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I’ll be blunt: This museum can be just too much. And I mean that in, unfortunately, a negative way. Not only is it the second (after the Air and Space museum) most popular museum in town (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.
Let me give you some numbers: The museum’s collection has more than 146 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 6 million people visit annually, making this the most visited natural history museum in the world.
Best advice: Know before you go. Use this guide and the museum’s website to develop a strategy before you arrive. For instance, as the website suggests, try to visit on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, or on any weekday in September or February, when crowds are sparser. And if you still find yourself feeling overwhelmed on arrival, do as I did on a recent visit to the busy museum: Go up to one of the green- or tan-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 these 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 22 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 National Fossil Hall debuts in the summer of 2019. Until then, head to the second floor for an interim exhibit, “The Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World,” 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. 
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, which you can read about on in the Walking Tours chapter.) The second floor is also where you’ll find a small showpiece on 3,000-year-old mummies, notable for the beautifully decorated coffins on display; and a temporary exhibit (until 2021) on “Outbreaks: Epidemics in a Connected World,” which tracks the rushed pursuit by scientists, medical personnel, and concerned citizens to identify and contain infectious disease outbreaks around the world. 
And there’s more: a live butterfly pavilion; a Q?rius Jr. Discovery Room of hands-on exhibits for young children; live tarantula feedings for thrill-seekers; and, in summer 2019, a newly renovated atrium featuring restaurants on two levels.
What to pick? That’s up to you. Good luck.