Through augmented reality, the app will overlay the skeletons on display with fur, feathers or scales. (Smithsonian Institution)

The fossil hall at the National Museum of Natural History is closed for renovation until 2019. Whatever are we amateur paleontologists to do? The Smithsonian’s Skin & Bones app could help fill the time. Developed for the museum’s venerable Bone Hall, it offers a compelling way to learn about mammals, birds, reptiles and fish.

For one thing, the app adds flesh to the skeletons on exhibit. Consider the mandrill, a dandy of a primate with a red nose, periwinkle cheeks and a rainbow butt. His bleached bones don’t indicate such foppishness. When you point your iPhone or iPad’s camera at an exhibit, the Skin & Bones app layers flesh and fur over the bones, a reverse X-ray. The augmented reality video is impressive; Mr. Mandrill shows up on my phone’s screen in all his chromatic glory.

A pileated woodpecker, grafted with feathers, pecks into tree bark through my phone’s screen, its tongue extended from its beak like a Fruit Roll-Up. A narrator explains how the tongue pries insects out of the tree. The app works several feet away and at odd angles, helpful during peak crowds.

There are also video lessons about 13 animals. One set covers an animal’s life, habitat and food preferences; another set discusses its evolution. The videos, which run between 30 seconds and 2 minutes, provide interesting details that didn’t make the display text. The kiwi, a small flightless bird native to New Zealand, carries an egg equal to 20 percent of its body weight. “If a woman gave birth to a child weighing 20 percent of her weight, human babies could weigh 25 to 30 pounds,” the emphatic narrator informs us. Good gosh.

Skin & Bones joins a roster of Smithsonian exhibit-specific apps, including Infinity of Nations at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Peacock Room Comes to America for the Freer Gallery and Access American Stories at the National Museum of American History.

A few quibbles: The app is subject to crashes, and it can take several attempts to get the augmented reality videos to play. If an errant finger covers the camera lens, the videos stop and start over from the beginning. This is cumbersome for the bison and swordfish videos, which play longer than a minute each. It’s also possible to spend more time looking into the phone than at the bones.

If users compensate for that and make an effort to study the bones as well, this app gives a fine lesson in biology. It’s excellent for children and would help them immerse themselves in the exhibit. We can only hope the dinosaurs will get the same treatment when they return in four years.

More Apptitude

For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

E-mail us at


NAME: Skin & Bones

COST: Free

OPERATING SYSTEM: iOS (no plans for Android)

CREATOR: Smithsonian Institution

USER RATINGS: Not enough user reviews

REVIEW’S BOTTOM LINE:Some glitches, but an excellent complement to the Bone Hall