This is bittersweet news for me. The dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is closed for five years to make way for a total renovation.
I love the Smithsonian’s dino gallery. It was the first major fossil exhibit I ever saw (so long ago that some of the occupants were probably breathing at the time). There aren’t many museum experiences that could excite me more than walking through the NMNH rotunda, past that big bull elephant, and stepping into that massive hall dominated by a Diplodocus.
What I loved almost as much as the skeletons were the dioramas in the rear of the gallery. They were like little windows into a world I usually had to imagine. I doubt they’ll survive the renovation, since they’re pretty outdated. But to tell you the truth, once I got older I loved the fact that they were showing their age, because they took me back to the dinosaur books I read when I was a kid—books with dinos that hadn’t yet caught up with science, still lumbering around in swampy forests with their tails dragging behind them.
The new exhibit should be pretty awesome. They’re mounting a new T. rex, which I guess will replace the cast of “Stan” from the old hall. Until then, Washington, D.C. is going to be a lot less awesome. I really wish I could’ve visited this year, just to walk through one last time.
If you were wondering which artifacts made The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects but didn’t want to shell out the shekels for the book, you’re in luck. Here’s the whole list, plus an interview with author Richard Kurin.
Speaking of the Smithsonian, the National Museum of American History is getting a costume from that Spider-Man musical. Seems like an odd addition for the NMAH. I saw that show when I was in New York this past summer, and it was pretty meh.
There’s a movement underway to add a new National Museum of the American Latino to the Smithsonian system. The NMAL would be one of several Smithsonian museums focused on the experiences of particular ethnic groups, alongside the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (slated to open in 2015). There’s also been some recent activity in an effort to put a women’s history museum on the National Mall, so we could be seeing quite a few new D.C. museums focused on the history of various minority groups in the coming years.
I’ve always been of the opinion that you can’t have too many museums. Going to museums is one of my favorite things to do, so every new facility means something else I’ll get to enjoy visiting.
At the same time, though, part of me worries that these new museums might lead to some unintentional “re-segregation” of public history. The National Museum of American History is a popular destination, and “American history” is a subject broad enough to appeal to a lot of people. Trying to encompass everybody’s history under one roof has its disadvantages; you don’t get as many chances to cover minority-related subjects. But when a general museum does mount an exhibit on the history of a minority group, it exposes visitors of a variety of backgrounds to the material, even visitors who wouldn’t normally visit a museum focused solely on minority history. How many people who weren’t necessarily interested in twentieth-century black history got to experience the NMAH’s highly successful “Field to Factory” exhibit on the Great Migration? Indeed, one wonders how many thousands of people have been exposed to specialized aspects of history at the NMAH just because they came to see the Star-Spangled Banner and then decided to explore the other exhibits.
I should point out that I’m not saying your average white visitor to the Smithsonian is a closet racist who will consciously avoid a black or Latino history museum. I’m just saying that it might not occur to them that such a museum would be of interest. The problem I’m concerned about here is visitor apathy, not hostility. White Americans shouldn’t think of black or Latino history as “somebody else’s” history, but as critical components of American history as a whole.
And I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I think the construction of any of these museums would be a bad thing. I just hope white visitors to D.C. don’t assume the new museums are irrelevant to them and miss out on all they have to offer.
On the other hand, maybe the addition of new museums focused on minority history will have the opposite effect. Maybe a lot of white visitors to the Smithsonian will pay their first visit to a black history museum when the NMAAHC opens, since the new building will be right there on the Mall, in a location frequented by tourists who are passionate about their country’s past.
Too bad we can’t let the park rangers and curators stay on the job and send the guys who make the decisions home without a paycheck instead.
Step 1: Get $12 million from Oprah Winfrey.
All levity aside, this museum is going to feature some fantastic artifacts:
Some of the highlights of the collection include a lace shawl owned by abolitionist Harriet Tubman; a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car; slave rebellion leader Nat Turner’s Bible; and the glass-topped casket that held the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman helped spark the civil rights movement.
A new exhibit at the National Museum of American History covers pretty much everything from the first English colonies to the present day.
Highlights include Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick and a genuine Kermit the Frog puppet. Anyone who wields both items simultaneously cannot be killed in battle, save by the hand of the Archangel Gabriel.
You can read more about the exhibition at the Smithsonian’s website.