My favorite travel writers share a sense of curiosity about their surroundings, regardless of where they are. You can squish a dozen or so of them into an elevator, take them into an attic and they’ll find something of interest. If that attic happens to be just below the grand upper rotunda of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and those writers happen to be a subset of the Gadling crew, well, let’s just say it’s unlikely you’ve seen a group of people more excited about a dusty hallway lined with cardboard boxes and file cabinets.
I’m still thinking about the box that had “Porcupine, Old, Not Cute” scrawled on the outside in sharpie. And about the fact that there’s stardust down there in the mineral hall. And how when I leaned on that door to the lab while I was taking pictures, it swung open because it was unlocked. I’m thinking about looking down onto the marine hallway, over the top of a giant jellyfish, through a sort of peephole slot from above while kids looked at the same jellyfish from below.
While our guides, Education Specialist Margery Gordon and Director of Public Outreach Randall Kremer told us a bit about the history of the building and the collection, our archeology and history nerd Sean McLachlan called me over. “Stand there,” he said, and had me peek inside a box that contained Zip-lock bags full of bones. Don George pointed all the way across the open space under the rotunda. “What kind of bird is that?” he asked our guides. “What’s the story with all these boxes marked ‘Reburial only?'” I asked.”Oh my god, I want that!” said Laurel Miller of a tiny, spiky-haired critter that shared case space with a rhinoceros shot by Teddy Roosevelt. We were back on the main floor, away from risky unlocked doors. “It looks like a piece of sushi,” Grant Martin said of the tiny fairy armadillo. Kyle Ellison looked up at the life-sized replica of Phoenix, the Wright whale, and said, “Let’s just have a conversation underneath this whale, shall we?” “Man, that is one ugly fish,” said nearly everyone of a fist-sized yellowish lump of deep sea dweller.
“I’ll take you to see the giant snake – Titanoboa – and the Hope Diamond,” said Ms. Gordon. We followed her like a class of somewhat obedient fourth graders. “But first, you have to see these replicas of early humans. The heads are at the height they’d have been and you can look them right in the eye.”
“What does working in a place like this do to your sense of time?” “How do you deal with creationists?” “Where did the elephant come from?” “Can you imagine, you’re walking through the jungle and you see THAT?” “She’s tiny. Who knew she’d be so tiny?” “Oh. My. God… Space.” All that arch irony that travel writers at their worst can be guilty of was wrong. We were 12 years old again, our brains firing on the magic of science and history and the miracles you can find by taking a good look at the natural history of our planet.
We had about two hours at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It was too short by about a week. The museum is at 10th and Constitution in Washington, D.C. It’s open every day of the year except Christmas Day. And get this: it’s FREE.