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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.