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Since 1869, this institution has served as both the country’s preeminent private scientific research facility and its top museum for paleontology, zoology, anthropology, and, in recent years, astronomy. It’s this constant flow of energy and insight between the research side and the curatorial side that has kept the museum fiercely vital, fresh, and unique. Just a few years ago, for example, scientists concluded that dinosaurs had not dragged their tails as had long been thought but waved them in the air as they walked. The curators responded, painstakingly dismantling the Museum’s famed dino skeletons and reassembling them with tails erect. Then, in a brilliant stroke, they placed one skeleton atop a section of a Texas riverbed where they had found fossilized dino footprints (sans tail-dragging marks), giving museumgoers a peephole into how scientific theories emerge.

This double spotlight on the science itself and on how science is “made” is one of the pleasures of a visit here, with many of the exhibits focusing on the current “educated guesses” and the scientists who are making them. An extraordinarily interactive museum, it challenges visitors to figure out which theories make the most sense via computer stations, wall text, videos, soundscapes, and, of course, the artifacts themselves.

Start your visit by exploring the dinosaur rooms on the fourth floor, as these get most crowded later in the day. The museum has the largest such collection in the world, and the hot questions surrounding dinosaurs—How did they die out? Did they care for their young? Did they live in organized herds?—are fully explored.

Floors 2 and 3 are diorama-driven, with half the floors devoted to the anthropological study of the various peoples of the world; the other half to African and North American mammals. If you’re short on time, take the mammal route, which features the poetic work of taxidermist/zoologist/sculptor Carl Akeley, who eventually died in Africa while collecting animals to stuff and display. Akeley pioneered a new technique of sculpting papier maché, which he would then cover with actual animal skins, antlers, and hoofs, often using the animal’s bones for structure as well. The results are remarkably lifelike. The exhibit also fulfills his mission to conserve these animals and their environment for future generations—many of the wilderness areas depicted have changed beyond recognition in the past 50 years.

Other highlights include the dazzling Hall of Minerals, with its Fabergé-carved gems and the largest star sapphire in the world; the Hall of Ocean Life, with its famed 10-ton blue whale replica hanging from the ceiling; and the new Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, an extraordinarily persuasive argument for the theory of evolution.

One of the newest sections of the museum, the Rose Center for Earth and Space ★★★ has been widely hailed as one of the most architecturally important buildings in New York—a monumental 120-foot-high glass box enveloping a colossal sphere, which is the virtual reality theater, the Hayden Planetarium. When you first enter the museum, be sure to get one of the timed tickets to a planetarium show, which is terrific.

Some tips for improving your visit:

  • Timing: Because the museum is so popular with school groups, it’s difficult to predict when the museum will be crowded. In general, attendance is in inverse proportion to the weather: When it’s lovely outside, the crowds will be sparse within. When it’s blustery or rainy. watch out. Weekdays tend to be less crowded than weekends.
  • An overview tour: First-time visitors should consider taking one of the guided introductory tours that begin at 15 minutes past the hour throughout the day. Led by highly knowledgeable and well-spoken volunteer guides (they take classes for 6 months), tours vary by guide and will often hit different highlights of the museum.
  • Especially for kids: Families with children will want to visit the Discovery Room, an educational center where kids can pretend to dig up dinosaur bones, do a scavenger hunt, work with microscopes, and more. Timed tickets are given out in advance and they do run out, so get one early if you’d like to visit the Discovery Room.