Saturday, December 7, 2013

Whales: From Bone to Book

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through June 15, 2014

On the Ground Floor of the Natural History Museum, quite close to the Constitution Avenue entrance (tip: much less crowded than the Mall entrance), are two large display cases that have exhibits in them.  I suspect, although I don't know for sure, that these are done by the staff in the Smithsonian library, as they often focus on books, or the history of the museum's collection.

I don't know that I've ever seen anyone else looking at these, so they remind me of the exhibits from the archives at American History.  Since they're right on the main corridor, they're not exactly quiet, but you won't have to stand cheek by jowl with 50 of your closest friends to see what's in the cases.

The current display is on whales - how the museum finds fossils, uses them to gain information about whales and then shares that information with other scientists by publishing, including in the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.  When one thinks of the Smithsonian, one thinks of the museums on the Mall, but there's a vast deal more going on in the organization than just what one can see on a casual visit.

The Smithsonian's collection of whale fossils is the best in the world.  They started collecting in the 1850s and continue to this day.  They collect from every ocean basin and continent in the world.  The size of the specimens makes them challenging to unearth and transport, as you can well imagine.  The Smithsonian Libraries have the most extensive collection of resources (not just books) on marine mammals, and some of them are on display here.  The exhibit features both very old items and pictures of scientists using the latest technology.  The whale drawings brought home the intersection of science and art, which I've noticed in other displays here and at the National Gallery of Art.

Verdict:  Have a glance at the big cases when you're in the museum - not sure it's really worth it for a separate visit.

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