Notes from a Natural History Museum

Harvard Natural History Museum

I recently had the chance to visit the Harvard Natural History Museum. Despite having lived in Cambridge for nearly a year, and having often thought about visiting the museum when I passed by going to and from my apartment, I had not stopped in until now. What a treat! The collections are full, diverse, and well curated. On this occasion, I spent most of my time in the animal wing, but I plan to return soon to take in the flora and minerals, and spend much more time in choice display rooms (e.g. the absolutely gorgeous Mammals/Birds of the World permanent exhibit: see below for pictures).

A ground sloth skeleton. It is hard to get an idea of the size of this creature from this photo, but it probably weighed several tons while alive!

The animal specimens on display—ranging from skeletons to pinned bugs to stuffed birds and mammals to odd, curled creatures floating in translucent brine—are arranged in a way that prompts the visitor to reflect on the amazing relationships that exist among nature’s ‘tenants.’ Darwin is certainly the theme, and the museum does a wonderful job of showing how evolution, both convergent and divergent, has led to the spectacular differences (and similarities) found among the world’s creatures. By juxtaposing cousins large and small, distant and close, dull and dazzling, the curators manage to elicit ‘Ooh’ after ‘Ah’, and have given us reason to pause and consider the wonders that nature has prepared for the curious mind.

Check out the cockroach diversity. We all know about the massive Madagascar Hissing cockroaches, but what about the tiny ant-symbiotic cockroach? Or the tanky-looking trilobite cockroach?

The labels and information scattered throughout the exhibits are lucid and appropriate; if anything, they could supply more detail for the curious, but I appreciated the decision to avoid dense blocks of text that could weary or discourage those who just want to know what they are looking at. Erudition was never on display at the expense of the specimens.

It’s hard to get a sense for the size of this shrew, but it is about as large as a house cat! The Hispanolian Solenodon is one of the few venomous mammals that scientists know of.

If there is one thing that left me disappointed, it was the failure of the preserved specimens to represent the colors and attitude of the living creatures. The color palettes of beetles and most butterflies stood up well, but the birds’ plumage seemed dull and lusterless. The species preserved in jars had also had their color leeched from them by prolonged soaking, and they all seemed to assume the same pale and drab colors. They were curious enough to look at in their own right, but did not do an adequate job of representing the appearance of the living creatures. But this reservation is not specific to Harvard’s collection: it is simply a fact that even the best taxidermist cannot reproduce the spark that the living creature had. All the more reason to make sure that we do not relegate more and more species to extinction, where they can only be seen in museums.

Here is a massive moa skeleton, a now-extinct flightless (and wingless!) bird that was endemic to New Zealand. They were hunted to extinction once humans arrived on the island. Can you imagine one of these craning its head down down on you? The people in the background give you a sense for the size of this bird.

Below (and above), I have shared some highlights from my visit. I snapped a few photos of particularly interesting exhibits through the glass. The quality of these photos is not great (they are taken through the shiny display cases and my woeful cellphone camera), but I hope you can get a sense for what is on display at the museum, and that it piques your curiosity. It’s a must-visit if you come to Boston!

Bird Eggs, from the smallest to the largest

Bird eggs from the smallest (hummingbird) to the largest (elephant bird). The elephant bird egg you see above is about as big as a bird egg can be, based on the physical constraints of bird eggs’ shell structure.

Below, two fascinating displays of beetles (Coleoptera) and bees (Hymenoptera):

Coleoptera, beetles

Female (left) and male (right) butterfly species:

Female (left) and male (right) butterfly species.

I was especially pleased (if that’s the right word) to see stuffed specimens of many birds that I have watched in their living beauty in North America and Costa Rica.

Here are a Montezuma Oropendola and a Common Pauraque:

Montezuma oropendola—but a rather patchy looking specimen

Common pauraque

And lastly, an ivory billed woodpecker. Hopeful ornithologists will be glad to see that the species is listed on the label as critically endangered, not extinct!

Ivory-billed woodpeckers

2 thoughts on “Notes from a Natural History Museum

  1. Pingback: Undiscovered Species in Natural History Museums | Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Sea Butterfly Motion Recorded at GA Tech | Raxa Collective

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