I’ll be blunt: This museum is just too much. And I mean that in, unfortunately, a negative way. Not only is it the second most popular museum in town, after the Air and Space Museum (get ready to fight the crowds!), but there are so many exhibits, and so many items within the exhibits, that the average visitor experiences an uncomfortable sensory overload while visiting.
Let me give you some numbers: The museum’s collection has more than 127 million artifacts and specimens (only a small percentage on display); the building measures 1.32 million square feet, of which 325,000 square feet is public space; and about 8.3 million people visit annually, making this the most visited natural history museum in the world.Best advice: Know before you go. Use this review and the museum’s website to develop a strategy before you arrive. And if you still find yourself feeling overwhelmed on arrival, do as I did on a recent visit to the crowded museum: Go up to one of the green vested “Visitor Concierges” you’ll see roaming the museum and ask them to name the two must-see things they would recommend in the particular exhibit. A concierge I approached in the Sant Ocean Hall responded immediately with the “live coral reef” and the “shark mouth,” pointing me to them in the vast hall. Perfect suggestions. The variously colored coral reef tank holds fish of brilliant blue, purple, yellow, and pink hues. The enormous jaw of a Carcharodon megalodon, a shark that lived 5 million years ago, is enclosed in a glass case; the idea is for you to pose behind the glass case so that it appears as if you’re “inside the mouth”—a great snapshot.
The museum has 16 different galleries, with exhibits that cover the story of natural history from the earliest beginnings of life to the present. An extreme makeover of the popular fossils and dinosaurs exhibit means that that gallery is closed, not to reopen until the new Dinosaur and Fossils Hall debuts in 2019. Until then, an interim exhibit, “The Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World” is worth touring to view huge cast models of the plant-eating triceratops and the meat-and-bone-eating tyrannosaurus that stomped the earth 66 million years ago. It’s also interesting to watch museum staff at work in the glass-enclosed Fossil Lab, as they fastidiously clean, repair and prepare fossils.
Flanking the dinosaur exhibit are two others I like, a small showpiece on 3,000-year-old mummies, notable for the beautifully decorated coffins on display; and a temporary exhibit (until 2019) on “Objects of Wonder,” which shows sundry items the museum has collected over the years, from a stuffed East African lion acquired in 1913 during a joint Smithsonian-Roosevelt expedition to the “Blue Flame,” one of the largest (250 pounds) and finest pieces of gem-quality lapis lazuli. Meanwhile, across the Rotunda from this exhibit, the Hope Diamond is still holding court in its own gallery within the Geology, Gems and Minerals area. (The deep blue, 45.52 carat diamond has a storied past.)
And there’s more: a live butterfly pavilion; a discovery room of hands-on exhibits for young children; and simulator rides and 2-D and 3-D IMAX movies (Dinosaurs Alive 3-D is a perennial favorite) for thrill seekers.
What to pick? That’s up to you. Good luck.
What to pick? That’s up to you. Enjoy.
- Elise Hartman Ford