Number 3: Visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Harvard Museum of Natural History 2

This has long been on my list of things to do, especially as I hear over and over again about the glass flowers exhibit (see below). Perhaps the most appealing part of this “To Do” was that I knew I would be able to do it for a discount, if not free, since I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to love it but was starting to feel like I had to go already.

FYI: the HMNH participates in the Bank of America Museums on Us program – which means free admission to the museum during the first full weekend of the month when you show them your Bank of America debit or credit card – and also gives a small discount on admission if you show them your plastic Charlie Card. They have free admission for Massachusetts residents on Sundays between 9am and noon, as well as Wednesdays from 3-5pm between September and May. See what I’m saying? You should never pay full price to get into this museum.

Harvard Museum of Natural History 4Now that I’ve filled you in on my miserly ways, let’s talk about the actual museum! I went straight to the glass flowers….partly because they were the main objective of my visit, and partly because they’re immediately in front of you when you walk up the stairs to the floor the exhibits are on. The room is darkened in order to help preserve the flowers, and there were at least two docents walking around and answering questions. They offered up a magnifying glass that had a little built in flashlight to some visitors, as well. I’m pretty sure this exhibit is better if you get your hands on one of those magnifying glasses. I was immediately struck by the realization that while I knew this was a museum about nature and not art, I was totally expecting something very artistic, and that is NOT what this is (duh). It’s very cool – it’s amazing workmanship and I’m pretty sure that if you are interested in gardening or flowers you could easily spend a lot of time in this exhibit. I, however, am interested in neither gardening or flowers, and so I wandered the aisles amazed that these things I was looking at weren’t real, but rather were made of glass. It’s honestly unbelievable, you look in the display cases and think you’re looking at a somehow perfectly preserved live specimen. I really wish they had more information on the actual making of the glass flowers, but I get how that’s not really the point so I should just shut up and move on. ;) The flowers are organized alphabetically by their Latin names (pretty sure there’s a scientific term for that and I don’t know what it is) and I would have loved to see them organized in a way that’s more approachable to the general public – by native region maybe? I think that would be much cooler.

I moved from the glass flowers into the mineral hall, which was a mistake. Minerals are pretty and cool to look at, but I felt like there wasn’t really much in the way of education going on in there. I found plenty of pretty and/or cool things to look at, I just had no idea what they were most of the time. After the mineral hall is an exhibit on climate change, and then you turn a corner to the Peabody Museum…which is separate but not? It is all archeology/anthropology I believe, and I decided to skip it this time around.

Harvard Museum of Natural History 1Here’s what I should have done from the start: turn left at the top of the stairs. This is where all the stuff you expect from the museum of nature-y things are: fossils, specimen in jars, taxidermy animals, skeletons! And it’s the best part, in my opinion (also sometimes the freakiest part, as there were at least three occasions where I turned around from something interesting and innocent and was faced with live snakes, taxidermy snakes, or snakes in a jar…and of course I freaked out and walked away as quickly as I could without looking like a freak). I thought the exhibit on color in nature was super interesting (see natural variations within a species exemplified by the shells in the big photo above). 

The whole time I was at the museum I was thinking about if I would go back, or under what circumstances I would go back. In the end, I realized that I was mostly disappointed in the flowers and the minerals because they had little in the way of actual education worked in with the exhibit – they were there to look at, almost more of a “look at us! We’re Harvard and we have the most extensive collection or meteorites/minerals/glass flowers in the world!” and geared towards people who will walk into those exhibits and know exactly what they’re looking at. The rest of the museum seemed to be a much better mix of education/straight up display, and those were the parts I liked – the climate change exhibit, the evolution exhibit, the color exhibit. The rooms of taxidermy animals and skeletons were also cool, even though they were also missing the addition of any significant educational tools.

Do I just expect too much? Should I just be going to museums and looking without expecting much in the way of education? Maybe I just don’t get how museums are supposed to work.

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2 Comments

  1. Hardly monotonous to visit the HMNH! Thanks for your post. Perhaps if you had more time you could have listened to the video in the Glass Flowers, some of the many media kiosks in the museum that give lots more information. E.g. the videos for the New England Forests exhibition are posted here:http://www.hmnh.harvard.edu/exhibits/index.php.

    Reply
  2. Blue – thanks for the comment, I must have completely missed the video in the Glass Flowers exhibit! I really liked the New England Forests exhibit (minus the snakes, haha!), actually, it was really well done. I think it was really the mineral hall where I was really dying for a bit more "education" and not just "look at all our pretty things!"

    Reply

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