Category Archives: museums

Creatures That Caught My Eye at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

While New York is an epic and fabulous place, it’s good to get out every once in a while, so recently I took a weekend trip to Washington, DC to visit friends and explore. I hadn’t been since I was quite young, so it all felt new, although with some vague memories in the background. One of the best things about DC is that you can visit all the Smithsonian museums for free, so of course I had to visit the Natural History Museum. Here are some creatures that caught my eye, including this elephant in the rotunda, which when it was installed in 1959 was the largest taxidermy animal displayed in any museum. Its eyes are hand blown glass.

I think I’ve gotten a little spoiled with natural history museums, having visited so many beautiful locations with 19th century dioramas, but there were some interesting displays here, even if they lacked something in aesthetics.

I don’t think it quite counts as creature, but this deep sea exploration device certainly had a lot of personality.

Here is a life-size model of a North Atlantic whale. It was installed in 2003 and replaced an early 1900s model of a Blue Whale, which unfortunately seems to have fallen apart and had to be “discarded.” Oh, what I would give to happen upon that in some junkyard…

But even better than a whale model is a real coelacanth  the fish once thought extinct that is now known to still dwell in our oceans. It’s displayed here with a baby coelacanth.

This is a Triplewart Seadevil, a deep sea angler fish, preserved in a jar. It has a rather tough name for a small, squishy fish, but it’s what it was called when people found them floating in the ocean and were totally baffled by their strange shapes.

The Smithsonian has many impressive squid to be seen, including multiple giant squid, such as the above and another held in a 1,500 gallon tank.

Here is another squid, much smaller.

And here is a fossil of a squid, from the Jurassic Period.

I just made it to this room with a mammoth and Irish Elk when the museum announced it was closing…

And that meant the end of my visit! I did have time to see the highlights like the Hope Diamond and Dom Pedro Aquamarine, and other objects not photographed here. As always, I love going into an unfamiliar museum and losing myself in the collections. Of course, this was not my only Smithsonian stop in DC, so watch here for more!

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Manchester Weekend Day 2: Manchester Museum

There was still no sun on my second day in Manchester, but we continued to explore anyway. And what better place to go in dreary weather but a Victorian museum? So we spent the afternoon in the Manchester Museum, which dates back to 1867 and is housed in some neo-Gothic buildings at the University of Manchester. It has a little bit of everything, including exhibits of the natural and human history of Manchester, science, live reptiles, archaeology, dinosaurs, and lots of taxidermy animals.

Hanging in the museum’s atrium is this whale skeleton, one of its over 600,000 zoological objects, although most are unfortunately not on display. Those exhibited ranged from the beautiful to the grotesque, both in terms of animal and condition. It was really a curious museum, with some very modern presentations along with the old glass cabinets. Some was very scientific, and then you would come across a taxidermy goat wearing a sweater or something.

I thought this flamingo had some sad elegance. It really is strange to look at a flamingo’s neck for a long time without feeling totally confused that it can be a real creature.

While much of the taxidermy exhibited was birds, it was hard to miss this particularly terrifying tiger. At least he got to be scary in death and he probably causes a few nightmares in young visitors. I always feel bad for the tough carnivores who are put permanently in docile poses.

Here is where the modern and the Victorian met most sharply at the lower level of the atrium. I’ve never seen neon signs used like this in an old natural history museum. The “Disasters” exhibit on the right had replicas of charred Pompeii bodies and the “Peace” exhibit behind it was full of folded paper cranes.

Unfortunately pushed off to the side was my favorite item in the museum: the skull of Old Billy, the oldest horse on record at 62 years old. He was born in 1760 and lived in Warrington (my Manchester guide Helen’s hometown!), working as a barge horse, pulling barges in the canal from the shore. Here is a lithograph of Old Billy in his living years. Oddly, the skin from his head seems to be exhibited as a taxidermy in Bedford, England. RIP Billy.

In addition to Old Billy and the whale (new Brooklyn band name right there), were whole cabinets of skeletons. With the shiny black surfaces and artistic lighting, they looked quite striking.

One of the centerpieces of the Manchester Museum is Stan the T-rex, a cast of a dinosaur discovered in South Dakota. I love the ceilings of this gallery contrasting with the bones.

I greatly enjoyed the walk around the small museum and all the strange specimens it held. I love that it still has some of its 19th century stateliness even while it attempts to modernize and keep people’s interest.