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.
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 peoples and cultures over time in the realms of family, work, community, and the natural environment.”
Objects of Wonder is located on the second floor until 2019. 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.
In The Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World, Evan and Claire were able to see fossils of dinosaurs, scientists working in the FossiLab, and more.
The Bone Hall opened 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.” For those unable to visit the museum in person, check out the exhibit’s page for images and an app to use at home.
The O. Orkin Insect Zoo was a particularly special experience for the kids. Volunteers had a few live insects out to talk about and interact with the visitors. There were also a few other hands-on activities and insects to view.
The Hope Diamond is another highlight for the museum. Located on the second floor by the Gems and Minerals Exhibit, 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 to view in the The Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals. We especially loved all the colors. The Geology section was another favorite for Evan.
The museum’s Atrium Café is located on the ground floor, but it is currently closed for renovations until Spring 2019. Café Natural is also located on the ground flour, with limited seating, and offers sandwiches, specialty coffees, ice cream, and homemade desserts. Outside food is prohibited. When visiting the museums on the National Mall, we often take advantage of the abundance of restaurants available in nearby Penn Quarter. For this particular visit, we enjoyed breakfast at Teaism beforehand. The kids loved sitting near the koi pond in the downstairs dining area.
Q?rius is also located on the ground flour next to the café. This educational center was made for ages 11 and up. Check out the hours here. We didn’t get to visit because it is closed on Sundays and Mondays, but the Q?rius Jr. discovery room is for visitors under the age of 10. Other exhibits currently housed in the museum include: Butterfly Pavilion (admission required), Nature’s Best Photography (temporary), Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend (until 2019), Life in One Cubic Foot, The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, Birds of D.C., Mud Masons, the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, and Mummies.
Looking for more things to do in Washington DC? Check out my posts on the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Smithsonian National Zoological Park, and the nearby Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and Old Town Alexandria.
It was Evan’s idea to put together a Dinosaur Bento after visiting the museum.
His favorite part was the Stegosaurus-shaped mozzarella and pepperoni sandwich (which I grilled briefly for a more grilled cheese touch). I used these the cookie cutter part of these Dinosaur Fossil Cutters to create the guide for the sandwich (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 dinosaur cutter. I used scissors to 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. None of the scraps went to waste here, since I tend to snack along the way. 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.
I paired the sandwich with steamed sesame broccoli, cherry tomatoes, soy sauce eggs with a cracked look inspired by tea eggs, and pretzel sticks. I came across these dinosaur picks and they were a fun and easy way for the kids to eat the vegetables and bring together the Dinosaur Bento theme.
Inspiration for this box came from Wendolonia (check out my review of her book here). Other ideas I came across include these adorable kiwi dinosaur eggs, using cucumber instead of pepperoni in the sandwiches, and this triceratops sandwich.
Dinosaur Bento Recipe
- 4 eggs
- 3/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 inch piece ginger sliced
- 1 head broccoli
- Pinch salt
- 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds ground
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons 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, using a spoon to occasionally turn the eggs, and cook for 10 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.