Have you ever wanted to examine one of the thousands of objects on display at the National Museum of Natural History just a little more closely? Maybe touch it, turn it over, feel its weight, or smell it? The hands-on learning spaces in the museum give you a chance to try your hand at the work that our scientists and researchers do by getting a feel – literally – for what it’s like to be behind the scenes at the Museum.
Through the Office of Education and Outreach, the Museum offers many opportunities for you to get your hands on objects and specimens from Museum collections. Is Phoenix the North Atlantic Right Whale’s lofty perch in the Sant Ocean Hall just a little too high to see her physical details? You can catch one of our Ocean Hall Navigators walking around with baleen similar to what Phoenix would have in her mouth and you can touch and examine it up close. Programs such as The Scientist is In and Forensic Friday allow you to talk one-on-one with museum scientists and specialists about their research while allowing you to try your hand studying objects with the equipment they use for their work. Discovery Carts pepper several exhibitions such as Geology, Gems and Minerals, the Korea Gallery, and the Hall of Human Origins with activities and objects that let you to delve further into the exhibitions’ themes and topics. Almost daily, the Insect Zoo brings out live insects such as grasshoppers, stick insects and hissing cockroaches that you can handle and let crawl over you as you wish. The Naturalist Center, in Leesburg, VA, provides you with a space to use Museum collections to identify unknown specimens that you have collected yourself.
One of the main goals of the museum’s public programming is to provide activities and experiences that immerse you in the science that happens behind-the-scenes and get you actively using the collections that our Museum houses to do real and authentic science. The Discovery Room, which was one of the first of its kind when it opened its doors in 1974, is a dedicated space for the exploration of natural history specimens and the research being conducted at the museum through hands-on activities. Drawers fashioned to represent how collections are used in our science divisions feature specimens that you can use to answer research questions similar to the ones our research and collections staff encounter. Cubbies filled with rocks, skull casts, ocean fossils and anthropological objects invite you to use your scientific skills to compare, contrast and classify objects. You can use microscopes to look more closely at a butterfly’s scaly wings or the different layers that a rock is composed of. The Discovery Room uses collections shared by our research divisions. Each experience is designed on the work of our scientists. Educators and scientists work together to provide the most realistic and authentic experience possible.
The Forensic Anthropology Lab is another hands-on space that delves into the popular topic of physical and forensic anthropology and offers you a unique chance to study real human skeletal remains and work to solve a realistic forensic case. You can engage in the work of a forensic anthropologist by learning and applying techniques to determine things like whether a person is male or female from a real hip bone or how old someone is from studying their teeth. One of our most popular objects is a femur that had broken during someone’s lifetime but healed crooked and displaced. We’ve found that visitors are drawn to those things that they can relate to in their everyday lives. Have they ever broken a bone before? Has anyone in their family ever suffered from back problems or osteoporosis? The Forensic Anthropology Lab allows you to make personal connections and experience authentic specimens that show the effects of these types of trauma and disease on bones.
So, if during your next visit to the museum you get an itching to touch, feel and experience real museum objects and specimens, come get your fix in one of our learning spaces. Also stay tuned for new programs and spaces designed to invite and engage the world in the work of the National Museum of Natural History!
Gale Robertson, Education Specialist, Office of Education and Outreach