To the dismay of parents across the Washington area, on April 28 the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum will close the dinosaur hall for a major renovation. When it reopens in 2019, the new exhibit will include the Wankel Tyrannosaurus rex, one of the most complete T. rex skeletons discovered.
But in the meantime, what do you do with your budding paleontologist? By the time the new exhibit opens, that magical period of fascination with all things prehistoric may have passed. While the Smithsonian will continue to display other dinosaur fossils, sometimes your imaginative child just needs to experience big and bad.
Fortunately, there are a number of good options to choose from. Some can be visited during a day trip; for others, you’ll want to spend a night or a weekend. You also might want to take advantage of your child’s interest to introduce him or her to the broader world of scienc.
But let’s start with dinosaurs. Many children develop an interest in dinosaurs between the ages of 5 and 7. They’re becoming aware of, and interested in, the natural world around them, and the idea of big, lumbering beasts roaming the world and creating havoc — well, what’s not to like? Even better, they really existed, unlike the monsters from the fairy tales. And, even though they no longer roam around, a child can easily engage with the tangible evidence of massive skeletons and models presented in a simulated environment.
So while the Smithsonian exhibit is under construction, explore beyond the Capital Beltway. Just up the road in Baltimore, the Maryland Science Center offers a small but interesting collection of about a dozen full dinosaur specimens, including a forty-foot T. rex. You can also see the Maryland’s state dinosaur (yes, there is one). It’s called Astrodon johnstoni, and its display at the science center shows it being attacked by an acrocanthosaurus. The center makes the most of its collection and includes a working field lab demonstrating the effort involved in unearthing these fossils. Like a lot of smaller exhibits, what the center lacks in size, it makes up for in intimacy.
A little farther up I-95 is the Delaware Museum of Natural History in Wilmington. This collection, too, is modest, but it does have nice examples. And beginning Sept. 27, the museum will have on exhibit the prehistoric snake fossil Titanoboa, measuring in at a whopping 48 feet — longer than a school bus. This creature from the Paleocene epoch will definitely impress even the most dinosaur-savvy kid.
Still farther up I-95 is Drexel University’sAcademy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. On display there is an impressive 42-foot skeletal display of a T. rex along with more than 30 other dinosaur species, including many full skeletons. Of particular interest is the life-size model of a Stegosaurus showing its internal anatomy. The academy also has a green-screen display that allows children to walk among the dinosaurs, a trick sure to amaze. The Academy of Natural Sciences, known locally as the Dinosaur Museum, is the oldest natural history museum in the country and displayed the world’s first mounted dinosaur.
If you are taking older children, or if you can interest your younger ones in science beyond dinosaurs, be sure to take advantage of your trip to Philadelphia to visit the Franklin Institute — one of the best all-around science museums anywhere. Emphasizing a hands-on experience, the Franklin Institute has something for every age group, from “KidScience: The Island of the Elements” for children as young as 5 to a “Blue Angels Adventure Flight Simulator” for older kids (there is a minimum height requirement). In Washington, we often overlook the fact that Philadelphia is a great city for museums and is within a reasonable distance.
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, after a two-year renovation of its dinosaur hall, now features “Dinosaurs in Their Time,” an exhibit that has been carefully created to portray dinosaurs in their contemporary environment. Complete skeletons and a chronological progression should fascinate and educate children across a wide age spectrum. The museum also features a paleo lab and interactive features. As with the other museums, the Carnegie provides plenty of opportunities to explore natural history beyond dinosaurs.
And then there is the marvelous American Museum of Natural History in New York, where you’ll find two large halls — one dedicated to Saurischian Dinosaurs, or those with grasping hands (think T. Rex), and the other for Ornithischian dinosaurs. It also has a very cool exhibit of primitive mammals.
Combined, there are more than 100 dinosaurs and related beasts on display. And, if your time and budget allow, you can arrange for your child to have “A Night at the Museum.”
Speaking of budgets, some Washingtonians are surprised to learn just how pricey admission to museums can be. A family of four can drop more than $60 just for basic admission. Add parking and some attractions, like IMAX tickets, and the price goes up. In the District, we’re fortunate to have world-class museums that survive on a combination of private and public support and offer free or low-cost admissions.
Look for bargains. Some of the museums listed here have reciprocal arrangements for those who are members of other museums. Others offer discounts on certain days or reduced admission for organized groups. If your budget is tight, consider packing your lunch. And before you go, check online to avoid any nasty surprises, like additional fees, exhibit closings or days the museums are closed.
Finally, use this window of opportunity when a child’s imagination and curiosity about nature combine to broaden the learning experience. Visit the National Aquarium in Baltimore (did I mention pricey?), nearby science museums or Calvert Cliffs State Park in Maryland, where you and your kids can dig up fossils. You will be rewarded as your child experiences both engaging displays of nature and a wide assortment of hands-on activities.
And, of course, life will go on without dinosaurs on the Mall, opening up possibilities to explore whole new species and epochs.
Bruns, a freelance writer, is the retired chief operating officer of WETA.