Monday, October 06, 2008

Nature attraction review – Harvard Museum of Natural History

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is probably not what one would call a major attraction for the city of Boston but of course I couldn't resist a trip. Although its only a small(ish) museum, its association with Harvard and the years of zoological/botanical geniuses (genii?) associated therewith should make its potential for naturegeek awesomeness obvious.



Lets be clear right away – HMNH has some awesome specimens. The one that leaps out (though not from this page because its so immense as to be unphotographable in situ) was the Kronosaurus. At one point I considered stiching a series of shots of this together to try and do it justice but I just couldn't make it work. Kronosaurus is a 20 metre or so long reptilian predator – think of a croc with whale flippers instead of legs. Checking this out is worth the price of admission alone. There is also the famous Harvard Mastodon, a huge turtle and a really nice assembly of other Pleistocene fossils.

direwolf PE

Dire Wolf (Canis dirus)

Next up was the stuffed, erm, stuff. I'm always a bit torn by stuffed extant animals. I'd rather see them alive in the wild or perhaps a zoological facility but since they were mostly collected long ago I don't so much have an ethical issue with it as just find it kind of sad. This section really looks dated in my view. Some of the specimens are falling to pieces and showing real signs of wear and tear and unless I miss my guess no-one's updated some sections for modern taxonomy in some time – the name Sphryna tudes has been reapplied away from the Great Hammerhead for example and Ursus horribilis is the name used for Grizzly bears as opposed to Ursus arctos horribilis – I'd have kind of expected someone working there to be geeky enough to have those changed.


Northern Right Whale

The other thing I didn't like was the feeling of a lack of space. This is an issue throughout but in the mammals sections everything is packed really densely. It makes photography pretty much impossible but (far more importantly) it creates this horrible cluttered warehouse feel which is not at all welcoming. Make sure you look up throughout to avoid missing roof mounted specimens (some cool whales for example) and stuff packed away on high shelves. I much preferred the roomier environs of NY's American Museum of Natural History and in particular the combination of mounts into nice diaramas as opposed to packing them into victorian looking cases. Less would I think be more here as several specimens are repeated and I'm curious as to whether having more than one lion on display is necessary when one of the "spares" is splitting its seams and falling to pieces. On the other hand the sense of history from the setting is tangible and looking at fossils like Harvard's Megatherium or Mastodon one can actually imagine Jefferson and co checking them out prior to sending out Lewis and Clark to try to find the live ones all those years ago.
One really unique attraction at HMNH is its array of glass reconstructions - basically 2 brothers from Germany prepared sets of glass recreations of plants and invertebrates to illustrate their structure. These are absolutely amazing although to be honest a glass model of some grass pretty much looks the same as actual grass. the invertebrates are sensational though.
In summary HMNH is well worth a look. Its pretty small and it won't take long to take it in so if you're in the area drop in for an hour or two and check it out - if you only have a little time do the fossils and skip the modern halls.

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