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Entries in Smithsonian (34)

Saturday
Nov212009

National Museum of Natural History - for kids

Sure, we all love letting our imaginations go wild in the land of dinosaurs, but what if you wish to bring your kids with you?

Just about the only drawback I find visiting the Natural History Museum with kids is, of course, the crowds. A few years ago, a little noticed seismic shift took place along the Mall. Long the reining king of attendance, the Air and Space Museum has been bumped from the top of the list. While Air and Space focused energy and resources on the excellent, if inaccessible Udvar-Hazy Annex, the Natural History Museum has steadily and creatively reworked it's offerings and is now securely on top.

Kudos to them, but the 800,000 more visitors Natural History receives each year will all be in front of you when you're trying to snap a picture of the Hope Diamond. Even my beloved and deserted Western Cultures exhibit has its share of visitors tramping through nowadays disturbing my rest. So it's critical for all of us, and especially those of us with kids, to have a bit of a plan before visiting the Museum, especially if you've blown me off and come in the Spring and Summer.

Let's acquaint ourselves with the physical layout of the place. Assuming you're coming in from the Mall entrance, you will find yourself in the Rotunda. If you are confused about whether the room you are in is the Rotunda or not, look around for an African Elephant. No elephant, it's not the Rotunda. While not exhaustive, I break the main floor into three groups: the Dinosaurs and Early Mammals towards your right, the Mammals towards your left, and the brand spanking new Ocean exhibit directly ahead. These exhibits will draw most visitors and be prepared to be jostled and crowded in them during peak times, especially the Dinosaurs. These exhibits are great, and worthy of a visit, but the following are the places I find give me the most bang for my buck with my kids:

  1. The Discovery Room: It probably goes without saying you'll want to visit here. It's chock full of things to explore, items to try out, artifacts to play with, and outstanding docent and staff members to pull it all together. The only catch is hitting it at the right time. Open time for families is Tuesday-Thursday from noon to 2:30 pm, Friday from 10:30 am to 2:30 pm , and 10:30 am to 3:30 pm on the weekends. They can only handle so many folks at a time, so be prepared for a wait on weekends. Go to the end of the Ocean exhibit and hang a right.
  2. O. Orkin Insect Zoo: On the second floor is the ironically named Orkin Insect Zoo, which is great fun for kids with a, shall we say, adventurous point of view. Not a huge hit with my wife though. I've had fun grossing my daughter out at giant cockroaches and stuff and try to make it for the Tarantula feedings at 10:30 am, 11:30 am, and 1:30 pm, Tuesday through Friday. I presume they simply go hungry on the weekends.
  3. Butterfly Pavilion: If you'd like to explore the more picturesque side of bug life, the Butterfly exhibit is adjacent to the Insect Zoo. While a portion of the exhibit is free (and all of it is on Tuesdays), I'd recommend blowing $6 ($5 for kids), and visiting the live butterfly room, where you might just get a chance to have a butterfly land on you. You may also want to book the ticket in advance on line, especially if it's the busy time of the year.
  4. Written in Bone: I've discussed this exhibit more fully earlier, but I've got to say that the Forensic Anthropology Lab is great for kids of all ages. Some parents might not think that helping a four year old put together a skeleton is developmentally appropriate, but give it a shot. The Lab is closed Wednesdays, open other weekdays from 1:00 to 5:00 pm, and weekends 11:00 am to 4:00 pm.

No kidding, you could probably spend the better part of the day in this Museum alone, but, as always, I'm a fan of exploring until just before your blow out. And while these may be what I think are the best kid's exhibit at Natural History, they may not be my favorite. My favorite is whichever has the least amount of people there.

Friday
Nov062009

Getting Kids "into" History

  American History Museum

If there was a phrase I hated growing up, it was the one you see above. As will no doubt surprise you, I was fascinated by history at a very early age, delving into biographies and happy to traipse about old battlefields and museums. I, or more commonly, my parents, would often get the question: "how do I get my kid "into" History?"

The answer, of course, is that is a silly question, and as long as you approach History as something that has to be sugar-coated, kids are going to be as suspicious of your motives as my dog is when I give him a pill coated in peanut butter. The trick is to stop thinking of it as a trick. Quit viewing history as an obligation, like eating your vegetables or going to the dentist, and instead have fun with it. Admittedly, it's quite possible to suck the life out of history, and I suffered under quite a few teachers that bludgeoned me with facts and dates, but this is fun stuff. and you should enjoy it.

And there's no better place to do so than the National Museum of American History. While the physical improvements in the recent restoration are nice, I think the new attitude among the staff and the revamped programming is what is really making the Museum come to life. Always a beacon to us history dorks, the Museum is starting to draw kids in, and with good reason.

So let's all stop "dragging" our kids there and look at some great ways to have fun:

  1. Take advantage of the programming: This is really where the Museum has set itself apart. All of the Smithsonians offer docent led tours, kid-friendly events, and so on, but I venture to say that none of them are as accessible, nor as aggressive in engaging you, as the revamped American History's lineup. I'd certainly recommend checking the events calendar ahead of time to see if anything looks interesting when you come, but I usually just walk up to the information desk when I get there and ask what's going on today. I have yet to find something my kids aren't interested, usually starting within an hour or so.
  2. Participate in "Historic Theater" events: Hand in hand with my first point, I'd try to see every "historic theater" event they put on. These are events that occur on a daily, if not hourly basis, that involve a costume historical interpreter sharing their experience with an impromptu audience. It combines the best elements of street performers with the historic collections they perform in front of. I think my daughter has assisted in helping Mary Pickersgill to "make" the Star-Spangled Banner so many times she'll get a bonus if she lays out one more star. But even weightier subjects have engaged her--even the reenactment of students training for nonviolent civil rights sit ins at the lunch counter in Greensboro.
  3. Use the hands on facilities: On the ground floor (down one level from the Mall entrance) are two hands-on places where kids can play with stuff. The Spark Lab is adjacent to the well laid out Science in American Life exhibit, and allows kids to explore the creative process implicit in all scientific pursuits. Or they can just play, as if there's a difference. It's killed many a rainy afternoon for us. Spark Lab also has an excellent under five section. Across the way is the Invention at Play exhibit, which ties in the process of invention with quite a few hands on activities. And throughout the museum, docents will be pushing Interactive Carts, which let you explore a specific subject with them. Don't hang back, these are a lot more fun than staring at exhibits.
  4. Pick one exhibit and explore the crap out of it: Whatever you do, don't try to think you're going to see the whole Museum. Not that it can't be done, it's that it shouldn't be done. You'll tire yourself out and not get much out of it. I re-learned this one day when my daughter asked me why we always saw "boy" exhibits. Not thinking that the dinosaurs at Natural History or the planes at Air and Space were exclusively masculine, I hadn't been ready for this, but I humored her and we spent an afternoon exploring the First Ladies' Dresses. We had a great time, and I was once again surprised at how much really digging into a dull subject (for me, at least) can end up being fascinating. Sacrifice breadth for depth. It pays a higher return.

All in all, the American History museum is creeping up the list of my favorite kid's museums in DC. Frankly, Air and Space better get in the game if they want to stay competitive.

Friday
Sep252009

Wildlife of DC: Capitalsaurous

Capitolsaurus Court
We've talked about wild animals that were pushed to the brink of extinction and came back, those that we've imported, and even those that couldn't make it in the world we've created. What do you all say, shall we take a break from how humans have interacted with the natural world and examine a creature who can't possibly blame us for its demise?

Somewhere over a hundred million years ago, in the Early Cretaceous period, a theropod walked a swampy, sweltering wetland in what is now Washington, DC. After managing to die, he was covered with silt and over the next few millenia he, or at least part of one vertebra, was preserved as a fossil. Then, just over a hundred years ago, in January of 1898, workers digging a sewer line in a swampy, sweltering wetland known as Washington, DC discovered said vertebra.

Excitement reigned, and the finder, one J.K. Murphy, donated the specimen to the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, where, presumably, it rests to this day. Then, a little over a decade or so ago, Washington, DC decided to adopt Capitalsaurus as both it's state fossil, and it's state dinosaur. To cap it all off, we also named the intersection where the bone was found "Capitalsaurus Court". If you'd like, if you need a great place to take a picnic lunch to after your Capitol tour, stroll down 1st ST to the corner of 1st and F ST SE. After pausing at Capitalsaurus Court, continue across the street to Garfield Park, an excellent local park to take a break at if the kids are worn out and need a break.

And if you are wondering, Capitalsaurus would have looked like a somewhat smaller version of it's more famous distant cousin Tyrannosaurus Rex. And it would have totally kicked the ass of, then ate, its contemporary: Maryland's state dinosaur, Astrodon Johnsoni. So take that, Maryland.

Now, we've had a lot of fun with Capitalsaurus here in DC. In fact, we're quite proud of it. So I'll leave it to the kill-joys at the Smithsonian to tell us that this name is "not scientifically justified" and "has no validity". Ridiculous! Next you're going to try and tell me Pluto's not a planet.

Thursday
Sep242009

Wildlife of DC: Passenger Pigeon

extinct birds
In yesterday's post (which despite its appearances was not edited by a poorly trained monkey) we talked about the Bald Eagle, a species that has traveled from the brink of extinction to the commonplace. Of course, not everyone was so lucky.

Let's talk about one of the species that once lived on the banks of the Potomac that will never be seen alive again, unless of course, we get that cloning thing up and running. It once existed in such numbers that they reportedly blocked the sun as they migrated overhead. The Passenger Pigeon was last seen in the wild around the turn of the last century and the last captive one, Martha, died on September 1st, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoological Park. Incidentally, Martha is here in DC in the U.S. National Bird Collection at the Smithsonian, although not on display.

So what happened? How did a species that was once the most common bird of North America end up collapsing so completely? Many theories have been advanced, and it was almost certainly a team effort. Deforestation reduced it's habitat and of course played a part. It's entirely possible that infectious disease, such as Newcastle Disease helped them along. But mostly, the Passenger Pigeon was hunted extensively to provide meat to slaves in the South, as well as cheap meat for poor people in urban areas.

But on a more fundamental level, the Pigeon's problem was that it was a blithering idiot, evolutionary speaking (that's a technical term, by the way). It survived in great numbers because it needed to survive in great numbers. On an individual level, it had no defenses. It simply hoped that there would be so many other Pigeons that predators would be so full they couldn't possibly eat all of them. When humans ramped up hunting in the 19th century, they managed to kill in numbers never before seen, so many that the population collapsed. By the time zoos and naturalists attempted to save the species, they discovered that they would need breeding pairs in the thousands to resurrect the numbers required. Unlike the Eagles we discussed yesterday, it was not possible to bring them back with just a handful of pairs. So once the balance beam tipped, there was no righting it. Despite the best efforts of institutions such as the Cincinnati Zoo, the Passenger Pigeon never made it back.

But since it went extinct in an era with a madness for cataloging and categorizing nature, the Passenger Pigeon is not entirely absent from Washington, DC. While you cannot see Martha herself, a Passenger Pigeon is on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. It's a little out of the way, but worth a look. Head down to the ground floor, where the gift shops and cafeteria are, and head to the Birds of DC exhibit. Now, it's entirely possible that you have been to the Natural History Museum and have not seen this exhibit. It's even possible that you are a professional, licensed Tour Guide and not seen this exhibit. But that would be a mistake. It's one of those quirky, dated little exhibits that get passed over for dinosaurs, elephants, and giant whales. Go downstairs and spend five minutes looking at the birds in their wonderful, antique wooden display cases. And as you go in, look to your left. Right there at the top, next to the also extinct Carolina Parakeet, is an actual Passenger Pigeon. And to think, you came all this way and almost missed it.

Tuesday
Sep222009

Wildlife of DC: Black Squirrels

Black Squirrel
photo by geopungo

Yesterday, as we discussed the Grey Squirrel at great length, I alluded to the fact that they do not have a monopoly on DC, squirrel-wise. And a casual walk through DC, specially Squirrel-Central, Lafayette Park, will probably result in at least one sighting of the feared and dreaded "Black Squirrel of Death".

Breath normally though, these are simply a variant of our normal Eastern Grey Squirrels, a "melanistic variety" to use the proper terminology. It is thought that when the first settlers came to North America, the Black variant was the dominant one, greatly outnumbering their Grey cousins. In the shady gloom of a virgin forest, the darker coloring gave an evolutionary advantage to the Black ones. However, once settlers started clearing land, and more importantly, hunting squirrels, the darkness worked against them. Quite simply, in a sunny field, a black squirrel stands out.

So, outside a few pockets, the black ones were hunted and bred out of the entire Continental US. However, they retained their evolutionary advantage further north. In addition to the protective nature of the coloring, black retains heat better, giving them an advantage in colder climates.

But if they were all hunted out, how did they end up in DC? Well, in 1902, and again in 1906, the National Zoo received 18 Black Squirrels from the Department of Crown Lands of Ontario. Over time, they managed to spread from the Zoo into the surrounding neighborhoods. It's unclear if they were deliberately released or simply escaped. Presumably, breeding squirrels is much easier than, say, Giant Pandas, and so they may have just let the surplus go. Either way, they started to spread outwards from the National Zoo. The Smithsonian Museum of National History has a preserved specimen dating from 1917 from Cleveland Park. The 1923 Mammals of the District of Columbia notes that they can be found throughout the Cleavland Park area. Today, they've spread as far north as Ft. Meade, MD (30 miles), as far east as Annapolis (30 miles), and as far south Prince William County, VA (25 miles).

And not only have the Black Squirrels spread, they've become part of the local zeitgeist. Locals enjoy pointing them out, and visitors are fascinated by the, even more so than the ubiquitous Grey variant. Heck, there's even a bar named after them.

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