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!

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A Really Bad Day 240 Million Years Ago

Hate when that happens.

I love fossils. They are moments frozen in time. They often tell a story about what the world was like long before humans came along and mucked it up. We can learn a lot from those stories.

A truly fascinating scenario is the one posited by a fossil that was found in a quarry in southwestern China. It’s of a dolphin-like creature called an Ichthyosaur swallowing a lizard-like creature called a Thalattosaur. You might think that’s your typical day in the Triassic Period, but not exactly. Consider this: the predator was 15 feet long, and the prey was 12 feet long.

Burp. Needless to say, poor Ichthy bit off a bit more than he could chew. That would be like me swallowing something 4 feet long in one gulp. Hate when that happens. Neither survived the encounter.

But what are the odds that we would find such a fascinating fossil? I mean, a freak accident happened 240 million Years Ago, and we get to witness it. It’s like time travel and winning the lottery simultaneously. Woo hoo!

We have learned a lot from this fossil. Specifically, what Ichthyosaur liked to eat, or at least what he tried to eat. Just from this one stone snapshot, I can surmise that even though he looked like a cute dolphin of sorts, he was one aggressive, kick-butt dude. I wouldn’t have wanted to cross paths with him. I also suspect that if I were around during the Triassic, I wouldn’t have been swimming. And I probably wouldn’t have been around for long.

Check out some really cool pictures and drawings of this fossil in this article.


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A Muddy Subject

I had never given mud much thought until now.

I love it when I read something that completely alters my worldview. “The origin of mud” by Laura Poppick in Knowable Magazine is just such an article. The title alone intrigued me. I can’t say I’ve ever put much thought into mud unless I’m muttering about it covering my shoes.

It turns out that mud has done much to shape our planet. According to the article, 460 million years ago there were no plants on earth. Because of that, most sediment on land would quickly enter rivers and wash out to sea during storms. We know this because there are lots of fossilized fish from that timeframe, all around the world, that seem to have been choked by catastrophic mudslides. Also, this rapid movement of mud to the sea floor indicates that land consisted of barren rock.

Once plants appeared, things changed. Upon their arrival, there is evidence of 10 times as much mud on land, because roots and stems hold mud in place. That mud, in turn, shaped continents. Plants also reduce flooding and increase the production of mud, because their roots break down rocks into the sediment that is the primary ingredient thereof.

Before plants, most rivers were braided like the one depicted in the artistic textile below. (That photo was taken by my husband on our trip to Denali National Park a year ago.) As you can see, with no plants to hold the riverbanks in place, they’re constantly collapsing and reforming based on the depth and strength of the water flow.

After plants, and the mud that could then cling to the riverbanks, most rivers formed single channels. Yes, they might curve and meander and form oxbows, or they could also be rather straight, but they tended to remain stable and predictable. And bendy vs. straight rivers alter the water’s chemistry and speed, and therefor create a variety of ecosystems.

Animals also had to evolve to be able to travel through the increased mud on land, developing new body parts. Some animals ate the mud particles and produced muddy feces. And loosening up that mud helped to disburse it into floodplains.

I’ll summarize with a quote from the article:

“Life has always congregated around rivers, from the very first emergence of plants and animals onto land. That’s why the early accumulations of mud alongside rivers — and how mud influenced their flow — is nothing to throw dirt on.”

Isn’t Mother Nature awesome?

Braded River Textile Denali National Park

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Staying Power

I have held things in my hands that are about 400 million years old.

I have held things in my hands that are about 400 million years old. You can, too, if you’re into fossils. It’s always a profoundly special feeling, touching something like that. It’s humbling. It makes me realize that my life is but a tiny blip in the overall scheme of things. It makes all my problems seem inconsequential. I find that extremely comforting.

I’ve given several beloved family members ammonites as gifts. You can often buy them cut in half, so the beautiful petrified spiral chambers are revealed. They get one half, I keep the other. Then I can say that we now are connected over millions of years. The gift of staying power. The closest thing you can have to immortality.

Here’s the one I gave my husband for our first Christmas, and of course, the other half I gave to myself. I don’t know which is the “better” half, but it makes for a beautiful whole, indeed.

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Nature Calls

I love to observe nature as it unfolds around me, and I’ve moved from a subtropical climate to a temperate one, so a lot has changed. I don’t even recognize many of the bird calls here, and I’m sure encountering plant life that I’ve never seen before. It some ways Washington reminds me a lot of the Connecticut of my childhood, but in other ways it’s kind of like being on another planet. How exciting!

One of the first things I did upon moving to Seattle was to log on to Amazon.com and purchase a copy of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest. If they publish a guide to your region, I highly recommend that you get one. This book is like nature’s bible, and it’s really helping me get used to this area.

Audubon Guides are very comprehensive. They describe the area’s topography and geology, fossils, habitats, weather, and even what you can expect to see in the night sky in any given season. (I was distressed to discover that I’ll only be able to see Orion well in the winter. That was the favorite constellation of my late boyfriend, and it always makes me feel connected to him.)

These guides also give you detailed images and descriptions of the local flora and fauna. They even give you a picture of the various animal tracks. It’s amazing the variety of squirrels, rabbits, birds, and beetles that live here that I didn’t even know existed. (I look forward to meeting a hoary marmot so I can commiserate with him about his name.) There’s also a detailed section about the parks and preserves in the region, and I hope to explore every single one of them.

It’s a bit of a culture shock being a bridgetender in a different part of the country. In Florida I used to sit at work and gaze at alligators, nutria, dolphins, manatee and ospreys. Now I see peregrine falcons, harbor seals, and salmon. It’s a different world. But if it means I never have to see another scorpion, water moccasin or two inch cockroach (they actually have a display of them here at the local zoo! Shudder…) I’ll be happy as a pacific littleneck clam, as described on page 177 of my guidebook.


[Image credit: wikipedia.org]