Friday, January 15, 2010

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Chances are that there's not much more we can say about the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History that you haven't already seen or heard. After all, among all of the very busy museums under the Smithsonian's umbrella, the house of plants, animals, and rocks was the most popular in 2009 with almost 7.5 million people walking through its majestic doors.

Still, if there's anything we've learned in this last year of reporting our explorations in DC, there's always more to see and do. This last weekend, that meant a return trip to the Mall through the Smithsonian's Young Benefactors Second Saturday tour.

The Young Benefactors are a group of young(ish) professionals who, for a little more than the cost of a regular Smithsonian membership, enjoy unique opportunities and access to the museums. One of those opportunities that J and I have pledged to take better advantage of this year is their appropriately named Second Saturday tour.

Last weekend's free tour was "Dinosaurs and the Hope Diamond." Growing up as one of those kids that obsessed over dinosaurs, I'm now a big kid who is still fascinated by them. (Random fact about B: His favorite class in college was "Dinosaurs and their Relatives")

Combine dinos with the newly "naked" Hope Diamond (read: temporarily out of its setting), and we were hooked.

But on this day, the best laid plans went awry and we ended up with a climate scientist from NOAA who took us through a tour of the museum's ocean exhibit.

I don't know how to put this so that I don't offend people, but ocean science isn't my favorite. For whatever reason, million year old lizard bones or the taxidermist's wet dream that is the mammal exhibit (see below) are more interesting to me.

But here's the rub. Walking through the ocean wing and looking at exhibits that we'd normally not slow down for (has anyone discussed the details of a Cape Cod depth chart before?) was awesome! All the difference was made by a contagiously enthusiastic tour guide who was far more qualified than your average museum host. And, in our experience at the Smithsonian, he's not the exception. No matter how seemingly boring (my mother, always the teacher, hates that word) an exhibit may seem, having an expert with you really brings it to life.

The point is this. We all have our favorite exhibits, or on a larger scale, our favorite parts of the city. Without something to push us out of our comfort zone (a last minute switch of Smithsonian docents or this blog), we find ourselves in those same, familiar, comfortable places. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but when we open our eyes to new experiences, it isn't hard to find wonderfully interesting things.

Most of us have been to the Smithsonian and have probably even served as tour guides for our visiting friends and family. But as we've said before, be a tourist in your own city. Go to the Mall and take a tour of something you haven't see before (and don't tell us you've seen everything). It's free and you might learn something. Even more importantly, however, you might learn something about yourself.

J Says

While B was a dinosaur geek, I was an ocean geek. Like many young girls, I went through a serious dolphin-loving phase complete with a dolphin-themed bedroom. I still get wide-eyed each time that we see the ocean on our return trips to California. With that said, I have to admit that I'm not nearly as fascinated by the ocean when you're talking about it in the abstract in a museum. One very enthusiastic and animated tour guide changed my whole perspective.

The Sant Ocean Hall at the Museum of Natural History opened in September 2008 as a collaboration between the Smithsonian and NOAA. I'd walked through it before and marveled at the giant squid and waved hello to the tropical fish in the small aquarium, but I never took the time to really (pardon the pun) "dive in."

Our tour guide made the exhibit come alive and even wove in lessons about climate change without causing our group to fall asleep. Our experience on this tour goes to show how one of the free(!) guided tours can show you a new side of the Smithsonian. So, the next time your house guests want to see a museum, don't roll your eyes and offer to pick them up later. Gather the troops and join a tour. Even the most jaded Washingtonian will learn something new.

1 comment:

blunoz said...

Sorry I'm delinquent on commenting, but I really enjoyed this review of your tour at the Smithsonian. Isn't it amazing how an enthusiastic tour guide can make something much more interesting than it would have been if you just browsed your way through? I felt that way with a couple of the National Park Service rangers at the DC memorials and at the Antietam battlefield.