Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Five Best Animals At the Museum

A few weekends back, my wife and I took the kids into the city and met up with my wife's brother and his wife at the Natural History Museum. It was a lot of fun, and I admit to being pleasantly surprised by how well it went over with our brood. We've taken the two older kids to zoos and aquariums before, but despite the superficial similarities a natural history museum is very different because there's nothing living and moving to hold the little ones' attention. Or so I thought, but once we got there the exhibits still managed to be pretty enthralling. Not for the baby, per se (who was nonetheless perfectly content to be pushed around in a stroller for a couple hours), but for his bigger siblings, definitely. And while the little guy has long had an avid interest in science and facts and the general oh-look-isn't-this-interesting vibe that a good museum can convey, I wasn't sure if the little girl would be as into it (given the difference in both age and proclivities). And yet she was, in her own way. So, good times.

We probably covered significantly less than half the exhibits in the museum, but we still managed to take in what felt like quite a bit of biodiversity. Here I would like to present, in no particular order, five of the standout animals we spent some time admiring the lifelike simulacra of.

(Honorable mention: Yes, of course, the dinosaur fossils and reconstructions were a big hit, especially with the little guy, it probably goes without saying. I am digging a bit deeper than that, because otherwise I would just be talking about five different species of saurians and the little guy's ability to distinguish between a diceratops and a triceratops, &c. But I will come back to dinos at least tangentially within the list proper.)

1. Pangolin - OK, no particular order, but I'm starting off with my personal favorite, because it's my list. Seriously, have you ever seen a pangolin? These things are fascinating, mostly because they look made-up:

They are mammals but they are covered in huge scales, with claws that look like fingers, and overall they basically seem to belong somewhere mid-list on a Wandering Monsters encounter table in a Dungeons & Dragons manual. Forget toads, owls, and black cats; this is the kind of fantasy familiar that a self-respecting wizard or witch should have perched on their shoulder, I say.

The museum display for the pangolin was pretty cool for the kids, too, because it consisted of a huge replica of a termite mound, with a pangolin on one side and an aardvark on the other, and if you walked all the way around to the far side you could actually go inside the mound to check out the little insects trying to avoid becoming food. My little guy had no idea what a termite even was, which I at first thought was passing strange and possibly indicated that we didn't let him play outside enough. But then I realized I probably learned what termites were from Bugs Bunny cartoons or something, and he isn't really exposed to those. Mystery solved.

2. Sea Scorpion - Sea scorpions also look like fantasy creatures, but that has a lot to do with the fact that they are prehistoric ocean predators and a lot has changed in 300 million years. Also, whereas pangolins are kind of freaky-cool and charming, sea scorpions are terrifying. But! They are mentioned by name and depicted in a painting in one of the dinosaur books my little guy has at home (and basically knows by heart) and he was excited to see one recreated under glass. It was also accompanied by an actual fossilized shell fragment, which offered a keen teachable moment about paleontologists finding parts of prehistoric animals and extrapolating what the whole creature looked like. Bonus for that.

3. Butterflies - which were actually alive! The museum had a special butterfly habitat exhibit, which was basically a long narrow terrarium of a room kept very warm and very moist, with airlock-style doors at either end, and you had to buy separate admission tickets and wait in line to be let in. Totally worth it for the impressive number and variety of living butterflies inside. At that point we left the baby with his aunt and uncle and took the bigger kids in. My wife had the little guy and led him over to a demonstration where he got to hold a caterpillar, which tickled him in every sense. I carried the little girl, who was a bit too overwhelmed by the combination of crowd and confined space to walk on her own. But as long as I was holding her up, she enjoyed the view. I pointed out a few butterflies to her as they flitted around, and whenever she fixed her sights on one that was fluttering for more than a couple seconds, she would start wobbling her own head in a kind of sympathetic movement. This was adorable beyond words.

4. Chimpanzee - So towards one end of the hall of mammals there was a small theater with a movie playing on a loop, explaining how all mammals are related and what the first mother-of-all-mammals probably looked like and how the world transitioned from dinosaur dominance to mammalian triumph. The movie was in part "hosted" by a chimp, but the one I am specifically thinking of now was a bronze statue of a chimpanzee seated on one of the theater benches, facing the movie. Both of my older kids are a little bit obsessed with tv, so as soon as they saw a room with a big screen they wanted to stop and watch. At first they didn't even notice the chimp statue, but then eventually they started looking around, and spotted it, and immediately moved over to that bench and sat right next to it. Eventually they would have ended up in its lap or on its shoulders (perhaps one of each), except for the four adults urging them to move on to other parts of the museum when the movie was over.

Incidentally, after we left the small theater the little guy was immediately off and running with his own commentary and interpretation on the dinosaur-to-mammal transition, into which of course he inserted his not-at-all-on-the-wane obsession with dragons. A couple of fun facts (according to my son): one, dragons are both reptiles AND mammals, with several of the hallmark characteristics of each species; they have scales, but are warm-blooded (as fire-breathers must be) and they give birth to live young, although they feed them fish and snakes, not milk. And two, dragons have been around ever since the dinosaur age, but they escaped the mass extinction because when the giant asteroid was on its way toward Earth, the dragons saw it coming and flew into outer space to escape the terrible explosion and sun-blocking dust-storms and so forth, only to return later on. There's a tiny part of my brain that wonders if I should be indulging this tendency on the little guy's part to blow right past the legitimate wonders of actual science and misconstrue elements of fantasy as fact, but then I remember that he is five and, frankly, I am a lot older and I kind of still do the same thing (see: PANGOLINS). And I do find it amusing to wonder if any of the other museum patrons can hear this articulate little munchkin going on and on about dragons so matter-of-factly and pause in slight confusion to verify if there was a dragon exhibit they somehow overlooked.

5. Dung Beetle - So right at the entrance of the museum there is an elephant, which is an indisputably impressive animal, but even more impressive to me is the attention given to detail in assembling the entire free-standing diorama, including the local flora and fauna which might be found alongside the elephant. This extends so far as to include multiple dung beetles, doing their thing as it were. Which of course I had to point out to the little guy (because if you do not share opportunities for poop jokes with a five year old, you have no soul). This led ultimately to a lot more discussion about dung beetles and what they do and why they do it, and that in turn led to my wife searching YouTube for videos about dung beetles, and inevitably she found this:

Which has now entered into HEAVY rotation in our household, and rightly so, because it is hilarious.

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