Museums on the Mall
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Events at the museum

Museums on the Mall

Natural History Museum:
8 Great Stops in 2 Hours or Less

By Michael Farquhar and Jacqueline Trescott
Special to

7th St. and
Independence Ave. SW
Washington, D.C. 20560
10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

  great elephant
African Bush Elephant in the Rotunda of the Museum of Natural History. (Courtesy NMNH)
"When we try to pick out anything by itself," the great naturalist John Muir wrote in 1869, "we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Picking your way through this vast Smithsonian museum devoted to nothing less than the Earth and its 4.6-billion-year history may sound just as daunting. But in the spirit of exploration, we offer this tour of the highlights, which should take about two hours. That's just 575 million years every 15 minutes.

Tyrannosaurus rex. (By Chip Clark/Courtesy NMNH)
2 Start with the dinosaur exhibit, immediately to the right of the elephant in the Rotunda. "It seems pretty old and tame in this post-'Jurassic Park' era," says Alan Cutler, a visiting scientist at the museum and a frequent science writer, "but the dinosaurs are still mighty neat." There are actually very few dinosaur collections in the world and "this is one of the biggest and the best," says local paleontologist Peter Kranz, who often brings tour groups to the hall.

While they represent only a tiny fraction of the history of life on Earth (the topic of this section of the museum), the dinosaurs are an awesome spectacle and dominate the space. Here, Tyrannosaurus rex reigns, as well as the sharp-toothed and aggressive Antrodemus and a life-size model of the plated, spike-tailed Stegosaurus, among others. The true giant of the gang is 80-foot-long Diplodocus longus, its fossilized bones reconstructed and lording over the hall.

A quick survey of the rest of the area is a good idea, particularly the wall murals in the Fossil Mammal and Ice Age halls that are connected by easy passage to the Dinosaur Hall. "They're terrific," says Cutler. "They really bring the strange old mammals to life."

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