museum tourist: american museum of natural history

I went to nerd heaven on Wednesday. I was in New York for a meeting, so I decided this was my big chance to see the American Museum of Natural History. This is the museum that scientists from New York talk about when you ask why they’re scientists. It’s full of rocks and bones and stuff, and I had never seen it.

First, a disclosure statement: I got into the museum free. Theoretically, anyone can do this. The museum admission fee ($16 adult, $9 kids) is actually just a suggested donation – you could walk up to the cashier, say, “Hi, I’m not paying!” and get a ticket. But that takes some nerve. I got a voucher from the communications office because I’m a journalist, and my ticket included entry to a couple of things you really do have to pay for.

But I’m pretty sure that even if I hadn’t gotten in for free, I would still think this museum was awesome. ‘Cause it is. Awesome. One blog post can not come close to doing justice. It is a darn big museum. Here are some selected highlights.

First: If I were a kid growing up in New York, I would want to become a mineralogist. The minerals are displayed in this crazy room in the back of the museum, with all different levels and ramps and stairs and carpeted places to sit. I kind of wanted to move in.

mineral crib

I didn’t want to move in anymore after it was invaded by actual children who are growing up in New York. Golly, school groups can make a lot of noise. This leads to one of my useful tips on this museum: Weekdays are good, but weekdays after 2 are better.

One of the biggest dang things is a model of a blue whale. Can you imagine if you were snorkeling or scuba diving and you saw one of these? Wow.

that is one big whale

They were setting up some kind of party underneath the whale. I wonder how the whale feels about that.

I couldn’t help, as I went through the museum, comparing it with my hometown natural history museum (the Smithsonian one). Like, we have this one big elephant in the rotunda. He is big, and he is awesome. And New York is like, “Whatever. We have a whole herd of elephants, and they’re not even important enough to be in our entrance hall.”

whole stinking herd of elephants

I like how the sign by the elephants says four of them were “collected” by Carl Akeley in the 1920s. I know, our relationship with nature was different then, and I suppose the dead, mounted carcasses of these elephants have several decades’ experience inspiring young people to scientific greatness, but come on. “Collected”? That sounds like he picked them off the savanna with a butterfly net.

The AMNH particularly excels in that standby of old-school natural history museums: the diorama. There are dioramas of everything. Asian mammals. African mammals. Birds. New York state environments. Neanderthals. There was even an extreme close-up diorama showing the soil surface, with an ant the size of a baby and a disturbingly oversized centipede. Here’s one from the hall of African mammals, featuring a pair of Greater Koodoos:

koodoo is fun to say

One of the things I like about the dioramas is that in addition to the sign telling you about the animals, there’s a second sign telling you about the environment they’re in. These guys live in scrub at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. A few years ago my natural history museum scrubbed its dioramas and remounted the mammals on their own, against mostly white backgrounds. It is a beautiful exhibit, but a different approach to talking about animals – more organized around evolution, less reference to environment.

The dinosaurs live on the top floor, where there is [gasp] natural light. Yeah, I know, every picture up to now has been kind of gloomy. That’s the nature of museums, I guess, or at least museums that are trying to preserve things when ultraviolet light is the enemy.

This Tyrannosaurus was remounted in recent years. In 1915, when the museum originally mounted it, scientists didn’t agree on how Tyrannosaurus stood. Some thought it stood like a bird, with head down and tail in the air; others thought it stood upright and dragged its tail. The museum had to pick one, so it went with the upright model. Since then, scientists have decided that would dislocate the neck bones (ow) so they’re leaning in the bird direction. It was remounted in 1992 to 1994 according to that hypothesis:

rawr, I am a dinosaur

It’s kind of less threatening when it’s low to the ground, although…now that I think of it, that might just make me even easier to eat. Big, pointy teeth just above head level. Yikes. Good thing they’re extinct.

So like I said earlier, they don’t have a bull elephant in their entrance hall; instead, they have a crazy big dinosaur. Ok, they kind of made this up. The dinosaurs are all real, but they have no idea if a female Barosaurus was indeed capable of rearing up to defend her baby from an attacking Allosaurus. But what the hey, it looks cool and extends about 50 bazillion feet into the sky.


Really, there was so much to see at this museum, I’m saving bits of it for other blog posts. Something to look forward to!

UPDATE: Those other posts: Butterflies; Subway.

For all my Museum Tourist posts, click here.

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7 Responses to museum tourist: american museum of natural history

  1. SteveB says:

    I love all the Smithsonian museums, but I have to say that the AMNH is probably my favorite museum — period. The dinos, the minerals, everything is just awesome.

  2. Helen says:

    It really is sweet. I want to go back and spend more time.

  3. erin*carly says:

    Funny, I have a different memory of the ANHM. We went there for field trips every year as kids. Every. Year. And let me tell you, as awesome as the science and collections are, it is not awesome to go to the same place every year as a kid. We all grew bored of seeing the same exhibits every year. I mean, we were kids! We wanted to see new things.

    Or at least I did.

    Also, I remember what the T-rex looked like before the remounting. He was pretty scary. Now I think he’s even scarier. I would not want to get in his way.

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