Going to NMNH? Goodbye crowds, hello dead people!

by Nick McAfee


The National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) is a popular tourist destination and a great place to go at any age. Although there are portions that target younger audiences, the older you are the more you will comprehend and learn. Some exhibits are better though, and this post will outline what are must sees and what is best skipped to avoid the crowds.

The Best of the Best
This museum is filled with amazing exhibits, but two of my favorite are the Sant Ocean Hall and the Written in Bone exhibit.

ocean hall

The Sant Ocean Hall is a newly remodeled space which displays a lot of information in a beautiful manner. You can walk through the exhibit without reading any of the fine print and still learn a lot. Or, you can carefully read your way through the entire exhibition – taking advantage of all of the QR codes embedded within the text – and accumulate a large amount of information. One of the only places you’ll see a whale, a squid, and mob of people milling about. Except the ocean of course

written in bone

The Written in Bone exhibit is also a newer exhibition, and if you are at all interested in the human body, history, archaeology, or are a fan of shows such as Bones or CSI, you are going to love this experience. It is both a teaching tool, which shows you the different impact of traumas and activities on human bone, as well as a detective and historical display. It focuses on several cases of human remains found without stories or explanations of death at an archaeological dig at colonial Jamestown. The exhibit shows how scientists painstakingly work through all of the data available to find these remains’ stories and sometimes even their names. It’s a fascinating and very well done exhibit that deserves attention. Plus you get to see lead coffins – nothing quite like a combination of lead and rotting flesh to taint the water supply. We sure used to know a lot about good burial practice.

Overrated and Crowded

This museum is huge. You will be hard pressed to completely explore all it has to offer in a single visit. Even if you stayed a whole day you wouldn’t be able to fully peruse everything. Therefore it makes sense to avoid some segments that aren’t worth the amount of time they take.

butterfly pavillion

There are two main problems with the butterfly pavilion. First it costs a fair amount of money ($6/adult) for a very short experience and second it usually requires waiting in line before slowly shuffling through the butterfly environment. The real kicker is that the butterflies and entire environment can be seen through windows completely free of charge. Sure, you don’t get touched by a butterfly, but how much of your time and money is that worth?

hope diamond

The Hope Diamond.  It’s just a big diamond. Yet there is always a massive crowd of people surrounding the display case that makes it difficult to see without waiting your turn. There are much more interesting sections of the gem collection to peruse instead of just looking at a single large shiny rock while getting elbowed in the face. If you want to know more about the hope diamond, watch the Smithsonian movie on it – it is a very interesting documentary. Save your time and explore elsewhere.

Hidden Gems
At the very back of the Written in Bone exhibition just past a sign that says no exit for visitors, there is an educational facility that can be fascinating for everyone.

forensic lab

The Forensic Lab serves as a facility where people can get hands on experience with the work that forensic anthropologists do on a daily basis. In addition, there are often interesting lectures and discussions led by members of the FBI bomb squad and others on different topics related to forensics. Keep your ears open for what might be going on and always check it out to see if there is anything new each time you visit.

The final gem is more a piece of irony, but it amuses me every time I visit the museum so I am going to include it:

orkinThat’s right. The insect museum is sponsored by a company that specializes in killing insects (Orkin). Maybe they donate the really cool specimens to the museum? Or maybe they just donated a lot of money to improve their public image a bit? We will never know. We can only see the sign, let the corners of our mouths upturn slightly, and chuckle quietly.


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