My favorite museum, stretching back many years, had been the American Museum of Natural History. It was the first time I laid eyes on a (fake) blue whale, a sunfish, and many other fine specimens. It didn't occur to me that a better natural history museum existed. Sadly, in a blow to my ignorance and my childhood, I went to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History recently and within minutes, knew that this was far superior.
Sure, the whale on the ceiling of the New York natural history museum was bigger -- a blue whale versus a right whale -- but everything else at the Smithsonian was better. The only defense I have is that Sant Ocean Hall is much newer. It opened in 2008, and features a giant squid. Yes, an actual giant squid. It's only thirty five feet long or so, but c'mon, it's a freaking giant squid. Oh yeah, there are actually two giant squid in the hall. The other one is slightly smaller at "only" twenty feet. Pew pew, mind blown.
And then there were all the things I'd never seen before -- except maybe on nature documentaries. Like this prickly thing that I thought was maybe a strange Dumbo squid. Or how about this beauty with the daddy longlegs? The hits kept on coming too. It wasn't just the ocean stuff. The mammals and dinosaurs were also amazing. I saw an echidna, two pangolins, a pair of giant sloth skeletons, a coatimundi, a hyrax, a cloud leopard, a teeny tiny European mole… Ugh, it was just so much. I saw things I had never even heard of, like a streaked tenrec and a kinkajou.
Related: With certain friends, we talk about animals a lot. Like a lot a lot. And we used to play a game where we'd pick a letter of the alphabet and then go around naming as many animals starting with that letter as possible. Whenever I see a new great animal, I try to store it away for future game use. The Smithsonian blew my mind. I can't wait to scream out "kinkajou, kinkajou!"
Most of my commentary during our museum excursion, aside from general wonderment, had to do with how fluffy the fur was for all of the stuffed mammals. Basically, this was me the whole time: "It's so fluffy!" The brown bear in particular seemed to have had all sorts of hair product applied. Plus it was gigantic, which led me to believe it had to be a Grizzly bear, but since that's just a sub-species, perhaps it wasn't labeled as such.
The presentation of the specimens were a bit cramped, but I'd rather have a lot of things to look at rather than not much of anything. Exhibit A: California Academy of Sciences, which has a pathetic natural history display. Sorry San Francisco, you deserve better.
Coincidentally, I just happened to read this great article from Lapham's Quarterly, "How to Be a Stuffed Animal," about the sponsored hunts that the American Museum of Natural History used to acquire specimens, along with some interesting tidbits about advancing taxidermy techniques and philosophy. It also made me realize the difference in how the AMNH showcases their collection (in a diorama-like style) versus at NMNH, which was just straight animals. A highly recommended read.
And let's not forget this piece, "The Private Lives of the Cryptozoologists." My friend has been obsessed with crytopzoology for awhile and he recently visited the International Crytptozoology Musuem and met its founder, Loren Coleman. Coleman's book, Cryptozoology A To Z, is the one to buy if you need a gateway into this fascinating world. Okapi what?!
- Modeling "Phoenix," Our North Atlantic Right Whale
- A Century of Whales at the Smithsonian Institution
- The Object at Hand (1996)
- Persistent Dinosaur Myths (2012)
- Close up photo of a baby pangolin
What we didn't miss was getting a chance to try out D.C.'s burgeoning ramen scene. While Toki Underground will have to wait for another visit, the shio broth at Daikaya is complex and delicious. They also play Prince and D'Angelo while you eat. If you're into that sort of thing.