10 Top Natural History Museums

Explore everything from the evolution of the universe to 85 million-year-old dinosaur skeletons at exhibits offered at these natural history museums around the globe.

When the older kids refuse to step foot in a children’s museum and the younger ones will be bored to tears in an art museum, usually a happy medium is a natural history museum. Everyone in the family can surely find something that will interest them, from dinosaurs to Egypt to evolution. While almost every major city can boast a museum focused on natural history, here are some of the stand-outs, split between the United States and international cities (in no particular order).

Top Natural History Museums in the United States

1. Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is astonishingly the size of 18 football fields, with 325,000 square feet of exhibitions and public space. That means a game plan is in order. The museum’s Web site is a great planning tool with family guides you can download before you visit, to help get kids excited. Once there, head straight to one of the kids’ museum exhibits like the Discovery Room, for interactive displays. One of my favorite exhibits is the newly renovated Sant Ocean Hall. The showpiece here is Phoenix, a 45-foot-long model of a real North Atlantic right whale that has been tracked since birth.

10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW., tel. 202-633-1000. www.mnh.si.edu. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Free admission.

2. Chicago

Sue, the world’s largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil, is the big draw at the Field Museum, but of course, there is much more to see here. Check out the 19,000-square-foot “Ancient Americas” exhibit, which explores 13,000 years of human history. Make sure to take your kids to the PlayLab where they can dress up as animals, examine insects in amber, pull out drawers and discover hidden objects, among other interactive activities. On weekends, check out special interpretive station activities located throughout the museum—see what your name looks like in Egyptian hieroglyphs, dissect an owl pellet or put together a map of Africa.

1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., tel. 312-922-9410. www.fieldmuseum.org. Open Mon. to Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets: adults, $15; children ages 3-11, $10.

3. New York City

The American Museum of Natural History has 45 halls to explore, but the museum’s fossil halls are by far the most popular attraction. Housing the world’s largest collection of vertebrate fossils, the museum showcases nearly one million specimens. Other must-sees include the Hall of Human Origins, which traces human evolution and the Hall of Meteorites, which boasts a 34-ton iron meteorite fragment called “Ahnighito.” The Discovery Room is a great way to get an overview of the museum for families. There are behind-the-scenes displays and every major field of museum science and research, from anthropology to zoology, is explained.

Main Entrance at 79th St. at Central Park West, tel. 212-769-5100. www.amnh.org. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Suggested general admission: adults $15; children $8.50.

4. Pittsburgh

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, with 20 exhibit halls, was founded in 1895 by Andrew Carnegie. The Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibit (formerly the Dinosaur Hall) is the big crowd-pleaser, with two Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons posed in mid-fight. The Hall of Ancient Egypt boasts 2,500 artifacts, including the showpiece—a 30-foot royal funerary boat that is more than 3,800 years old. Make sure you check out a “family museum bag” from the Discovery Room for an interactive family museum tour. Themes include “Visit My Home,” which directs you through a Polar World snow house and ends in a Southwest pueblo. Puzzles, books and touchable materials help kids better understand the exhibits.

4400 Forbes Ave., tel. 412-622-3131. www.carnegiemnh.org. Open Tues. to Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m; Sun., noon to 5 p.m. Tickets: adults, $15; children ages 3 to 18, $11.

5. Ann Arbor

The University of Michigan Exhibit Museum of Natural History’s main attraction is the Hall of Evolution which traces 600 million years of life on Earth through fossils, models, and dioramas. In the Michigan Wildlife Gallery, there’s a large collection of native Great Lakes birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, with taxidermy mounts and habitat scenes. Great ways for families to explore the museum are the downloadable themed scavenger hunts on the Web site.

1109 Geddes Ave., tel. 734-764-0478. www.lsa.umich.edu/exhibitmuseum. Open Mon. to Sat., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sun., noon to 5 p.m. Free admission for groups of 10 or fewer.

Next: Top International Natural History Museums

Top International Natural History Museums

1. Florence

While in Florence, you’ll most likely be drawn to its famous art museums, but save some time for the Museum of Natural History at the University of Florence, which was founded in 1775 and has millions of items in its collection. There are fossil elephant skeletons, a huge collection of butterflies, enormous tourmaline crystals, Aztec artifacts, and the world’s largest collection of anatomical waxworks made between 1770 and 1850. It is also home to Europe’s third oldest botanical garden.

Via La Pira 4, tel. +39-05-5234-6760. www.msn.unifi.it/index.html. Open Mon., Tues., Thurs., Fri., Sun. 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets: Adults, 6 euro (US $8); kids ages 6 to 14, 3 euro (US $4); family pass, 10 euro (US $13).

2. Beijing

The Beijing Museum of Natural History has 11 galleries to explore and invariably kids will want to head straight to Dinosaur World. Just as popular are the Aquarium Houses, with living aquatic life and the “Animal—the Friend of Human Being” exhibit. There are many interactive activities in this exhibit and even more in the Discovery Room, which has a new theme every week. Another exhibit that’s sure to interest children is the Cell Park, which is a model cell 400,000 times the size of a normal one.

126 Tianqiao South St., tel.+86-010-6702-4431. www.bmnh.org.cn/web/en/index.htm. Open daily 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets: adults, 15 yuan (US $1.80); children, 10 yuan (US $1.20).

3. London

The vast Natural History Museum is divided into color zones to help you navigate through the exhibits. Visit the Red Zone to learn about our planet. Inside, you can take an escalator up through a giant Earth sculpture made from iron, zinc and copper. In the Blue Zone, learn about human biology and mammals. The Green Zone focuses on ecology and in the Orange Zone, you’ll find a wildlife garden and the Darwin Centre (which opens in September 2009).

In the Central Hall, check out a replica of a Diplodocus dinosaur that lived 150 million years ago. There’s also a section of trunk from an enormous giant sequoia tree that was more than 1,300 years old when it was felled. There are dozens of ongoing programs and tours, but a lifesaver for parents is the “survival guide” found online that provides a lot of helpful information to plan a visit.

Cromwell Road at Exhibition Road, tel.+44-(0)20-7942-5000. www.nhm.ac.uk. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Free admission.

4. Copenhagen

The Natural History Museum of Denmark is actually a collection of museums: the Botanic Garden and the Botanical Museum & Library (now known as the Botanic Garden & Museum), the Geological Museum and the Zoological Museum. They are spread throughout the city. Depending on your interest, you can visit just one or all of the sites.

At the Geological Museum, the origin and evolution of everything from the origin of the universe to the evolution of man is explored. At the Zoological Museum, there are more than 10 million specimens, including mammoth and whale skeletons, among many others. The Botanical Garden & Museum, located in the heart of the city, is home to the largest collection of living plants in Denmark. The museum also houses one of the largest herbaria of plants and fungi from all over the world.

Københavns Universitet, Universitetsparken 15; tel. +45-3532-1032. snm.ku.dk/english. Each museum has different hours and fees. Visit the main Web site for information.

5. Ottawa

The Canadian Museum of Nature is undergoing renovations, which will last until 2010, but as updates are done, new sections open up. There is more than enough to keep any visitor occupied. Check out the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery, where you can see 25 complete skeletons from the end of the dinosaur era, 65 to 85 million years ago. The Bird Gallery lets you identify most of the birds of Canada, with 500 specimens while the Discovery Zone offers hands-on activities. In the Mammal Gallery, dozens of diorama scenes depict Canada’s wildlife in action, such as grizzlies, bison, moose, caribou, pronghorn antelope, cougars and others.

240 McLeod St., tel. 613-566-4700. nature.ca/nature_e.cfm. From Sept. to April, open Tues. through Sun. from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thurs., when the museum is open until 8 p.m. May through Sept., open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with extended hours to 8 p.m. on Wed. and Thurs. Tickets: CA$5; under age 3, free; family pass (5 people), CA$13.

Hours and prices were accurate at time of publication, but please verify before your visit as they often change.


Ann Arbor, New York City, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Ottawa, Beijing, Copenhagen, Florence, London, Washington

Art and Museums, Family Travel


Article by Kim Foley MacKinnon, originally written for TravelMuse

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