popped up in London, reduced in size by 20 karats, and was sold to King George IV. After his death it was bought by Henry Hope, a gem collector, and has borne his name ever since.

In 1901 it was sold all over the place, and then in 1912 Cartier sold it to Evelyn Walsh McLean of Washington DC. She wore it quite a bit. Her Great Dane may have even worn it once. The rest of the time she hid it under her couch cushions.

The jeweler Harry Winston of New York bought it from her estate in 1949, and he had it tour the world to raise money for charity, which I think is wonderful. Winston gave it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958, so now it technically belongs to all US citizens, but don’t go trying to borrow it. Rumor has it that it is cursed.

Curse or no curse, I got to get within a foot and a half of it. It was a surreal moment. I was standing next to something worth 250 million dollars. I couldn’t help but think that that would be a lot of hot meals for the homeless. I bet the Smithsonian’s insurance premiums are a bit pricey, too.

We saw a phenomenal gem and mineral display that made me all the more impressed by Mother Nature. We also saw some amazing fossils. We wandered through Bones Hall to gaze at the skeletons of creatures great and small. In the Ancient Egypt area, we saw beautiful coffins and interesting mummies, but the thing that stood out for me the most was the mummy of a bull, which is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We even got to see a giant Easter Island Statue.

I was sad not to be able to visit the insect zoo or the butterfly pavilion, and we sort of ran through the Hall of Human Origins and the African Voices hall, the Hall of Mammals and the Ocean hall. It’s all rather a blur. There was just no time. You could visit this museum for days and still miss things.

And of course, the building itself, just like all the Smithsonian buildings, was a sight to see. Below are some of the best of the hundreds of pictures we took during our surface dive into natural history. Enjoy!

Another cool thing to check out: I wrote a book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: