Overview of our visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, plus a recipe for a Dinosaur Bento!
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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History is located in Washington DC next to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on the National Mall. It is open daily (minus December 25th) from 10 am to 5:30 pm with occasional extended hours. Admission is free with the exception of certain specialty programs.
The museum is a part of the Smithsonian Institution and was originally opened in 1910 as one of the first Smithsonian buildings constructed. It is home to 325,000 square feet of public space with both permanent and temporary exhibits holding over 126 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts. There are two entrances, one on Constitution Avenue (wheelchair and stroller accessible) and another on the National Mall side on Madison Drive. With security, often one entrance will have a line out the door while the other side may be significantly shorter.
We spent about 2 hours here, but it could very well take 3-4 hours to see everything. If Q?rius Jr had been open during our visit, it would have been at least an additional hour.
The exhibits are spread across three levels- the ground, first, and second floors. When entering from the National Mall, the first thing you will see is the striking 14-foot African Elephant in the Rotunda on the first floor. It has been restored many times since its introduction in 1959.
The Constitution Ave entrance leads to the ground floor with Q?rius, the café, and gift shops.
Sant Ocean Hall
The Sant Ocean Hall is an especially popular area of the museum. The massive 23,000-square-foot hall features a preserved 25-foot-long giant squid, bubblegum coral, fossilized jaws of C. megalodon, life-sized model of a North Atlantic right whale named Phoenix, and more.
African Voices is located near the back of the Sant Ocean Hall next to Q?rius Jr. This permanent exhibition “examines the diversity, dynamism, and global influence of Africa’s people and cultures over time in the realms of family, work, community, and the natural environment.” A few highlights include a model of an Aqal- a portable Somalian home used by herding communities (photo above), eleven listening stations to hear personal stories and music, the Mud Masons of Mali gallery, and the recreation of a marketplace in Accra, Ghana.
Objects of Wonder
Objects of Wonder is on the second floor until 2021. This exhibit works to help with understanding of nature and human culture with items such as the 1875 Tsimshian House Front, tiny deep-sea corals, tiger cowries, and the “Blue Flame” (one of the world’s largest lapis lazuli). The insect collection was especially fascinating for the kids.
The Bone Hall opened as a part of the Smithsonian’s first museum in 1881 and “highlights the diversity and unity of every major group of vertebrates, supporting ideas of evolution and common ancestry.” Notable items include the grey whale skeleton, flying fish, comparisons between the skeletons of dogs and cats.
O. Orkin Insect Zoo
The O. Orkin Insect Zoo (opened in 1976 to make it the oldest continuously operating insect zoo in the United States) was a particularly special experience for the kids. Volunteers had a few live insects out to talk about and interact with the visitors. Other highlights include hands-on activities, tarantula feedings, a butterfly pavilion, and a variety of insects from around the world.
Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals
The Hope Diamond is another highlight for the museum. Located on the second floor by the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals, it was donated to the Smithsonian Institute in 1958 by Harry Winston. Learn more about the Hope Diamond here.
Along with the Hope Diamond, there are plenty of beautiful gems and minerals on display in the 20,000 square foot exhibit. We especially loved the variety of colors and the hands-on activities to learn about the differences between a mineral and a rock or the impact of a meteorite based on the size, speed, and other characteristics.
David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins
The 15,000 square foot David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins explores human evolution over the past 6 million years. In this section, you will find the only original Neanderthal skeleton fossil housed in the United States, over 75 replicas of early human fossil skulls from around the world (photo above), lifelike head reconstructions, Stone Age art, and a morphing station to see how you would look as an early human.
David H. Koch Hall of Fossils
The new David H. Koch Hall of Fossils finally opened after we moved to Los Angeles (updating this post in 2020), but we luckily got the chance to see it last autumn during a quick trip back to visit family. This large 31,000 square foot section of the museum is filled with nearly 700 fossil specimens with a focus on ancient ecosystems 4.6 billion years ago to the evolution of life and the impact of the changing climate today. Notable fossils include a Megaloceros giganteus (Irish Elk), Tyrannosaurus rex, Ceraurus pleurexanthemus (Trilobite), Palmacites (Palm frond), and Triceratops.
The kids were also very excited to come across a Saber-Toothed Cat fossil that was recovered from back home in Los Angeles at the La Brea Tar Pits (you can find my post on Rocky Road Cookies and Los Angeles: La Brea Tar Pits here).
Ocean Terrace Café
The dining space for the Ocean Terrace Café has been newly renovated and reopened in 2019. The cafe features “sustainable items, seasonally available local produce, artisan craft foods, vegetable focused entrees, and the reduced use of proteins.” One of the highlights of the new space is the 52-foot-long, over 2,000 pound, model of a Mega-Toothed Shark hanging from the ceiling directly next to the dining area.
The museum’s larger Atrium Café is located on the ground floor. Outside food is prohibited. Q?rius is also located on the ground flour next to the café. This educational center was made for ages 11 and up. We didn’t get to visit as it is closed on Sundays and Mondays, but the Q?rius Jr. discovery room is for visitors under the age of 10.
Looking for more Natural History Museums in the United States?
Check out my posts on Dark Chocolate Chips Cookies and New York City: American Museum of Natural History, Times Square and Strawberry White Chocolate Milkshake and Philadelphia: Reading Terminal Market, Academy of Natural Sciences, and Rittenhouse Square.
It was Evan’s idea to put together a Dinosaur Bento after visiting the museum. He wanted to make a Stegosaurus sandwich with pepperoni and mozzarella and we built the other components of the bento around that initial idea. Inspiration for this box came from Wendolonia (check out my review of her book here). Other fun options include these adorable kiwi dinosaur eggs, using cucumber instead of pepperoni in the sandwiches, and this triceratops sandwich.
For the Stegosaurus-shaped mozzarella and pepperoni sandwich, I used the cookie cutter part of these Dinosaur Fossil Cutters to create the outline (to see how the fossil stamp works, check out my Medenjaci- Croatian Gingerbread Honey Cookies).
I placed a slice of mozzarella cheese between two slices of bread, then cut it with the stegosaurus cutter. Using scissors, I cut off the bony plates on the back, then placed a large slice of pepperoni next to the cheese so that it rests just above the legs. I removed the excess, minus about 1/2 inch, hanging from the back, then cut out bony plates or spikes from the pepperoni. The sandwich can stay like this or you can grill it in a skillet over medium heat until the cheese is a little melty and the bread is toasted on both sides. This final step also helps keep everything in place in the Dinosaur Bento.
I paired the sandwich with steamed sesame broccoli, cherry tomatoes, soy sauce eggs with a cracked look inspired by tea eggs, and pretzel sticks. These dinosaur picks on Amazon were a fun and easy way for the kids to eat the vegetables and bring together the Dinosaur Bento theme.
I personally like the look of the cracked soy sauce eggs, but lately the kids have also enjoyed using this dinosaur hard-boiled egg mold on Amazon to form the egg into the shape of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull (photo below).
Dinosaur Bento Recipe
- 4 eggs
- 3/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 2 inch piece ginger sliced
- 1 head broccoli
- Pinch salt
- 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds ground
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 8 slices white sandwich bread
- 4 slices Mozzarella
- 4 large slices pepperoni
- 1 cup pretzel sticks
- 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes
- Lettuce leaves for lining bento
To make the eggs:
- Place a bowl of ice water next to the stove.
- Place the eggs in a saucepan and cover completely with cold water. Bring to a boil, cover, remove from heat, and allow to sit for 15 minutes.
- Immediately transfer the eggs to the ice water. Once cool enough to handle, use a spoon to gently crack the eggs all over without removing the shell.
- Empty the saucepan and add the soy sauce, water, brown sugar, and ginger. Bring to a boil, then add the cracked eggs. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to rest for another 30 minutes.
- Peel the eggs and refrigerate until ready to serve.
To make the broccoli:
- Cut the broccoli into florets and place in a steamer basket. Steam until bright green, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt.
- In a small bowl, combine the white sesame seeds, soy sauce, and sugar. Transfer the broccoli to a bowl and toss with the sesame seed mixture. Adjust seasonings to taste.
To make the sandwich:
- Placed a slice of mozzarella between two slices of bread. Cut it with the stegosaurus or desired dinosaur cutter. Cut off the bony plates on the back, then place a large slice of pepperoni next to the cheese so that it rests just above the legs. Remove the excess, minus about 1/2 inch, hanging from the back, then cut out bony plates or spikes from the pepperoni.
- The sandwich can stay like this or grill in a lightly greased skillet over medium heat until the cheese is slightly melty and the bread is toasted on both sides. Repeat with remaining bread, cheese, and pepperoni.
- Line the bottom of the bento with lettuce leaves if desired. Top with dinosaur sandwich. Using silicone liners or dividers, arrange the sesame broccoli in another section. Add some cherry tomatoes and picks if desired. In another section, add the pretzel sticks, breaking them in half if needed. Top with a soy sauce egg.
- Serve immediately or safely store for lunch, allowing everything to cool completely to room temperature before closing the bento.