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.

nmnh_rotundaLocated 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.

nmnh_mammalhall_jaguarJaguar, with night eyes mural and cello-like growling audio enrichment.

nmnh_mammalhall_ruuuudeLeopard, rudely having her gazelle lunch directly above visitors’ heads.

nmnh_mammalhall_foxsmoochAn immortalized kiss between a fox and her kit.

nmnh_mammalhall_whaaatEven this hare wants to know what kind of animal the guy in the right is.

nmnh_mammalhall_fruitbatFlying fox–always impressive!

nmnh_mammalhall_yourfaceI’m imagining someone said, “Okay! Now everyone make a silly face for the camera!”

An impressive mix of exhibit design and specimens can be found in the Sant Ocean Hall.

nmnh_oceanhall_ExhibitThings in jars! X-rays! Scientific tags! Grid systems! Cohesive color schemes! Both the art and the nature kid in me is very pleased, indeed.

nmnh_oceanhall_prehistoricfishBy the way, there is also a Coelacanth. Just a rare fish everyone thought was extinct until one was caught in the modern era. NBD.

Aside from the VAMPIRE SQUID (criminally not pictured) my favorite part of this exhibit is the aquarium full of living fish.

nmnh_oceanhall_aquariumBecause 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.

nmnh_insectzoo_spiderAnd this extremely photogenic spider.

nmnh_insectzoo_beetlebottomAnd these industrious beetles. Their enclosure was generously curated with an actual skull for them to explore just as they might in the wild.

Another fantastic example of design + specimen: Written In Bone exhibit.

nmnh_bone_exhibitExamining how the differences in pelvic bone in humans reveals whether it belonged to a male or female. Symmetry, bones, color, illustration and typography all working in concert.

nmnh_bone_teethBaby teeth!

nmnh_bone_skeletonA skeleton laid out on a bed of tiny, smooth glass pebbles. A thoughtful resting place.

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.

nmnh_fossil_horseskullThe skull of a horse.

nmnh_fossil_horseskullhoofA more primitive horse skull, and hoof anatomy.

nmnh_fossil_horsetrioA small herd of ancient equines grazing, and forever on the look out.

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.

nmnh_evolution_rodentsSimilarities and differences in species of rodents.

nmnh_evolution_batsDelicate, gorgeous bat skeletons.

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.

nmnh_evolution_amphbiansI mean, just LOOK AT ALL THE SPINES.

nmnh_evolution_boaBoa constrictor!

nmnh_evolution_GiantSalamanderGiant Salamander!


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.

nmnh_bone_ravenA Common Raven.

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.

nmnh_birds_cases Cases, hidden down a hallway, containing the birds of the Washington, DC metro area.

nmnh_birds_crowsjaysThe Common Crow and relatives.

nmnh_birds_owlsA rather endearing trio of screech owls.

nmnh_birds_starlingThe European Starling, an invasive species, and a bird with amazing plumage, vocal capabilities, social lives, cleverness, and personality.

From Elephants to Starlings, the Natural History Museum has a lot of teach, and for the inquisitive visitor, a lot to take in.