“Is it real?” one of the teens asked.
It is, and it’s one of the reasons that I usually avoid this particular museum. Taxidermy makes me squeamish.
Like many natural history museums, the Smithsonian devotes a lot of floor space to dead animals, stuffed and posed. This dates back to the 1800s, when scientists used taxidermy to study exotic animals. The practice has gradually died out, thanks to advances in photography, field research and preservation (a whole animal suspended in alcohol is much more useful than the dried husk of one).
Killed by a trophy hunter in Angola, Henry has dominated the museum’s rotunda since 1959 and, for many years, he was used as a mascot and festooned with seasonal decorations. Over time, the exhibit has taken on a more respectful tone, with a message of conservation. But when placed next to a big dead elephant, signs urging visitors to avoid collecting ivory convey something of a mixed message.
“What a waste,” a man with salt-and-pepper hair said while gazing up at the behemoth.
The Smithsonian would probably not accept a donated elephant today, much less put it on display. And yet, Henry has a presence that would be hard to replace. He exerts a sort of gravitational pull, which drew me and my fellow tourists to the center of the rotunda to read placards about the lives of elephants. “Oh that’s cool, I didn’t know that,” I heard one middle-age woman say to her husband after learning that elephants sing to each other across vast distances using low pitches that are inaudible to humans.
Following the prevailing current of tourists, I drifted westward, into the Hall of Mammals — a series of rooms positively brimming with dead animals.
“I don’t think the rhino’s real,” one boy said while looking at a rhinoceros that had been personally shot by Teddy Roosevelt.
A museum volunteer explained that all the animals in the hall were real, and most of them had died of old age before being donated by zoos — a fact that went a long way toward making me more comfortable with the whole exhibit.
Once I relaxed, I was able to take in the point of the exhibit: mainly, the massive variety of mammals on this amazing planet, and our commonalities (milk, hair and a special ear bone, apparently). I became particularly enamored with the Chinese pangolin — a scale-covered, armadillo-like creature that makes duckbill platypuses look reasonable by comparison. Another visitor to the Mammal Hall, an older lady with close-cropped hair, could not take her eyes off of the pink fairy armadillo, which looks like a gerbil with smoked salmon draped across its back. She read the label and immediately reported what she had learned to her husband.
“It uses the skin on its back to seal up its burrow like a bunghole,” she exclaimed.
While they still creep me out, taxidermied animals clearly can spark an appreciation and a sense of wonder about the natural world.
Still, I had seen enough dead things, so I headed upstairs to the insect zoo. As I entered, I noticed a familiar red diamond painted on one of the walls — the Orkin logo. Corporate sponsorship is certainly nothing new, but this particular pairing took me aback, as Orkin is a company better known for killing bugs than promoting their importance in the complex web of life.
Corporate money must go a long way because the insect zoo is spectacular. Everywhere you look, you’re confronted with creatures so amazing, they belong in sci-fi flicks. One terrarium contained multitudes of bugs shaped exactly like leaves, down to their curling brown edges. Another held giant bugs that look like sticks. At least, that’s what the sign said. I spent several minutes squinting at sticks and leaves before a small girl, about 3 years old, showed me where the bug was.
“Oh cool,” I said as I suddenly detected the 3-inch-long insect that had been right in front of me the
In an adjoining room, a Smithsonian volunteer was holding an enormous tarantula, demonstrating that the spiders aren’t nearly as fearsome as they look.
“Her venom is very weak,” assured the volunteer. “If she were to bite me, it’d be like a bee sting.”
The volunteer explained that, though the tarantula has eight eyes, she can only sense light and dark with them. Instead, she uses her body hairs, which are exquisitely sensitive, to detect minute changes in air pressure. “She can ‘see’ all 13 of you, and tell every time you breathe,” the volunteer said.
The exhibit make me wonder what it’s like to be a bug, and I wasn’t alone. To my right, children were tumbling out of a giant termite mound — or rather, a model of an actual termite mound that was found in Kenya. “I’m a soldier, you’re the worker,” one of the kids shouted, showing off his newfound knowledge about the termite caste system.
I passed a diorama of giant prehistoric insects and found myself, once again, face to face with dead animals. The insect zoo led me directly to an exhibit about ancient Egypt, with several displays of animal mummies. Ancient Egyptians, the signs explained, sacrificed and mummified cats, birds, snakes and bulls as offerings to their gods and dead leaders.
One woman recoiled as she looked at a cat mummy and an accompanying CT scan showing the bones of the strangled, 10-month-old kitten that lay inside.
“I’m sorry, but the Egyptians were creepy,” a teen boy in a black shirt commented.
“People are creepy,” I thought as I headed toward the exit and passed Henry the elephant, senselessly killed and now forever frozen mid-stride.
National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; open daily, free.
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