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Darwin at the Smithsonian

I recently had two or three hours to spend at the Smithsonian, en route to the airport. I hadn't been to the natural history museum for awhile, and was interested to see how they were celebrating Darwin's anniversaries this year. Pretty well, it turns out. Banners outside advertised a Darwin exhibit and "Plants and butterflies: partners in evolution." Inside, there was apparently an organized "Evolution Trail", which I didn't have time to follow.

The Darwin exhibit is off the entrance hall with the elephant and has a mix of biographical and scientific exhibits. My main criticism was their definition of "co-evolution" as being limited to evolution for mutual benefit. Evolutionary arms races (e.g., between hosts and parasites) are also coevolution. The entrance hall on the other side, where I came in, has two display cases of Darwiniana.

The butterfly exhibit was dominated by a live butterfly room inside a larger room with displays on the coevolution of plants and butterflies, with fossils labeled "examine the evidence." I was happy to pay $6 admission to the butterfly room since I wanted to make a donation anyway and enjoyed having a frittilary land on my nose.

Near the Oceans exhibit was a display of Burgess Shale fossils I hadn't seen before, including Pikaia, a tiny 500-million-year-old chordate. We chordates have evolved a lot since then. Nearby were some fossil stomatolites.

The mammal room was great, focusing on adaptations in everything from bats to giraffes (splaying front legs to drink, with an explanation of adaptations to limit blood flow to head) to pangolins with termite mounds. Right in the middle of the floor was a window down to fossil hominid footprints.

I wish I could have stayed longer. One problem with a quick visit to the Smithsonian is that post9/11 hysteria has closed most of the bag-check rooms. You can't bring your luggage into the museum and if you leave it somewhere, they'll try to detonate it. (Luggage made of sapient pearwood can defend itself, but I wouldn't recommend bringing it to Washington!) But here's a secret tip for my regular readers only: the 4th St. entrance to the National Gallery still has a check room, complete with x-ray machine. Don't tell too many people, or they'll probably close it.

Coming up in March: the Hall of Human Ancestors!


I had the good fortune to visit the Smithsonian the other week, as well. I was a bit underwhelmed by the Darwin exhibit in particular, but I still thought it was a nice little intro to evolution and Darwin's role in developing the theory. It was probably better as a first stop on the Evolution Trail, which I also didn't end up following.

I absolutely loved the Oceans exhibit. They had a lot of cool stuff in there, and it seemed like all of the various "stations" both stood alone quite well and meshed with the nearby stations to tell a more complete story. Very nicely designed exhibit.

The dinosaur exhibit was depressingly out of date, though. It clearly hadn't been updated at all since at latest the early 90s, before the first feathered dino fossils were discovered. There were even a number of dioramas that still showed tail-dragging dinosaurs! But it's always fun to gawk at T. rex skeletons, so that wasn't a total loss.

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