On Friday, we set aside our last full day in Washington DC for “the big one”: The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). While I’ve always been a bigger fan of technology than nature, the rest of the family is clearly much more on the nature side of the pendulum. When we’re at the Air and Space Museum, I’m the expert, and explain to the family the intricacies of things like the evolution of swept and delta wings, or the relative merits of American and Soviet ICBMs. But when we’re at natural history museums, I rely on Jason to identify and explain the animals on exhibit.
I first visited the NMNH when I was a boy, and I still have two very clear memories of the experience: Looking at the Hope Diamond, and holding a caterpillar in the insect zoo, where it promptly pooped on me. Take from that what you will. (For what it’s worth, my clearest memory of my first visit to the Air and Space Museum was playing with the interactive display that let you design a supersonic airliner)
Naturally, we began our visit at the Hope Diamond (which gets incredibly crowded later on during the day). The Hope Diamond is part of an enormous display of gemstones provided by Harry Winston. Marissa was drawn to it, of course, photographing it from every angle. The story of the Hope Diamond also provides some valuable history lessons–it was part of the crown jewels of France, and disappeared during the French Revolution, only to reappear 1 day after the 20-year statute of limitations on prosecuting its theft had expired. Sheer coincidence, I’m sure.
Outside the exhibit, Alisha chatted with one of the guards, who gave us some good advice–besides the Hope Diamond, the next most popular exhibits were the butterfly pavilion and the dinosaurs. He recommended we hit those early before the rush took over. After thanking him, we moved on to the butterfly pavilion, where, as he predicted there was no line. (We walked past later in the day, and the line was about 30-45 minutes). Here, I shelled out $16 so that the kids and I could enter. A bit extravagant, since the kids regularly visit the rainforest at the Cal Academy of Sciences, which has much the same butterflies, but when you’ve already spent thousands of dollars on a vacation, what’s a few more? The butterflies were beautiful, of course, but I also learned some fascinating facts about butterflies that I didn’t know before:
- For every species of butterfly, there are over 10 species of moths
- Butterflies evolved from moths about 65 million years ago
- Before flowering plants evolved in the twilight of the dinosaurs, moths fed by chewing leaves and pollen with their mandibles, since nectar didn’t exist yet
Then we took the elevator down to the lobby to hit the final exhibition the guard had mentioned, the dinosaurs. There were some pretty interesting videos about how 3D printing has changed how the museum displays dinosaurs. Because most dinosaur skeletons aren’t found intact (they lacked the courtesy to build gigantic coffins for their burials–must be those tiny arms), most of the skeletons you or I remember seeing from our youth are Frankenstein monsters–assembled from the bones of many creatures.
With the advent of better imaging and creation techniques, that can be remedied. The film I watched showed how computer animation allowed paleontologists to manipulate skeletons virtually, until they were properly arranged to allow full motion, and how 3D imaging and printing allowed them to do things like flip a left hip to print up a matching right hip. Cool stuff!
Of course, we couldn’t resist taking the time to take a picture:
After leaving the dinosaur exhibit, we worked our way through ancient mammals and the new “African Voices” exhibition and headed to lunch in the museum’s cafe. Yelp warned us in advance about the exorbitant prices, but as with Air and Space, it made no sense to leave the museum and brave the 100 degree temperatures to find a better place to eat, especially given the need to go through a security line upon re-entry. We ordered a slice of cheese pizza for Jason, and a overstuffed BBQ beef brisket sandwich with macaroni and cheese and coleslaw for the rest of us. One of the benefits of having varied taste preferences in our family is the ability to feed many people with a single meal. Marissa ate the macaroni and cheese (one of her favorite foods). I had half of the brisket and coleslaw, which left Alisha with a reasonably sized sandwich for her lunch.
After lunch, we went through the entire minerals and gems exhibit (with Marissa taking pictures all the way) and visited two special exhibitions: Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt (AKA Mummies!), and Written in Bone. While a bit macabre, both were great exhibitions, complete with actual mummies (gruesome) and skeletons. Written in Bone is a new exhibit on forensic anthropology that focuses on what scientists have learned from the bones they found at the recently rediscovered Fort James, the initial Jamestown settlement. 104 men and boys arrived at Jamestown in the initial expedition; within 9 months, only 38 were still alive. There were a lot of bones. Among other things, the bones confirmed written reports that the colonists had resorted to cannibalism during “The Starving Time,” though as I pointed out to the family, the colonists probably only ate people that were already dead.
Alisha and I also reassured them that we were very unlikely to face the prospect of cannibalism in our own lives. For example, in the event of a civilization destroying apocalypse that we somehow manage to survive, we have plans to loot the local elementary school farm for its livestock, steal the goats from the baylands, and head for the hills of Portola Valley, which combine high ground, several friends’ fortress-like family compounds, and at least one friend who has socked away an impressive array of weaponry and enough ammunition to destroy a zombie army.
We moved on to Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code, an exploration of genomics. This was a great exhibit, but I couldn’t shake the impression that it was a gigantic 23andMe commercial, despite the fact that 23andMe wasn’t mentioned, except as a sponsor. “We should get our genomes sequenced,” Alisha said, after watching a couple of films detailing how genomic sequencing had helped save various people’s lives. I suppose it would finally establish the truth about the Yeh family legend that the curly hair found in some members of the family come from long-lost Jewish ancestors.
After this, we made our way down to the rotunda, where I met up with my old friend and classmate, Price Roe, who was kind enough to make time in his busy schedule to come see me. Price worked for the W campaign in 2000, focusing on relationships with the technology industry. After 9/11, Price joined the Department of Justice and then later worked for the Department of Homeland Security, where he focused on technology infrastructure and issues. A proud Texas Republican who co-chairs the DC Chapter of Maverick PAC, an organization for next-generation Republicans that was founded by George P. Bush (Jeb’s son, W’s nephew, Bush 41’s grandson). We took a picture, appropriately enough, in front of the elephant in the rotunda:
We finished our time at the NMNH by looking through a gallery of the Windland Smith Rice International Awards for Nature Photography. While the kids objected at first (we were getting pretty tired), they were soon fascinated as well.
Sandra Windland “Wendy” Smith Rice was a famous nature photographer who died suddenly and tragically at the age of 35 of Long QT Syndrome Type 2, a rare inherited heart condition. Her grieving father, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, established these awards, as well as the Mayo Clinic’s Windland Smith Rice Sudden Death Genomics Laboratory.
These nature photographs were amazing. There’s also something special about seeing giant physical prints up close and personal. Here’s Marissa with one of them:
We finished our day at the Smithsonian by visiting “The Castle,” the headquarters of this remarkable organization, as well as the attached gardens and the Sackler Gallery. A great way to end our stay in Washington!