Thursday, June 30, 2016

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History | Washington, DC part 1

Welcome to the first of my three-part recap of my trip to Washington. It's an image-heavy post with very little accompanying, relevant info to the specific images, which I do apologize for. Really, consider this a post as my thoughts on visiting DC in general accompanied by photos from the nation's treasure chest/cabinet of curiosities/attic. Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian Institute serves that purpose, and as a vehicle for research in science, history, art, "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

Also, a DC trip to see the landmarks, memorials, federal buildings, and National Mall (where most of the museums are clustered) is extremely obvious and unoriginal. It's an itinerary that is extremely popular among middle school tour groups, which flood the capital in the summertime. I have tried my damnedest to keep the throngs of youths out of these pictures, but just know that the museums are large, crowded, and loud.

The Natural History and American History museums are most susceptible to this, but do quiet down considerably in the afternoon. I visited DC when I was in fourth grade, and it's hard to communicate the overwhelming sense of wonder at everything contained in the museums, all the information and things to look at. I distinctly remember going through the Natural History museum with my mother for hours, getting lost among the exhibits and frantically tearing through the exhibit halls when the museum was closing. I've only really taken pictures of taxidermy and minerals, but the museum contains extensive exhibits about astronomy, geology, the oceans, mammalian evolution, human origins, insects, etc, etc.

I go as far to say that this museum did more to inspire me towards science at that age than any book I read, or lesson I had in school. While there certainly are many thorough placards to read and a lot of information to digest, this is a very kid-friendly place. Be careful not to step on any of them.

A whale hunt and the Lord of Three Realms

I went to DC with my mother, who was there for a conference and only had time to see this museum. We stayed around 2 hours before she had to go, after which I went to the American History museum. No pictures from there because it was even more packed, and very poorly lit. This museum is for everyone, and the most accessible form of American history is American Exceptionalism. Keep a critical view of American history, how we have affected international economics and geopolitics especially since WWII, and enjoy the exhibits. There is plenty to see even if the lighting is not good, and the vast exhibition halls on transportation (a dealership of ye olde automobiles, trains, etc) and the history of electricity (a hardware store of ye olde appliances, transformers, generators, batteries, etc) are not to be missed. The "food in America" room is also very interesting.

The "Price of Freedom: America at War" exhibit is pretty exhaustive in terms of information and artifacts, but extremely cramped and crowded and dark. It's a huge portion of the museum and I recommend seeing it in the afternoon when crowds are smaller.

I stopped by some other museums, but my favorite on the National Mall is the Natural History museum. Here are some samples of displays in the metals and minerals hall. There are dozens of these cases, and hundreds of samples to marvel at. Out of all the topic areas in this museum, the mining and metals section is the richest in information and things to look at.

I've tried to group these photos based on mineral type. These are both elbaite.

I decided to try out DC's Capital Bikeshare system on this trip, and it worked out reasonably well. Because I haven't been on a bike since high school, it was more challenging for me to get accustomed to riding with traffic (very busy) and searching for bike stations. DC is very flat, but streets are very wide and sometimes bike stations are empty. In any case, biking is far more comfortable than walking in DC, which is hotter, sunnier, and more humid than I'm used to.

Celestite, a chief source of Strontium in the world

IIRC, these are all sulfate-based rocks

Fluorite of all shapes, colors, and sizes. The funky cubes come from uneven degradation of the crystal, whose basic unit cell is an isometric cube. This means that the crystal grows in cubes and decays in cubes. Use some Wikipedia-fu to learn more about crystal structure.

More fluorite.

An assortment of blue crystals.

Arkansas quartz

I am certain you can find pictures of this most impressive quartz with some people standing in front of it. It's about five feet tall, I believe.

Lots of opals

Monster opal

This large piece of amethyst quartz is free to touch

Left: Hall sapphire necklace, platinum, with 195 carats of sapphires and 84 carats of diamonds
Right: Logan sapphire, 423 carats

Left: Post emerald necklace, Art Deco Cartier
Right: the Hope diamond, 45.52 carats

Look here for more info on mineral and gem specimens at the Natural History museum.

I'm trying to space out my picture-heavy posts from Washington and Germany, but really, I need some time to write about everything I saw and learned in Germany. My Germany posts will mostly go in chronological order, but there is room for non-linearity. Because I use this blog as a way to thoroughly document things that I witness/think about/etc, there will be lots of museums, history, and politics because those are things that interest me.


  1. I think Natural History Museums are my favourite type of museum. The minerals exhibit looks really good - I went through this obsession with minerals at one stage in my life so it would have been fun to see.

    1. America's treasure chest indeed. It's great that the astronomy, geology, and mining exhibits that precede this hall are extremely info-intensive...and then there's just a cache of beautiful rocks. Easily the best free museum I've been to.

  2. Darn those little kids! haha :P Oh I do wish going on field trips though T_T My college's geology department has a collection of rocks that the Smithsonian has trying to get its hands on that my college is not planning on giving up, but we like to mention it in our campus tours ;) -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey's

    1. That's so cool! We had a pretty extensive collection of dino fossils (with a T-rex in the middle of a building, and triceratops skulls on display in a library), but nothing like this! The Stanford earth sciences library also has an extensive mineral/gem jealous...

  3. Looks a lot like the Natural History Museum of Lausanne, love it.

    1. I just looked at pics of NHML -- better taxidermy collection, it seems! I wish the Smithsonian had a more exhaustive collection of American land animals, but that would be a serious undertaking.