The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History – a national treasure full of priceless specimens and engaging exhibits. But the perspective looks a whole lot different through the eyes of a preschooler, for better or worse. Living near Washington D.C., we make a trip to the museum at least once a year, typically in the coldest doldrums of winter.
Here’s a breakdown of the best and worst of several of the major exhibits, from a preschooler’s and a preschooler’s parent’s points of view:
The Live Butterfly Pavilion
This is by far Sprout’s favorite section.
Pro: Butterflies! It’s a small space and there are a lot of them, so they’re everywhere. The staff members specifically caution to watch where you walk, so you don’t step on any by mistake. The variety of species is pretty good as well, with a strong showing by the ever-charismatic Monarch and Blue Morpho butterflies.
Cons: Butterflies! Butterflies have a distinct inability to understand personal space. If you don’t like the idea of bugs landing on you, this is a bad place to be. While Sprout was jazzed going into the house, he was a bit overwhelmed at first. Thankfully, after seeing several land on my sweater and not hurt me, he calmed down a bit. In hindsight, it would have been good to tell him ahead of time that a butterfly might land on him. In addition, there’s a loud machine blowing mist at the entrance that can be overwhelming to anyone with sensory sensitivities.
The Rest of the Insect Zoo
Pros: There’s a really cute area where kids can climb through a giant mock “termite hill.” Sprout and loads of other kids loved scooting in and out of there.
Cons: The museum’s leaf-cutter ant exhibit is still empty and on hiatus as they build up a new colony after the queen in the last one died.
Both, depending on your perspective: The opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with some very creepy crawlies. I love bugs, as long as they aren’t in my house. In contrast, Sprout had zero interest in seeing the giant hissing cockroach.
The Last American Dinosaurs
Pros: The two dinosaurs on display are pretty awesome: an impressive Triceratops and T. Rex. They even have fossilized dinosaur poop! (We sent that photo to my brother-in-law in honor of him teaching Sprout the chorus of the Poo-Poo Train song from South Park. Thanks, Steve.) There’s also a nice touch-screen display about how archeology is done that Sprout very much enjoyed. While Sprout wasn’t that impressed – despite the level of enthusiasm in my voice – I enjoyed the glass-enclosed area where we could watch staff and volunteers prepare fossils. The sign saying “Do not tap on the glass. It will disturb the mammals working inside” made me laugh.
Cons: The exhibit is only a tiny fraction of the Smithsonian’s collection. Unfortunately, the renovated full exhibit won’t be finished until 2019. To give a sense of scale, the regular Fossil Hall closed before Sprout was born in 2013. Also, both the current and new exhibits are sponsored by the Koch Brothers, who are notorious for funding incredibly conservative political campaigns, especially around climate change denial. While it didn’t seem to influence the exhibit’s content (except possibly for one odd reference), it still made me feel vaguely icky.
Hall of Mammals
Pros: The large statues of mammals arranged in versions of their natural habitats are wonderfully engaging. Almost all of them were animals Sprout recognized from books. Seeing them life-sized provided some much needed perspective. In particular, he immediately pointed out the mama and baby manatee hanging from the ceiling. It was also easy to connect them with some scientific concepts we’ve discussed. With Little Bird still nursing and Sprout’s obsession with hatching dinosaurs (a la the opening of Dinosaur Train), we’ve had several recent discussions on what makes mammals different from birds and reptiles. Some well-chosen facts provided nice, “Hey, did you know?” moments without it feeling too much like a lecture.
Cons: Not all of the animals are artificial; some were clearly taxidermied. Sprout didn’t know the difference, but you could end up with some awkward questions from particularly observant kids. The exhibit also doesn’t shy away from predation. In one area, a group of lions are trying to take down an antelope while in another, a wolf is trying to get at a beaver in its dam. Again, just be prepared for some explanation if necessary. In terms of kids who are sensitive to noise, there is a very loud noise in the savanna area that bothered Sprout.
As a lover of all things marine, this is my favorite area. Thankfully, it’s one of Sprout’s too.
Pros: Between the whale hanging from the ceiling, numerous glass display cases, and various other paraphernalia, you won’t run out of things to look at. Sprout’s favorite part is the large coral reef aquarium with live fish, especially since he saw both Finding Nemo and Finding Dory over the summer. We hung out looking at the fish and sea anemones for quite some time, along with a lot of other Finding Nemo fans.
Cons: As the main thoroughfare between the back and front entrances, the Ocean Hall is very crowded, busy, and difficult to look at systematically. It’s very easy to lose a child. In addition, there’s so much there that it can be overwhelming. We usually just look at the aquarium and a single display case or two.
Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals
Pros: Space rocks! It’s pretty easy to convey enthusiasm about space rocks.
Cons: Everything else, at least for a preschooler. After Sprout’s lackluster reaction to the minerals area at the New York State Museum, we actually skipped this area this time. In the past, we spent a little bit of time on the meteorite section, but walked through the rest of the quickly. The Hall is circular, with the fancy jewels and Hope Diamond at the end, causing a big backup for anyone who doesn’t really want to see them.
For past experiences with the Smithsonians, read about our visit to the butterfly house when Sprout was only 18 months old and our experience at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center of the Air and Space Museum. To follow more of our adventures, be sure to follow me on Facebook!