Museum of Natural History

Our 14 year old had some options for a Biology assignment. I was pretty keen on a project involving writing about unusual diseases that appear in our family history but he chose to undertake one that involved a trip to a Natural History Museum. There is one close to home, in Philadelphia, which would have been more straightforward. However, he requested that we take a trip to New York to visit the museum there, which we had visited as part of the boys’ first ever trip to NYC back in February of 2014.

We had not been to NYC for years so we decided it could form the basis of a fun day trip. We formulated a plan for the day that we had to throw away the evening before the trip when the 14 year old fell of his skateboard and badly sprained his ankle. Since he was still pleading to go and given we had already booked and paid for the admission tickets, we decided to forge ahead with the trip to the museum but to junk all of the other plans for the day.*

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One area of focus for the assignment was early humans so we headed to that section first. I took a DNA test a few years ago as a means of making contact with other family historians researching the same families. It has led to all sorts of interesting interactions but there was really nothing interesting about my DNA. It proved I was as boring genetically as I was on paper. The only unexpected find was that I have a smattering of Neanderthal DNA. Until then, I had not known that Neanderthal DNA can still be identified at detectable levels in contemporary humans. I guess now I know where my massive forehead comes from.

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There was a special exhibition about sharks so we decided to boost our tickets for entry to that gallery. You might recall that my 14 year old and I are a wee bit obsessed with sharks. I cannot say that we especially learned anything new about sharks but we appreciated the life size models as we could really grasp the scale of some of the less familiar sharks. We also had fun with the megalodon models.

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I am sure that many visitors to natural history museums spend a lot of time among the dinosaur fossils. While I am certainly no dino nerd, I have never outgrown that childhood fascination with these ancient beasts. One of the things my son was writing about in his assignment was fossil evidence of dinosaurs being feathered so we particularly honed in on the exhibits relevant to that topic. We also made sure to visit all of our favourite dinosaurs – mine is a triceratops in case you are interested. We visited the Ice Age mammals too. As much as I know it would be wholly unethical to do so, I do think it would be marvelous to resurrect mammoths from extinction.

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Other sections of the museum we visited included the Central American gallery and the meteorite and gem sections. You will observe our family tradition of taking photos of ourselves in the same poses as sculptures. My 16 year old loves sparkly shiny things so has always enjoyed that section and my husband is an astronomy geek so he loves getting up close to space rocks. He was especially enthralled by a case containing three chunks of meteor taken from the surface of the moon.

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Unfortunately the limping 14 year old was starting to feel the strain of his busted ankle so we could not keep forging on through all of the other areas of the museum. We felt satisfied that we had covered a lot of ground, however, so left feeling fulfilled.

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And now we need to return to NYC at some point soon to do all of the things we had planned on doing that day but didn’t manage to achieve.

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*The reason the 14 year old is in the majority of the photos is because they will be used to illustrate his assignment and not because he is more biddable than the others when it comes to having his photo taken.

Road Trip #21 – Natural History Museum

It has been our experience that the first and last days of any vacation with the kids are the most trying.  With the first day, it is all about navigating the transition out of routines into some degree of chaos and about managing expectations; with the last day, it is all about fatigue causing crankiness and an unconscious or conscious desire to return to familiar routines, a need to retreat back into the family cave for some hibernation after all the stimulation.

We, therefore, kept our final day of the road trip pretty low key.  We were travelling back to the Philly suburbs that day anyway plus had arranged to meet a dear friend for lunch so we only had the morning to fill.  We selected the Natural History Museum, part of the Smithsonian.  Actually, Mr Pict was keen for us to try a second visit to the Museum of American History since our first family visit there had been less than stellar.  I had cause to reference the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my blog post about it.  In the hopes that those issues had been resolved, we first headed to the Museum of American History, picked up a map, and discovered that absolutely nothing had changed since our last visit two years before.  Half the museum was still closed off due to renovation work.  We decided to jettison that plan (actually I was keen on jettisoning it as soon as it was the plan since our last visit there had been so cruddy) and move next door to the Natural History Museum.

We had not chosen the Natural History Museum for our last morning in DC simply because we had visited the Field Museum in Chicago just the week before and it felt like a repetition.  However, for that very reason it turned out to be a good choice.  As parents, we felt we could just relax and take a step back since we did not feel that same pressure to educate the kids.  We could just let them wander and engage as they saw fit rather than trying to guide them and focus their interest.

We started with a genuine Easter Island moai statue.  The boys had seen a plaster cast of one of these in February 2014 when we visited the Natural History Museum in New York city but this was the first time they had seen a real one.  It turns out this is because the Smithsonian owns the only two moai in America.  We then ascended the stairs around a group of spectacularly carved totem poles.  The boys enjoyed looking at the carved characters and reading the stories behind them.  The first gallery we visited was one exhibiting National Geographic photographs of Africa.  I love photography and the kids love animals so we spent some time admiring the images.


Our first proper destination in the museum, however, was the hall of gems.  As I have explained before, our 10 year old loves anything sparkly or shiny.  He has magpie DNA.  We, therefore, thought he ought to see the Hope Diamond.  This blue diamond is one of the largest and most famous precious stones in the world.  We told the kids it had a long, interesting and intriguing history to the point that it had been associated with a curse.  And then we took them in to see it.  And they were underwhelmed.  I think their vision of a large diamond was one the size of the palm of a hand or larger.  It was a failure of reality matching expectations.


The rest of the gem and mineral collection, however, was a massive hit with the kids – and not just the one who likes sparkles.  They found the diversity of the minerals to be really fascinating and they wandered from case to case choosing favourites.  There were big chunks of quartz that contained bubbles like sedate lava lamps.  There were rocks that looked like Doozer constructions from beneath Fraggle Rock and shards that looked like they came from the Dark Crystal.  There were chunks of gems encrusted with other stones or minerals, such as a chunk of calcite sparkling with a thick seam of chalcopyrite.  There were other lumps of calcite that looked like elaborate desserts encrusted with sugary confections.  There were geodes on display that had been split open to reveal their colourful, sparkling contents – and I could see my 10 year old wanting to take a rock hammer on every nature ramble now.  There was an otherwise unprepossessing rock that had a wide mouth split to reveal lots of rows of white fuzzy mounts inside and which looked entirely like something Jim Henson would have imagined.  There were formations that looked like chunky frost or snowflake clusters.  A geometric piece of purple-red fluorite made my kids think of a set design for Tron or else something from Minecraft.  By contrast, there were pastel hued pieces that looked like petrified clouds or bubbly candy floss.  One enticing display case was filled with forms of gold and silver, thought it was a blobby chunk of copper that I liked best.  When the boys saw the case of glowing willemite calcite, the green glow made the boys think of it as having been spattered with Predator blood. The 10 year old was ecstatic about getting to touch a massive chunk of amethyst and now wants a chunk of his own.  I had never seen that child go as full Gollum as he did in that room full of gems and jewellery.















Next up – mainly because it was near the restrooms – we popped in to visit the dinosaurs.  We looked at the large fossil specimens of a T-Rex and a triceratops but otherwise, between the Field Museum and the Creation Museum, the kids had experienced quite enough dinosaurs for one vacation.  We, therefore, found ourselves a spot in the insect section.  The boys enjoyed seeing the cockroaches since we used to have Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches as pets back in Scotland but they also got to see a tarantula up close and some butterflies hatching out of their cocoons.  And then we were all museumed out.  Partly it was because our friend had arrived and it was time to head for lunch, partly it was because the museum was very crowded, but mostly we had just absorbed as much in the way of experiences as we cared to absorb for the fifteen days of our road trip.





And so, after a tasty lunch with great company, after heading back to NoMa to pick up our car and luggage, a few hours’ drive to collect the cats from their cat hotel – to much excited squealing from the kids – we finally emerged from the car that had been our mobile home and tour bus for a fortnight and we were home.  And we were glad to be home.

Road Trip #13 – Creation Museum & Ark

Kentucky was my 5th new state and 30th overall.  Our main plan for Kentucky had been to go to the Louisville Mega Cavern, created from a limestone quarry, and do their zip line and rope challenges (or spectate others doing them in my case).  However, given we now had a kid with a broken arm, a change of plans was required.  Having just read an article about it a few weeks earlier, Mr Pict suggested the Creation Museum.  It proved to be the most random and bonkers thing we did on our road trip.

Now I am going to be absolutely up front and frank here.  I am a life long atheist and I believe in the scientific theory of evolution.  I am also a tolerant and respectful person and fully support the rights of others to believe differently, to subscribe to and practice their beliefs and faiths.  My husband and I consciously choose not to impose our own beliefs on our children (values, yes, but not beliefs) and therefore do our best to find ways to expose them to the beliefs and practices of major faith groups.  A few years ago, for instance, I undertook a comparative religion project with my kids, focusing on holidays and festivals.  From friends who are both scientifically minded and people of faith, I also understand that evolution and religious belief do not have to be mutually exclusive.  For example, the act of Creation can be science’s Big Bang and evidence of evolution can be ascribed to the concept of Intelligent Design.  Those are positions I can appreciate and respect even while they are not ones that I personally share.

However – and here is my caveat and trigger warning – while I get the concept of old earth creationism, “young earth creationism” was something I have just not been able to fathom.  A visit to the Creation Museum – whose  founders are proponents of young earth creationism – was therefore an opportunity for me to learn about a different perspective and try to comprehend its arguments.  Eager to be respectful and inoffensive at all times, we decided it was necessary to restrict our conversations about what we were learning inside the museum.  Ahead of our visit, therefore, we devised a code word to signal that we needed to halt that conversation for the time being and resume it in private, perhaps ask that question later.  We explained to the kids that they would no doubt be generating lots of thoughts and lots of opinions and feeling compelled to ask lots of questions but if either parent said the word “treehouse” then that was to be muted for the time being and raised once we were in a private space so as to not upset any fellow visitors.  This blog is on a public forum so I will be mindful of that in my writing but it is also, after all, my blog which expresses my views so I don’t intend to be totally “treehouse” with my opinions either.  Clear?  OK. Let’s proceed into the Creation Museum.

The ticket (and we bought the combined ticket for the Museum and Ark) is pretty extortionate but we looked on it like buying a theme park entry for a day and an opportunity to do something unique.  We knew it was going to be unique even in the reception area where displays about mythological dragons explained that these myths were actually distorted memories of dinosaurs who had survived the Flood.  And then there was the life size diorama of children playing with dinosaurs.  That was an immediate “treehouse” moment for the kids.


The Museum – as one would expect given its focus on Creation – essentially aims to place science in the context of the Biblical book of Genesis.  The stall is set out right at the beginning where a diorama depicts two paleontologists uncovering a fossil dinosaur.  One believes that the creature drowned in a flood millions of years ago whereas one believes that it died in the Great Flood thousands of years ago so we had scientific methods of dating being placed in opposition to a literal interpretation of the timeline of the Bible.  The importance of literalism is then underlined by a room in which mannequins of Old Testament prophets and Paul are used to demonstrate that their words are truth and not open to interpretation, that the word of God has more weight than human reason.  We definitely needed to “treehouse” our way around that Museum, that much was clear.

One display I found really interesting was their model of Lucy, the three million year old fossil.  Holograms of the fossil finds were projected onto the three dimensional model which I found to be fascinating and a great way to present an incomplete fossil find.  Of course, the point of the holograms was to demonstrate how the very incompleteness of Lucy left her open to interpretation.  The argument was that those who reconstruct the Lucy specimen bring their scientific bias to the interpretation and, therefore, choose to see her as more human whereas someone with a Biblical bias would chose to reconstruct her as more apelike.  I thought that was actually an interesting interrogation of how biases influence concepts and thought there was a chance that would set the tenor of the discussion in the museum, a dialogue between different stances.


Nope.  We found ourselves in a massively didactic section all about how the loss of the Bible in homes had led to an erosion in values.  As an atheist, this prejudiced belief that those without faith somehow have no moral compass makes my blood boil.  I also felt that this section was out of keeping with the rest of the ethos of the museum.  It was shrill, sanctimonious, and unsubstantiated.  Furthermore, their presentation on the loss of values meant playing videos about such subjects as drug abuse and pornography.  Despite my alleged lack of values, I determined that I did not need my children to be exposed to such material so I whisked them quickly through and into the next section.  I was feeling all the “treehouse” thoughts right then.

Luckily we were spat out into the lush and relaxing Garden of Eden.  This was a beautifully presented diorama.  The kids loved spotting all of the animals among the verdant vegetation.  Penguins, jaguars and dinosaurs played side by side as Adam named them.  The dinosaurs were a big hit with the youngest Picts, especially the animatronic ones.  The Creation Museum is rather obsessed with dinosaurs.  They were everywhere.  The idea of this whole section – mannequins, dioramas, videos – was to present the book of Genesis as a series of Cs: creation, corruption (the Fall), catastrophe (Flood), confusion (think Babel), Christ, cross, and consummation.  It was all incredibly well presented, immaculate and polished stuff.  There was a good flow around the museum and no single section out stayed its welcome so it managed to find that balance between being engaging but keeping things moving along.  Many mainstream museums could learn a thing or two from the Creation Museum about apt deployment of multimedia and pacing.




There was a section on the building of the Ark that presumably predates the Museum’s construction of its own separate, dedicated Ark exhibit.  Again, this was beautifully presented and I actually found some of it a bit informative (such as construction technologies used by ancient cultures).  What the kids loved, however, were all the little models in glass cases, from the wicked clinging to rocks in a tumultuous ocean to Noah’s wife descending the stairs to go and feed the dinosaurs their lunch.  Dinosaurs on the Ark.  Told you it was an obsession.


After a quick bite to eat on a lovely veranda overlooking the stunning and spacious grounds, we headed back into the Museum to complete a few other sections.  One of these was all about insects.  The Museum has a fabulous collection of insects and butterflies and we spent some time studying all the specimens, from elaborate stick insects to massive dragonflies, to metallic and iridescent beetles.  Then there was inevitably a dinosaur section dedicated to displaying genuine fossils alongside model dinosaurs.



The two youngest Picts were adamant that they wanted to visit the on-site petting zoo so we left the sanctuary of the air conditioned building to brave the broiling humidity and see some real life animals.  There was a zonkey and a zorse named Cletus and Zoe, a jersey bull named Norman, wallabies, and an albino peacock among other beasties.  My 9 year old was permitted to feed lettuce to a camel named Gomer and all the kids had a cuddle with a diminutive goat.



It transpired that the Ark was a 40 minute drive from the Museum.  This was not welcome news on a day that was 94 degrees and felt like 106 when humidity was factored in.  The car journey did permit us to get some of our “treehouse” discussions out of the way, a bit of decompression before we boarded the Ark and had to zip up the thoughts all over again.  The Ark was worth the extra hassle, however.

We had known it was a full-size replica but we still were not prepared for how colossal it was.  It loomed on the horizon as we pulled up into the car park and boarded the bus to take us out to the site.  In addition to the scale of the enterprise, it was also incredibly well constructed, with breathtakingly skillful craftsmanship, and beautifully finished detailing.  It struck me that the money invested in both the Creation Museum and the Ark was astonishing and how much mainstream museums would benefit from such a cash injection.



Every detail had been considered.  As we wandered the three decks, we loved studying all the intricate details, peeking into the cages to see what they held, and reading the explanations for how things were presented.  For example, we were informed that the unicorns of the Bible were what we know as rhinos.  There were also short necked giraffes and dwarf brontosauruses to explain how large scale creatures could be accommodated on board. The organisation was also keen to impress on us the idea that Noah saved “kinds” of animals, not species, by way of explaining why the Ark would have been able to house all the critters.  So, for example, there was one kind of bear pair on board and these then gave rise, post-Flood, to all the different species of bears we have in modern times.    This teetering on a line between evolution and rapid speciation was something I found both confounding and fascinating.  I was definitely learning a lot about young earth creationism on this excursion.





Then, of course, there were the dinosaurs.  My kids noted – in an almost “treehouse” moment – that Noah had apparently been more keen on saving kinds of dinosaurs than kinds of birds or insects or amphibians or reptiles.  It seemed like half the cages were devoted to dinosaurs.  We saw one of Noah’s daughters-in-law feeding some small dinosaurs, there was a cage containing a pteranodon, and loads more dinosaur enclosures besides.




We also visited a section all about pre-Flood wickedness, including men hunting for triceratops horns and a scene of debauchery while a woman walked past with her pet dinosaur.  I confess that all this focus on humans and dinosaurs interacting was making me hum ‘The Flinstones’ theme tune in my head.  We also saw the human living quarters and a section all about how the story of the Flood has been turned into a fairy tale and corrupted by children’s books and toys.  There was a display case full of such items and a seriously creepy soundtrack of cackling that made my skin crawl, the idea being that infantilising the story has been one of the causes of people not reading the Bible as literal truth and the descent into sin.



The Ark, even more so than the Museum, was absolutely incredible.  Between the two locations, we spent over five hours there.  I was glad to have visited because I really did feel like I came away from the experience with a better understanding of how young earth creationists contort the facts to conform to their beliefs.  I admit, however, that I felt a bit ethically queasy about our visit, the fact that we had essentially donated a chunk of change to an organisation who are teaching only their theories while presenting it as fact and debunking scientific evidence.  Fundamentally it was not a museum.  Again, I just felt such pity that mainstream museums with actual core educational content do not have the same resources and financing.  I definitely think museum curators elsewhere would benefit from a visit to learn how to better present their materials and holdings.


And then, after a long day, extra exhausting because of the heat and the need to suppress ourselves, just when we were really looking forward to getting to the hotel and decompressing, an email arrived.  Our hotel for the night confirmed that we had booked one room with one bed and a pull out to fit four or five people.  Having had it up to the eyeballs with accommodation screw ups and woes, we were fuming.  Mr Pict placed a hone call and was told they had no alternative rooms.  When presented with the email confirmation stating that we had in fact booked a room with two beds and a pull out to accommodate six, suddenly they found a room.  It is best not to provoke tired and sticky hot folks who have had to button up their thoughts and feelings all day.



Road Trip #12 – Field Museum and Oz Park

Our whole road trip really pivoted around the idea of driving to Chicago and back.  Last November, when Mr Pict surprised me with a trip to Mexico, he had considered a city break in Chicago.  November in Chicago?  He made the right choice with Mexico.  I was, however, eager to see Chicago and not just because I had never been to Illinois before.  Chicago was also the fulcrum of our trip since it was the furthest west we were going to be travelling before looping back towards Pennsylvania.  I had so many plans for Chicago – way more than were ever going to be possible in the two days we had planned but plenty of options to choose from.  Of course, as my fellow Scot Robert Burns wistfully observed, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley”.  The broken arm was the plough to our mouse nest and we lost pretty much an entire day in Chicago as a result.  Sigh.

Before we embarked on any excursions on the eighth day of our road trip, however, we had to get some breakfast.  We plumped for a cafe on Michigan Avenue where the menu looked appealing.  The portions when they arrived were astounding.  I ordered waffles with fruit and what appeared before me was a platter containing three full size waffles each covered in a generous dollop of a different fruit compote, namely blueberries, strawberries, and bananas.  Mr Pict had a corned beef hash breakfast he would later declare was the best breakfast of the trip.  The kids had various crepes and fruit platters with yogurt.  We were all very replete at the end of breakfast and did not have to eat again for almost the entire day.  What took the gloss of this breakfasting experience, however, was that the service was pretty abysmal, indifferent and lackadaisical at best, yet the server had added a generous service charge to the bill and had still left room for us to add an additional tip.  We are generous tippers but I consider that poor etiquette.

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Anyway, bellies full and ready to face the day, we headed off to the Shedd Aquarium.  The boys had voted unanimously for that to be our activity and I did nothing to dissuade them since I love beluga whales and the Shedd Aquarium has some.  However, as we approached the Aquarium, we saw an incredibly long queue snaking away from the building.  The first section of the queue was provided with some shelter and shade but seven eighths of those queuing folk were baking in the sun.  And it was hot that day.  Super hot.  The temperature was approaching triple digits and the humidity was so great that breathing was laborious. As dutiful parents, we asked the kids whether they still wanted to visit the Aquarium.  In unison they declared no.  They did not want to melt into a puddle like tallow candles.  Happily, right next door was their second choice activity: the Field Museum. As we walked through the doors and were blasted with wonderful air conditioning, we knew we had made the sensible decision.

We were just going to purchase the basic entry tickets for the Field Museum but our youngest two looked all pouty and pointed to a poster about a special bug exhibition so we stumped up the extra funds and in we went.  As per those pouts, we started with Underground Adventure.  The concept was that we would all be shrunk down to minibeast size so that we could learn about the detailed and compelling world that is a soil ecosystem.  Forget learning about the importance of soil and its inhabitants to the environment, however; for the kids this was all about the B movie sized monster bugs and pretending to be Ant Man leading an insect army.




Next up was Ancient Egypt.  The three older boys have all studied Ancient Egypt at school, whether back home in Scotland or here in America, so they enjoyed seeing the Egyptian artifacts up close.  We have been in Egyptian sections of museums in many places, including the British Museum, and I have to say that this was one of the best organised I have visited.  It really placed the items in their context and offered clear, absorbable explanations.  My favourite item in the exhibit was a large wooden boat as I had never seen anything like it before.  Predictably, the kids liked the unwrapped mummies, though they were a bit sad about the one that was a wee boy, and a series of dioramas demonstrating the process of mummification.


Of course, no natural history museum is complete without galleries packed full of cases of taxidermy and the Field Museum was no exception.  While the Egyptian section had been fresh and contemporary in its approach to display and turning artifacts into narrative, the stuffed critters section was distinctly tired and musty.  I would suggest that the actual taxidermy was completed some decades ago.  Everything looked just a bit moth-eaten and, well, derpy.  I don’t know how to express that any better way.  A whole bunch of the stuffed beasties just looked plain derpy, with goofy facial expressions.  It actually made me enjoy it more.  The marine mammals had even been relegated to the packed lunch area of the museum.  My kids absolutely loved seeing the narwhals and gigantic elephant seals but I did not see anyone else even looking at those cases.  From the looks of it, nobody had dusted them for a while either.  My 13 year old penguin enthusiast loved seeing the case full of ex-penguins – including one called a jackass – but my 10 year old despaired at seeing stuffed pandas.






The main draw of the taxidermy section, however, was the man-eating beasts.   We had seen the “Man-Eater of Mfuwe” elsewhere in the museum.  This was a maneless lion that had attacked and killed several people in Zambia in 1991.  The legendary lions on display in the Field Museum, however, where the Tsavo Man-Eaters, the subject of several books and movies.  These lions (again maneless males) were reputed to have killed 135 workers constructing the Kenya-Uganda railway in 1898.  That number was provided by the hunter who finally killed them so exaggeration is understandable. Recent isotope analysis of the stuffed lions suggests that between them they actually killed 35 people, which is closer to the 28 workers killed reported by the railway company.  At first the skins from the lions were rugs on the hunter’s floor but then they were given to the Field Museum and the stuffed skins have been on display ever since.


In addition to the Tsavo lions, the other thing the Field Museum is famous for is Sue the T-Rex.  Sue is the largest, best preserved, most intact of any Tyrannosaurus Rex yet discovered and that makes her a dino celebrity.  She was named Sue for the paleontologist who found her in the 1990s but I like to think that was her prehistoric name too.  She is also the oldest known T-Rex at 28 years old.  Don’t ask me how scientific people know that.  I am just reporting what I read.  We all enjoyed seeing Sue, especially my 7 year old.  He was enchanted so much so that he insisted on using a little of his savings on making a derpy looking dinosaur from moulded plastic.  He and his 10 year old brother collect squished pennies but this moulded plastic thing was a new twist on that tradition.  He was pleased as punch.  Even more exciting, however, was when he spotted a T-Rex wandering around.  Whereas my older three sons treat anybody in a costume as if they have the plague, my youngest was like a moth to the flame.  I think the T-Rex had actually finished his tour of the museum and was going for a comfort break or some such when out of nowhere my 7 year old sped towards him and grabbed him for a hug.  I have never seen a dinosaur mask look more surprised.  T-Rex was a good sport though and posed for a photo with my grinning kid.




There were many areas of the museum we never made it into.  I was keen to see the Ancient Americas section.  However, a) there was only so much museum traipsing my kids were going to tolerate and b) we had a deadline for picking up our luggage and car.  My 10 year old, however, was really wanting to see the room dedicated to jade so we had a quick dip into there for him to behave like Gollum for a few minutes before we departed.



As soon as we left the air conditioned cocoon of the museum, the intense heat of the day thumped us.  It really was not that pleasant, mainly because of the humidity.  My Scottish complexion has not adjusted to life with hot humidity at all so I soon looked like lobster thermidor.  We all felt entirely gross.  The heat also made us grumbly and grouchy.  Our plan had been to return to the hotel via the shade of a tree filled park.  However, the tree filled park was off limits because of the set up for Lolapalooza.  We did, however, pop to see the Buckingham Fountain, my kids entertaining ideas of getting to at least run their hands through the water in order to cool down.  They were spitting fireballs, therefore, when we arrived to discover it was fenced off.  No dipping anything in that water.  The fountain is apparently one of the largest in the world and there are light shows in the evening.  I imagine those are pretty spectacular.  However, on that sweltering day, as I slowly charbroiled on the Chicago pavement, I was underwhelmed.


Once we had collected our luggage and car, we headed a bit further north in the city to the Lincoln Park area.  Our destination was Oz Park.  I am bound to have shared before that I am a fan of ‘The Wizard of Oz’.  Not a nerdy superfan but a fan nevertheless.  One of my favourite paintings I’ve done in this past year is a Flying Monkey.  I am passing on my love of classic movies to my kids so they are all Oz fans too.  Whereas I read all Baum’s books as a kid, my sons have not yet read the books.  I doubt they will.  Anyway, L Frank Baum lived in Chicago in the 1890s so I guess the park is a memorial to him and his imagination.

The park is home to sculptures of the main characters from the Wizard of Oz.  I was obsessed with seeing them all.  We discovered Dorothy and Toto with ease then, while Mr Pict supervised our youngest son playing in Dorothy’s Playlot, I dragged the other three off in search of Dorothy’s travel companions.  Scarecrow was only a hop, skip and jump away.  The other two – Tin Man and Cowardly Lion – could not be spotted from where we were standing so we just set off on an amble around the park.  Now the park is not a large park so the statues should and could have been easy to find.  However, I had no bearings or map but did have three increasingly cranky and fractious kids with me.  Know what the Wizard would have given them? Patience.  That is what they were lacking.  Fatigue soon erupted into squabbles and my own tolerance cracked.  I had this inner dialogue (which was like a yelling match) between the mother in me who knew I needed to take the kids back to the car and get them something cold to eat or drink right away before they went full Flying Monkey and started ripping each other’s arms off and the movie nerd in me who – with an added dash of OCD and control freakery – really needed to find those last two ruddy statues.  The Mother won.  She yells louder.




Our destination that evening was somewhere in Indiana.  I write somewhere because the actual place was entirely forgettable.  It was near a college campus which was in itself plonked in the middle of nowhere.  Apologies in advance if you happen to hail from or love Indiana but honestly there was nothing that diverted my attention during our entire drive through that state.  Renowned as a flyover state, we treated it the same way but by car.  I am sure the people are lovely and there are things to see and do that are not immediately obvious.  We didn’t find them though.  Spending the night in Indiana, however, meant I got to claim the state – my 4th new state of the trip and 29th overall.

Indiana was also another accommodation mishap.  This time the hotel was perfectly pleasant and the staff lovely but it turned out our booking had screwed up.  Instead of two rooms that would each comfortably accommodate three of us, we had two rooms containing one king size bed each.  Oh dear.  The hotel was booked to the gunnels so there was no alternative space.  They were even out of foldaway beds.  We had to problem solve our way around it.  Two adults and a teenager take up quite a bit of space in beds plus we could not cram a kid with a broken arm into a shared bed.  The way I solved the problem was to sacrifice the teenager.  We asked the duty manager for spare comforters, sheets and pillows and made him up a nest on the floor of one of the rooms.  Ironically he probably got the best sleep out of all of us.  So that was Indiana then.

Maryland Science Centre, Baltimore

On Saturday, we Picts took a mini road trip to Baltimore in order to meet up with a friend, her husband and kids, who live in Maryland.  My mother-in-law is actually from Baltimore originally yet I have only actually been there once before and that was way back in 1995.  It only takes us about two hours to get there so we really ought to take trips there more often in future.

It was a grey and rainy day so our choice of venue for the get together was perfect.  We met at the Maryland Science Centre.  It has a reciprocal arrangement with the Franklin Institute so we could use our membership pass from there to gain free entry at the Maryland Science Centre.  Despite that, the cashier insisted on charging us for tickets for two of the kids.  I was about to sally forth with righteous indignation when she revealed that the price for those tickets was $2.  I thought I would let that pass.  It was a dollar entry day.  That meant the place was hoaching, a good Scots word meaning teeming.  In fact, as we were leaving, there were still queues outside the door in the pouring rain.

We started off in the dinosaur section.  There were lots of replica skeletons rampaging through the space which the kids could get up close to and thus gain a sense of scale.  My kids especially liked being able to touch the skulls and they spent a long time brushing sand off fake fossils, measuring bones, making footprints and placing bones in position in order to rebuild a fossil skeleton.  There was also a live lizard in a tank and a very chubby and very indolent bullfrog named Jabba who the younger kids found fascinating.  They also spent a great deal of time lounging around in dinosaur footprints.  It was actually great that they spent so long in that section since there is not a dinosaur section in the Franklin Institute and the kids found it so engaging.  I mean, what kid doesn’t love dinosaurs?

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We then moved on to the earth science section.  There the kids had a lot of fun creating a tornado.  It required the air to be undisturbed to form a funnel so our kids got uber-frustrated when a heap of other kids kept sticking their hands into the air stream but that just made the sense of accomplishment that bit sweeter the times that they finally got it to swirl upwards.  They then all used Google maps to find the location of their homes, with my kids finding both their house here in Pennsylvania and our former home in Argyll, Scotland, and dressed up in polar explorer thermal jackets.  Another big hit was a large bowl that contained “clouds”.  The children spent ages wafting their hands through the vapour, blowing it away from the bowl’s edge and my 9 year old even stuck his head in it.




There were also experiments we were familiar with from the Franklin Institute and science centres we had visited back in Britain.  While my friend’s kids were patient enough to wait for an opportunity to use them, my kids could not be bothered with hustling their way through the packs of kids to try and get a turn.  I guess my British kids are just way too used to queuing to deal with the chaotic thronging of so many other kids.

Meanwhile I was started to feel starved of fresh air and felt like I was experiencing hot flushes.  The grown ups were starting to feel frazzled and the kids were beginning to get fractious.  We could have had a “fun” competition over which child was going to blow a gasket first.  We, therefore, undertook a rapid fire and incomplete tour of the human body section.  My kids enjoyed running through a maze-like set-up which I think was supposed to teach them about the structure of cells but which they just saw as a much-needed opportunity to run around and burn off some energy.   That made it clear that the kids were no longer engaging in the content of the Science Centre so we said our farewells to our friends and headed back out into the welcome fresh, chill air.


It was a good Science Centre and my kids especially loved the dinosaur section but I think my kids have been spoiled by their several visits to the Franklin Institute.  Possibly they would have enjoyed their visit more had there not been an overwhelming number of people visiting, thanks to dollar day, because my boys don’t do well with crowds in confined spaces, especially when those crowds are not forming orderly queues.  However, it is definitely worth a visit if you are in the Baltimore area with kids and it certainly appeals to a wide age range.  We will definitely go back to Baltimore some time to explore it’s other attractions.



New York, You Nork – Day 3: Central Park and the American Museum of Natural History

This was a first ever President’s Day for the boys and myself and we decided that our mission for the day should be to absorb some learning by heading off to the American Museum of Natural History.  Our first stop, however, was less educational: the red steps at Times Square.  Our 8 year old actually has a pretty good handle on Manhattan geography because of having his little lego superheroes run around in his Marvel Lego game on the PS3 and so it was at his request that we locate the “red steps”.  These turn out to be a flight of red steps or bleachers that form the roof of a booth selling reduced price theatre tickets on Duffy Square.  The 8 year old seemed happy to have had the chance to run up and down them.


Central Park looked wonderful in the snow.  The last time I was there was on a sultry day that made us feel sticky and lethargic as we trudged across it.  We were not there to see Central Park but were just crossing it to get from A to B.  This time we decided to spend a little bit of time there.  Of course, Central Park is vast.  I remember when I went up the Empire State Building late at night it was just this massive black oblong, like a hole cut out of the cityscape.  There was no way we were even going to skim the surface of all the things we could see or do in the park.  I would have personally loved to have taken a route that walked us past the wonderful sculptures, like Alice in Wonderland or the Pilgrim, Balto, Hans Christian Andersen, but that was not to be for this trip because we were still using Central Park to get from A to B but were just being a bit more leisurely about it.


The boys had a blast playing in a snow covered playground, scuffing up the snow as their legs moved back and forth on the swings and speeding down the slide to be dolloped into the pile of snow at the bottom.  We were adjacent to Umpire Rock so the children were directed to clamber up that to gain a view of this sector of the park.  Except they didn’t.  They got half way up and scurried off instead into this moulded concrete bunker that looked like something out of the Cold War. I think it might be called Hecksher Playground and that the bunker they were running around in like rats in a sewer is, in warmer months, a water play area with the sewer structures becoming wading pools.  Once the children were retrieved, we continued to wend our way through the Park.  We encountered lots of friendly squirrels – probably because they were on the make for some of the hot roasted nuts being sold on the street – and our six year old was delighted to see some mounted police officers because he is horse daft.  We also saw the Imagine mosaic, the memorial to John Lennon who was murdered outside the nearby Dakota Hotel.








Finally we were at our destination: the American Museum of Natural History.  As a family, we love museums.  Going to a museum was one of my favourite treats as a child and that enthusiasm of learning through objects and archives is something I hope I have imparted to my children.  The boys were familiar with a version of this museum from the movie ‘Night at the Museum’ so that was an additional hook for them as it provided them with some sort of indication of what things they might see during our visit there.

After a brief pit stop in the basement for packed lunches to be devoured, we headed off to the space section. Mr Pict is into astronomy and for years owned a massive telescope that looked like a giant toilet paper tube.  We decided not to ship it so we sold it before moving to America but I am sure he will buy a replacement at some juncture, though perhaps a smaller one.  He hopes to engage the kids in the subject of outer space probably because I am a dead loss in that regard.  I like the pretty pictures of galaxies and that’s about it.  The kids were immediately drawn towards a massive meteorite in the centre of the room.  This was the Williamette meteorite and even I found it striking because of all the shapes created in it, curves and crevices.  The Native American tribe who lived near where it was found, in Oregon, used it in ceremonies and then, at the very beginning of the twentieth century, a white man found it and dragged it onto his land which led to a dispute between him and the company who owned the land.  So, between its strange history, its appearance and the fact that it was found at a location other than the original impact site, it transpires this was one of the world’s most famous meteorites.  I thought it was pretty. Thankfully our 8 year old is definitely an Arts and Humanities kid whose areas of interest are more akin to my own so, while Mr Pict and the other boys took a while to wander around the universe timeline that spiralled above the hall, my 8 year old and I swirled a sun around and looked at gorgeous images of galaxies.





We then went into the Hall of African Mammals.  Stuffed animals were displayed in dioramas around the sides of the hall.  I loved how antiquated everything was as I had the definite impression that nothing about these displays had changed in a century, as both the wood and the brass lettering had a rich patina to it.  I actually thought the dioramas were very well done.  It was almost as if the original taxidermists and display team had looked at photographs in National Geographic magazines and decided to reproduce them in three dimensions.  Obviously seeing stuffed beasts does not come close to the impact or educational value of seeing living ones, even in a zoo setting, but for the kids to have the ability to get so close to a representation of a small herd of elephants, for example, was great and at least the dioramas placed the animals in their habitat contexts rather than just mounting them in stark cases.

Now to my mind a Museum of Natural History is about animals, plants, fossils and geology.  It is not about human evolution or civilizations.  That is anthropology.  However, this particular Museum had lumped them together.  I don’t necessarily object to that because some of my most favourite museums – the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum – have diverse and eclectic collections, stemming largely from Victorian eccentrics scouring the world for things to pillage from far off places.  However, it struck both Mr Pict and I that the anthropological sections were devoid of any European or white exhibits; they were all focused on what might once have been termed “primitive cultures”.  I’m not one for po-faced, broad-brush political correctness by any means but sometimes it does become necessary to revisit how things were once presented by a group of long gone people who, even if they ought to have known better, were not obligated to do so.  It just seemed a bit crass, if not distasteful, to lump the history of African, South American and Pacific peoples along with the history of animals while not including the history of any Caucasian cultures to balance the anthropological section out.

That being said, my kids loved seeing all of the different costumes on display in the African section and I liked seeing the masks.  Our youngest later said that his favourite exhibit in the whole museum was a diorama of a pygmy tribe hunting.  I rather suspect he liked the idea of firing a bow and arrow.  The South American section was a big hit.  The ten year old and the six year old spent ages sitting in front of the Aztec sun disc studying it and the four year old and the eight year old loved all of the carved faces and representations of gods.  The six year old could, as per usual, be relied upon to giggle and chuckle at all of the genitalia.  It was in this section that I found two little sculptures that were to be among the highlights of my trip to the museum.  They were from Venezuela and one was a figurine of a pregnant woman and the other was a little phallic fellow.  Together they were just adorable.


The Hall of Human Origins was fascinating.  Seeing the range of scientifically important human remains – fossils and casts – in the collection made it especially captivating.  Our six year old loved all the Neanderthal displays, from the adult and child skeletons to the diorama of some “cave men” and their pile of picked clean mammoth bones.  Just to be able to see even casts of the skeleton of Turkana boy and the Flores skull, the “hobbit” species found only a few years ago, was incredible.  But for me the highlight was to see Lucy.  The real Lucy was returned to Ethiopia last year but even seeing a cast of her skeleton was a treat because I have been hearing about the importance of her remains to the study of human evolution my entire life.  Being able to see the proportions of the cast up close, I could actually appreciate some of the information I had read about her.  Our oldest loved the Hall of Human Origins and is now hopeful that someone at some point in his lifetime will find another early human species, perhaps even an actual “missing link” species.


As I have explained before, my 8 year old is my magpie child.  He is instantly drawn to anything that sparkles or shines.  We sometimes call him “bling boy” as a consequence.  The Hall of Gems and Minerals therefore had his blue eyes on little stalks.  While the others watched a movie about, I think, a meteorite, he and I wandered around looking at all the amazing colours and formations of gemstones.  He especially loved the massive boulder of azurite and malachite and a glowing lump of topaz.  He also loved the massive amethyst geode.  We saw the Patricia Emerald but failed entirely to locate the Star of India which was frustrating to say the least.  We wandered through the gem galleries but it eluded us and we had to admit defeat.



We were starting to flag a bit at this point so we decided to be less thorough and attempt a tour of remaining highlights.  We did a whizz past the Great Canoe, which was even more massive and impressive than I was expecting, and then stopped for cupcakes and brownies to recharge our batteries.  Our intention had been to scoot quickly through the hall showcasing North American mammals but ultimately we decided it was a great learning opportunity for the boys to see the type of critters to be found in America that they would not have seen back in Scotland.  The youngest two especially liked the bison and the moose dioramas and were astounded by the scale of the bears.

We then slowed down to an idle again for the Dinosaur Halls because they were just too completely awesome for us to rush through.  There were toothily ferocious carnivores and long-necked gigantic herbivores.  Our six year old was thrilled to see an archaeopteryx because he likes the theory that some dinosaurs did not become extinct but rather evolved into birds.  My favourite dinosaur is the triceratops and my husband’s favourite is the stegosaurus so we were both delighted to encounter fossils of those.  All of the boys loved the section of mammals from the ice age because they love the ‘Ice Age’ series of movies.  They loved running from exhibit to exhibit to identify the fossil critters they knew in cute animated form.  Our six year old, as a fan of all things equine, especially loved the display of early horse evolution.  We all loved the mammoths and the rhino creature with the double-pronged horn.  Our oldest son was excited to see the size of the giant sloth.






Our final stop was to the Pacific section of the Museum.  We really did not have any time left but we were adamant that we could not leave the Museum without seeing the moai from Easter Island – or Rapa Nui.  I have seen one before – at the British Museum – but this was an opportunity for the boys to see one in real life and appreciate its vast scale and density.  Sadly it turned out that the one in the Museum was a plaster cast rather than being a basalt original – though I am obviously glad that that means fewer moai have been purloined from Easter Island than might otherwise have been the case.  However, the fact it was merely a cast did mean the boys were permitted to get really close to it and still appreciate the scale of it.  All of the children, not just my own, were excited to see it at least because of it being a fun character in ‘Night at the Museum’.


It then really was time to leave so there was no chance to even pop into the ocean life sections of the Museum.  Instead we decided to give the boys a new experience and take them on the New York subway.  They found this to be quite underwhelming perhaps because it is so very similar to the London Underground.  Still it was another experience to chalk off and they at least appreciated the fact that they were not having to walk all of the way back to the hotel.

I would like to report that we had an uneventful trip back but unfortunately, though the journey itself was smooth, we got waylaid by a wrong turn off the turnpike and then the littlest Pict spewed spectacularly and with little warning which required another pit stop to clean him up, strip him down and dress him in fresh clothes and then we arrived home to find out drive was pretty much impassable because of the snow that had fallen during our weekend away.  Nevertheless, despite that slightly irritating end to our trip, we declared our first family trip to NYC to be a roaring success and one we will definitely repeat.  But maybe when it is warmer.