Stuffies, Rocks and Glass Flowers – Harvard Museum of Natural History

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Harvard Museum of Natural History: photo credit Tripadvisor UK

Sometimes the best tourism lies in your own backyard and it just takes 10 days of freezing evil New England weather to remind you of that. This is the time of year when a beautiful walk along the Boston waterfront, the frantically busy Esplanade or in Boston Garden is just O-U-T. Frostbite is fun, but not so much.

My favorite museum in the Boston area is the Harvard Museum of Natural History. What, you say? No Museum of Fine Arts? Isabella Stewart Gardner? Museum of Science? Aquarium? (okay I waver on that…call it a tie, except I HATE the aquarium store for its plastic yuck. Aren’t we supposed to be clearing the oceans of plastic? Ah, the irony). Nope. If you know me, it’s actually not a surprise at all–my favorite Chicago museum is the Field Museum of Natural History, my favorite in NY…well, hang on a second, that’s the Met, but the American Museum of Natural History is waaaay up there.

For those of you who would rather stick a fossil in your eye than go to a museum, especially with kids who tire easily, this is the best place ever to spend a couple of hours. It’s relatively small, you can contain your visit to one or two areas or even expand out to the wonderful (in another blog) Peabody Museum of Archaelogy and Ethnicity (attached to this museum and same entrance fee) or the tiny but interesting (and free) Semitic Museum across the street (we went for the first time last week–really good stuff).

So, what I understand from Harvard’s website is that the Harvard Museum of Natural History (can we just call in HMNH, or Hamunahi? Can I join the marketing team? I work at Hamunahi, you?) was formed in a merger of the plant-y museum, the rock-y museum and the stuffies group. Oh all right, the Herbaria, the Geological and the Animal research groups got together and said, hey! Let’s merge and get people to pay to see the stuff that we do all day! So they did, in 1998. The contemporary date belies the truth (and let’s face, I love to razz anything Harvard because I am from Connecticut): the herbarium contains the largest university collection in the world,  the geological museum wins the prize for the oldest American university collection, and well, the animals; I will say that this is the weakest link. No prize. Lots of motheaten stuffies. As my son points out, many of them are COMPLETELY anatomically correct and ummm, intact. Also possibly excited when they were killed. But I digress into fifth-grader-hood.

Now, if you decide to pay for membership (please do, maybe they will patch the stuffies), do not expect your membership card to EVER arrive. It has been a year and a half since we renewed and no new card. No sticker to put on old card. Lots of apologetic membership interns when I tell them every two months. Who cares? They’ll let you in anyway. Not sure if it’s reciprocal with any other museum but possibly Field. Pay your $12 (adults) or $8 kids, it is totally worth it. Just for the glass flowers.

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Glass (yes, GLASS!) maple tree leaves. Photo credit: HMNH

When we first visited the museum in fall 2015,  the glass flowers exhibit had just closed for renovations. I, for one, was “like, who cares?” (add teenager accent), who wants to see a bunch of crystal dahlias? Oh my, was I ever dopey. The exhibit re-opened in May 2016 (you can see the Boston Globe’s write-up here) and it is simultaneously glorious, stupefying and overwhelming. While description is difficult, it is 4,000 glass plants and flowers (not all on exhibit at one time) with excruciatingly detailed work in leaves and flowers and seeds…and the colors….and the tiny minute correctness of it all. Made from 1887-1936 by a father and son in Germany, they were commissioned by Harvard (with underwriting from an alum’s family, the Wares). The story is fascinating and it’s all on wikipedia, if you want to go there. Even my restless 11-year olds marvel at this exhibit.

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More glass flowers. Photo credit: HMNH

Another favorite of the boys is a touchscreen computer tree of life. You can see how you are related to a hippopatumus, or why we share 40% of our genetic map with a banana. No, that one you can’t see but you can check out the branches all the way up, all the way down and across. The kids spend 10 minutes here every time and will wait patiently if other kids are on it.

While the kids take a spin around evolution, I like to look at the embalmed little creatures. And big creatures. I really never understand the point of these murky glass containers of say, grey eels but what the heck? The alternative is looking at the spiders and I really don’t need that. There’s a nice film about something in a little room that I watch every single time and then promptly forget the point of it. Aging is a bitch.

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BUGS!!! Photo credit: HMNH

Ah, then its time to check out the bug spirals. I like the bug and butterfly displays because I like to think of the people pressing little pins through bug abdomens (wait, not so much that part) and deciding if Buggus Maximus is next to Buggus Blue-us or what. Also the bees. Lots of bees are in the museum (behind plastic, relax) in the summer. I assume they winter in Florida because the whole display disappears for a few months each winter.

The special exhibits are always worth it. Last week it was World in a Drop and I’m sure it’s hanging around for a while. Lots of things live in a drop of river water. Some you want to know about, some you do not.

Then we’re off into the dinosaur and huge turtle shell room. I have to say I have mixed feelings on this space. Yes, Harvard has a triceratops head and the world’s only mounted Kronosaurus (it is always possible to win on something: World’s Only Skeleton missing half a thumb! We’ve got it!) but let’s be honest: the Kronosaurus is a marine reptile and not a dinosaur. The triceratops is missing its body. If you’re running short on time, you might want to skip this space and just go to NY. I am so going to hear it from the Boston folks on that comment. Wait, there is the most complete triceratops skeleton ever found in the Museum of Science, Boston. Go there. It’s close. His name is Cliff. True story.


Then it’s rooms of stuffies. I have to say this about the stuffies: there are a LOT of them. Let me look at the website to see the superlative…whoops, they split up the stuffies into Africa, Asia, Birds of the World. I highly recommend Birds of the World which just got cleaned and the feathers are shiny. I must say the big cats are in needs of a big wash and a needle and thread. My kids love the stuffies because well, where else can you stand right next to a giraffe and say, whoa, that’s big. Ah yes, Africa, but they kick there. Very very big whale skeleton to look in. Stuffies.


Sometimes they have special events that involve looking through dirt for bugs. My kids are in for those. I feel a bit sorry for these beetles getting poked about but who knows? Maybe it’s more exciting than getting eaten by live birds outside.

Twins looking through dirt.

After the stuffies we’re off to the rocks. If you are a rock, gem and mineral maniac, you have found the place. It is mind-blowing. So many rocks. So many gems. So many varieties. We like to go here to look for the rocks and minerals from Brazil. We shout our finds back and forth in the cavernous room and I am sure everyone loves us.

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Rocks room. Or this room rocks. Photo credit: HMNH

The shop is worth a look of course and then it’s time to head out for lunch. It’s Cambridge and there are lots of choices. Just don’t choose the Chinese food truck out front: Nico got food-poisoning there and missed his first day of third grade because of it. Highly recommend a walk through Harvard Yard and down the street to Maharaja (Indian). Then stop by the Harvard Coop for lots of intellectual books you won’t read (my son did buy a book on Niccolo Macchiavelli and read a few pages) and an overpriced Harvard scarf. The red line T for Harvard Square is right there to shoot you home for a nap about glass flowers and kronosaurus. A lovely day out.

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