National Museum of Natural History
In a city full of memorable elephants (mostly by party affiliation, though a few real ones, too) this one may be my favorite.
Located in the rotunda of The National Museum of Natural History, this male African elephant was killed in 1955 and donated to the museum. The National Museum of Natural History was built in 1910, during what some call “The Museum Age”–a period between the late 19th and 20th centuries defined by an increase of establishing museums as our understanding science (and natural history in particular) grew in leaps and bounds.
Prior to public Natural History Museums private menageries and collections showcased the natural wonders of the world. The motives behind these private collections varied: prestige, imperialism, amateur and professional scientific inquiry, aesthetics, and pure love of the natural world. These treasures included taxidermy, skeletons, preserved specimens, and sometimes even live animals. Today the public Natural History Museum’s goals are education, preservation, and the public good–but the good ones still retain that element of natural wonderment, and a keen sense of aesthetic and exhibit design.
An impressive exhibit in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC is the Mammal Hall, where a variety of mammals are displayed.
An impressive mix of exhibit design and specimens can be found in the Sant Ocean Hall.
Aside from the VAMPIRE SQUID (criminally not pictured) my favorite part of this exhibit is the aquarium full of living fish.
Because for all the fascination of preserved animals, this really is about the living beings. A stuff Jaguar will do, but it is merely a stand in for the real thing–a complex animal with not only biology, but psychology. From fur to feelings we are enamored with the whole beings that share our environment.
Even if they’re a bit unnerving. Which brings us to the Insect Zoo.
Another fantastic example of design + specimen: Written In Bone exhibit.
The above mentioned exhibits are all fairly recent. One of the older presentations is on evolution. Although the design of this exhibit isn’t as lovely, the treasures and lessons it holds are equal in measure.
My favorite exhibit is also an older one. It hosts rooms and rooms worth of articulating skeletons of all manners of animals, and describes them under the lens of evolution.
As a designer I love the bold shapes and colors and clean sans-serif typography. It’s as if you’ve stepped into a Golden Field Guide circa 1950. But, if I’m perfectly honest, it’s the skeletons themselves that draw me in–as it should be. Design should never overwhelm its message.
Natural History Museums afford us a depth of knowledge we might not otherwise get. If you’re going to love something, after all, you might as well love it right down to the skeleton.
The Natural History Museum, then, serves a dual purpose of introducing the visitor to the exotic, and bringing a new found appreciation to those things in nature we might take for granted or at least whose splendor we might not fully realize.
From Elephants to Starlings, the Natural History Museum has a lot of teach, and for the inquisitive visitor, a lot to take in.