Category Archives: natural history

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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Afternoon at the Natural History Museum

This may never come up for you, but I would highly advise against trying to meet up with someone inside the American Museum of Natural History on a Sunday afternoon. For one, the crowds are insane, there are screaming children swarming all corners, and you’ll probably see more than one person inexplicably bang on the glass of the dioramas, as if they are awakening the long dead beasts. Second, there is only rare cell service in the museum, except for the Gallery of Asian Mammals on the first floor, which also has no air conditioning. Anyway, somehow my group of five eventually made a rendez-vous in the vast museum, and I did snap a few taxidermy shots that I thought I would share (I can’t resist photographing old dioramas). Our reason for visiting the museum last weekend was to see the Creatures of Light bioluminescence exhibit, which I found interesting, but underwhelming, except for an aquarium of lantern fish that were really cool. Otherwise it was a lot of text and little on physical displays, although being in the dark and quiet was nice.  Why not have an angler fish that is four hundred times its size that you walk through? They should have asked me for more lively ideas.

Anyway, it is still one of my favorite places, and I would contend the best natural history museum I have yet to visit in the States. So enjoy this photo post! And I am happy to join you there, but let’s meet on the steps outside.

Click here to read about another visit I made to the American Museum of Natural History. 

London Day 5: Natural History Museum & Darwin Spirit Collection

If you want to have any chance of seeing the dinosaurs at the London Natural History Museum, go early. Like line up an hour early outside and bring snacks. Otherwise you’ll find yourself corralled into a roped off area and waiting forever with a horde of shrill small voices. Luckily I did not come to the museum to see the dinosaurs, but was instead there to see the Darwin Centre Spirit Collection. Tours of the Spirit Collection are free, but booked on entering the museum and limited to 15 people. The reason they are so small is that you are taken behind the scenes to see the amazing collection of preserved specimens housed in the museum, including a giant squid and specimens collected by Darwin himself.

A few representatives of the Spirit Collection are out on view in the main part of the museum, including the above cephalopods. Once inside, we got to walk through the rows and rows of cabinets containing specimens, including invertebrates, birds, fish, reptiles, and even some small mammals. The museum takes care of some 22 million specimens, and so of course what we were seeing was only a small fragment, but it was incredible. The Darwin Centre is specifically for the millions of preserved specimens, most in jars, but a few of the larger creatures, including a pony and an orangutan, were inside these huge metal boxes that doubled as tables for examinations. We didn’t get to see inside of these, but we did see the giant squid known as Archie, who is 8.62 meters long and displayed at her full length in a long container. Apparently she is so heavy that she would break through the old floors of the museum itself, so cannot be on display in the main gallery.

Most incredible were those specimens marked “Beagle,” meaning that they had been acquired by Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle, and some of these even had yellow lids, indicating that they were the first of that species every collected. I would absolutely love to be able to look more closely at the specimens, but it was still fantastic to be able to have this behind-the-scenes look at the museum.

I had some time to wander through the rest of the museum, which includes this insanely dramatic entrance through a shattered metal globe, with such characters as a cyclops, Medusa, and an astronaut lining your path.

That insanity aside, the best part of the museum is its old section, with vaulted ceilings in a central hall featuring a cast skeleton of a Diplodocus (it’s known by the woefully uncreative name of Dippy). The skeleton cast was actually given by Andrew Carnegie to the museum, a copy of an original at the Carnegie Museum in the US.

The London Natural History Museum as an organization started in 1756 with the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, although it was notoriously bad at keeping track of things, and now not a single insect remains of Sloane’s thousands, although there are still a spare few pieces from this original collection. In addition to this, there was the habit of hiring relatives of the Trustees over scientists, mental illness in the museum staff, the removal of labels and numbers from cases by rivals, a librarian who hated science, and the discouragement by the Trustess to the public in visiting the museum. Luckily, the museum has much improved over the past 250 years. The current building opened in 1861, and its distinctive terracotta tiles were used as they repelled the Victorian London soot.

There are great details in the architecture, and if you pay attention there are animals and flora everywhere. On one side of the museum are only currently living (as of 1861) animals and on the others are extinct, supposedly at the request of the then superintendent Richard Owen, who was making a rebuttal against Darwin’s claims of linking the past with the present ecology. However, there’s a coelacanth on the extinct side  so… so much for that.

There’s also a statue of Darwin out in the main hall, along with a torso bust of the explorer Frederick Selous, a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and great adventurer in his own right. (Seriously, read about him.)

Here is your obligatory taxidermy/whale skeleton photo, although the taxidermy at the London Natural History Museum is definitely not as impressive as the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But with a hippopotamus like that, who would complain?

The vault section of the minerals hall, with its elegant gemstones, had my favorite object in the main exhibits: the Cursed Amethyst. The Heron-Allen Amethyst, as it is officially known, has bestowed nothing but ghastly trouble to all who have possessed it. It was brought to England in 1855 after being stolen from India by an officer, but that soldier became suddenly ill and destitute. His son then acquired the purple gem, but had bad life luck as well, so he gave it to a friend who killed himself. That friend was so kind as to leave the stone in his will to the soldier’s son, returning the horrible jewel in a fatal act. So he tried to get rid of it again and gave it to a researcher at the museum named Edward Heron-Allen, but things didn’t go so great for him and he tossed it into the Regent’s Canal. Someone then dredged it up, sold it to a dealer, and then it made it back to Heron-Allen, just three months after he had thrown it to the waters. He put it inside seven boxes and in a bank deposit, where it stayed until three years after his death. His daughter later donated it to the museum, but not without a letter of warning from Heron-Allen, calling it “cursed and stained with blood.”

Hopefully none of that bad luck rubbed off on me and the spirit of Darwin and adventure invaded my being instead!