For 105 years, the National Museum of Natural History has served as a center for learning that has enabled millions of visitors every year to better understand the world we live in through innovative, hands-on learning experiences, scientific and cultural programming, and world-class exhibitions. To celebrate our 105th Birthday we want to share some highlights, tidbits of what we’ve learned, and moments of inspiration! What have you learned from your museum visits? What has inspired your scientific curiosity? Join the conversation online with the hashtag #NMNHBday!
We spoke with Dr. Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of NMNH, to kick-off the celebration!
For the past 28 months, I have had the honor of serving as the Director of the Museum. It has been a distinct privilege, one made all the more exciting by the fact that a day has yet to go by that I haven't learned something new. I'd like to share a few of the interesting things I have learned with you here:
1. You can breathe new life into old objects.
Climbing into the glass case in the Hall of Mammals, our researchers carefully plucked a few hairs from the taxidermy mount of the thylacine, or so-called Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). A dog-sized marsupial extinct since 1936, Curator Kris Helgen and an international team of scientists managed to reconstruct the thylacine's mitochondrial genome from just those few hairs. New technologies are continually emerging which make it increasingly cheaper and faster to sequence museum collections, unlocking their genetic potential for research and biodiversity conservation.
The museum is a major scientific research center where hundreds of staff and visiting scientists are working to uncover the mysteries of the Earth and similar planets every day. Our staff named over 400 new species just last year!
2. The ocean is teeming with undiscovered creatures.
From bacteria to whales, the ocean is home to a huge diversity of weird, wild, and wonderful animals, the vast majority of which awaits either discovery or the most basic understanding of what it is and how it functions. Among them are the hyperiid amphipods that swim their whole lives in the open water. Ranging in size from a few millimeters to nearly the length of your hand, they feed on jellies and other semi-helpless gelatinous animals. Curator Karen Osborn and other scientists are studying their eyes and find that within the approximately 320 species described so far, ten very different types of compound eyes have evolved to help them survive in the very dark waters of the deep ocean. They have eyes that allow them to see 360 degrees around their heads, mirrored eyes, duplicate eyes specialized for seeing different things, fiber optics, huge eyes, every other variation you can imagine and probably a few you haven't even imagined!
3. Building a 21st century home for dinosaurs is no simple task - especially in a 105-year-old building.
One of the most complex projects in the Museum’s history is now underway – the renovation of the National Fossil Hall. Working with over two thousand fossils comprised of over 10,000 individual pieces and spanning 3 billion years of Earth's history is no easy feat. Imagine that most of those specimens have incomplete or now-scientifically inaccurate information and all need specialized handling and care. The Fossil Hall space, itself, is a circa-1910 architectural fossil badly in need of a complete overhaul. While over seven million visitors continue to explore the Museum's other exhibitions, hundreds of shipments will arrive behind the scenes carrying miles of conduit, electrical, ventilation, and data lines and tons of building materials for the renovation. You can follow along with the progress as our Exhibition team designs and builds the Fossil Hall of the future.
4. We have the world’s largest collection of whale skeletons.
NMNH is the repository of the world's largest natural history collection - home to more than 128 million specimens, each of which enable us to travel through time to see the world as it once was and to look ahead to what it might be in the future. Our whale collection is just one of many comprehensive research collections, and we're taking this content into the future by 3-D scanning specimens.
5. Re-thinking the way young people are exposed to science will have a tremendous impact on our future.
I grew up around museums. I spent lots of time as a kid exploring the Burke Museum and getting to know its scientists in my hometown of Seattle. Along with actively spending time in nature collecting fossils, this helped lead me to become a paleontologist. For more than a year, the Q?rius Science Education Center has been open for business onsite and online! This innovative space targeted to kids in middle and high school allows visitors to immerse themselves in science. Kids are encouraged to interact with our scientists, use laboratory quality scientific equipment, and pick up and handle museum-grade collection objects (over 6,000 specimens!) from dinosaur fossils to fish to flowers. Explore Q?rius online and start to build your own digital field book!