Monday, April 30, 2007

The History of Nature

So, as noted in the last post, we spent almost a week in New York City. In the evenings, my wife and I went to the theater, and the daytimes were spent with our almost-six-year-old daughter at the American Museum of Natural History.

As I am sure I have mentioned elsewhere, said daughter is dinosaur-obsessed. And ever since seeing a video called Dinosaur Hunters, she has told everyone who will listen that she plans to be a paleontologist, and after she gets her degree in Paleontology (from UC Berkeley, of course!), she plans to work at the Museum of Natural History in New York, although she will spend much of her time in the field in Mongolia, digging for oviraptor fossils.

So going to the museum itself was sort of a pilgrimage for her. Needless to say, after purchasing our membership (given the length of our stay, it was much less expensive than daily tickets), we headed straight to the 4th floor [pdf], home of fossils. We spent much of that first afternoon in the hall of saurischian dinosaurs. Needless to say, the scale of things is daunting. Not only are the dinos BIG, but there are so many, and so much to read. Probably the thing she found most mesmerizing was a little video of a time-lapse view of reposing the big T-Rex skeleton. Scientific consensus about how T-Rex stood and moved necessitated disassembling and reassembling the display that had been there since 1915. It's quite interesting to watch how they managed it.

Subsequently, we managed to wander around to the orientation hall, where they have an excellent video narrated by Meryl Streep that explains they layout of the whole floor, which traces the evolution of vertebrates from the earliest brain case and simple backbone through advanced mammals. There are some truly spectacular items on display, but until we saw the video, we didn't get how brilliantly they have laid out the displays to trace the development of vertebrate life.

Needless to say, our daughter really got it, and thereafter insisted on following the development path in the proper direction only.

One cute note is that she is quite petite for her age, so she had some difficulty using the many computer displays in the different exhibit halls. She would convince various people to lift her up onto the display itself, where she could easily manipulate the controls and work her way through the lessons. Several times we noticed museum staff come over to shoo the little kid sitting on the computer, until they realized she was really studying the material.

We all got a great deal out of the 4th floor. Since we returned, we have gotten daily lectures on various aspects of vertebrate development, such as the fact that we are synapsids. Our plush platypus has been named Amnion, and so on.

Although we collectively spent the bulk of our time at the museum wandering the 4th floor, we managed to sneak off at times to see some of the other exhibits. Of particular interest to those of us who love to dive was the Hall of Ocean Life, which covers all sorts of things, from coral reefs and kelp forests to big marine mammals. We were dubious that a dry exhibit (as opposed to an aquarium) could capture the essence of ocean life, but they've done a really credible job.

All in all, despite the overwhelming amount of stuff, we all came away with both a great appreciation for the museum itself and the lessons it teaches and a desire to go back to explore some more. When we realized that we'd spent a huge amount of time exploring a relatively small percentage of the material on display, we knew we'll be returning to see more.

Truly, the museum is an astounding place, and well worth visiting.


sueinsacca said...

Great stuff! I especially love the part about museum employees assuming your daughter was up to no good while sitting on the computers. It reminds me of Fairyland and the Alice in Wonderland ride operated by a very bored looking young adult. Bored, that is, until said daughter dismounted from the ride's dodo and explained to the operator about the extinction of the dodo. The operator's eyes widened and she said, "You really know what you're talking about, don't you!"

Laura E. Goodin said...

We're going into the city after we come back from DC. Margaret's number-one request? The Natural History museum. What's her museum request IN DC? Natural History. Who says girls get turned off science?

By the way, I don't get email notifications of comments on my blog at the moment, even though I'm set up for them. Are you getting notifications? Any rumors on what the problem is?

Chard said...

Science is cool. Even for girls, I guess!

I got e-mails for both of your comments, so it must just be personal. Blogger can be *so* vindictive.