At the heart of the world’s most visited natural history museum lies a collection and scientific community like no other. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s collections of over 145 million objects form an unprecedented scientific and cultural resource, and its community of scientists uncover invaluable new knowledge about our natural and cultural world each day. Take a peek into some of the wonders of these amazing collections.
The National Museum of Natural History's mission—understanding the natural world and our place in it—is carried out by our talented staff of scientists, educators, and other professionals. The Museum is an important center for scientific discovery across many fields, and our scientific research is the foundation for our exhibitions.
In 2015 alone, the museum's scientists made significant strides toward developing a better understanding of the evolution of the early solar system and our planet, and generated new insights into Earth processes such as volcanic activity and plate tectonics. Museum scientists discovered new human occupation sites, refining our understanding of movements and distributions of early populations, and provided insight into cultural practices from areas as diverse as Mali and Papua New Guinea. NMNH scholars also added significantly to our collective knowledge of the Earth's biodiversity, contributing to the description of 3 new families, 56 new genera, and 454 new species. And they documented important changes in ecological structure and biodiversity patterns over time due to human impacts.
In this virtual age, the Museum provides a special opportunity to see and interact with real things. You can examine stardust that is older than the Solar System, get nose‐to‐nose with some of the largest creatures to walk the Earth, and compare fossils of early humans that came and went long ago. These treasures belong to the National Collections—an unsurpassed trove of more than 145 million natural and cultural objects that enables scientists and the public alike to better understand our world.
The over 40 million specimens and samples of the Museum's paleobiology collections record the history of life on our planet over the last 2.5 billion years, from the first single-celled organisms to the largest creatures to have roamed Earth's lands and ocean. These collections shed important insights on changing ecosystems now and in the future.
The Burgess Shale Fossils, first discovered by a Smithsonian scientist, tell the important story of the Cambrian Explosion, a sudden surge of diversity starting around 600 million years ago in which many new groups of animals evolved. Formed by an underwater mudslide in what is now Canada, rare fossils of both soft- and hard-bodies marine organisms offer a glimpse of this ancient world.
Megaloceros is often called the “Irish Elk,” although it was neither exclusively Irish nor an elk. This giant deer ranged across northern Eurasia from Siberia to Ireland, shedding and re‐growing its giant antlers every year. The last of the species in western and northern Europe went extinct about 10,000 years ago. This specimen was uncovered from peat bogs in Ireland, environments that have revealed other well preserved examples.
This giant deer is the Smithsonian’s oldest mounted fossil skeleton. It’s been on display since 1872. Temporarily taken off display for the renovation of the National Fossil Hall, it will proudly return to display when the new hall reopens in 2019.
The Museum engages in extensive research in the field of vertebrate zoology, or the study of animals with backbones, covering the subject matter of fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. It holds the largest collection of vertebrate specimens in the world, including historically important collections from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
“Martha,” a passenger pigeon named after George Washington’s wife, was the last of her kind. Immediately following her death in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens, she was packed in an enormous 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian.
The passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, was once the most common bird in the United States, numbering in the billions. Passenger pigeons lived in enormous colonies, with sometimes up to 100 nests in a single tree. Migrating flocks stretched a mile wide, turning the skies black. Bird painter John James Audubon, who watched them pass on his way to Louisville in 1813, described “the continued buzz of wings,” and said “the air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse…” When he reached his destination, 55 miles away, the birds were still passing overhead, and “continued to do so for three days in succession.” The passenger pigeon, a wild bird, is not to be confused with the carrier pigeon, a domesticated bird trained to carry messages.
With such abundance, it seemed unimaginable that the passenger pigeon could ever become extinct. But due to overhunting, habitat loss, and possibly infectious diseases that spread through the colonies, they became increasingly rare by the late nineteenth century. The last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon was in 1900. After that, only a few survived in captivity. “Martha,” who lived her whole 29-year life in the Cincinnati Zoo, was the last.
In the late 19th century, the American bison, also known as the American buffalo, was on the verge of extinction. Once numbering in the tens of millions, only a few hundred were thought to remain in the wild. Smithsonian taxidermist, William Temple Hornaday, raced west to Montana Territory to collect and preserve bison specimens for future generations before they went extinct. What he witnessed moved him to become a conservationist. Together with his friend Theodore Roosevelt, he helped found the American Bison Society to help protect the species. He championed the creation of the Smithsonian National Zoo, whose founding animals included a number of bison. He also started successful captive breeding of bison when he later became the first director of the Bronx Zoo.
Thanks to efforts by Hornaday and other conservationists, the American bison population has recovered from the brink of extinction and now number over half a million. On May 9, 2016, the bison was designated the United States’ first national mammal, becoming a symbol of our nation alongside the bald eagle.
Meet Phoenix! A 1,043-kg (2,300-lb) model of an actual North Atlantic right whale. Accurate in every detail, she’s big and beautiful! She’s one of about 400 of these whales left in the world. Tracked since birth, Phoenix and her story link every corner of the Museum’s Sant Ocean Hall. Her big size means a big appetite: some 2,200 pounds of krill every day!
Centuries of commercial whaling brought North Atlantic right whales to the brink of extinction. Today, entanglements with fishing gear and ship strikes continue to hamper this species’ recovery. Now heroic conservation efforts protect this highly endangered species.
Gracing the center of the museum's dramatic rotunda is the largest mounted specimen of the world’s largest living land animal. This African bush elephant stands 13 ft 2 inches (4 m) tall at the shoulder and was estimated to weigh nearly 24,000 lbs (11 metric tons) when he was alive. His ivory tusks weighed about 93 lbs each (42 kg)—too heavy to mount, so those on display are fiberglass replicas. He was about 55 years old when killed by big game hunter Josef J. Fénykövi in Angola in 1955.
Elephants are under threat from poaching largely due to illegal ivory trade, as well as from habitat loss.Today, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is engaged in the study and conservation of elephants in both the wild and in captive populations.
Approximately 55 million specimens form the Museum’s collections of invertebrate zoology, or the study of animals without backbones. They range from tiny crustaceans that are the base of marine food webs, to elusive 13m‐long (43ft) giant squid, to the 20 million specimens of the National Parasite Collection that inform the study of subjects such as emerging infectious diseases.
This male Atlantic giant squid, Architeuthis dux, is one of the largest living species of invertebrates. Reaching lengths of 13 m (43 ft) with tentacles reaching 10 m (33 ft) in length, it is not hard to imagine why these creatures have long been the subject of stories of fantasy and fear. Living in the depths of the ocean, they were largely studied through dead samples found floating at sea or washed ashore. Only in the last few years have living giant squid been documented in their natural environment of the deep ocean.
The U.S. National Entomological Collection is one of the largest insect collections in the world. Its 35 million specimens include 100,000 holotypes and over 300,000 species representing approximately 60% of know insect families. This rich collection helps scientists understand biodiversity, study insects important to the nation's agriculture and security, and research the transmission of insect-borne diseases.
The U.S. National Herbarium is housed within the botany department of the National Museum of Natural History. Numbering over 5 million specimens, it is among the top ten largest in the world. Many of the plant groups represented in the U.S. National Herbarium rank among the finest, largest, or best curated. The extremely important Type Herbarium includes almost 90,000 specimens.
These collections assist scientists in important research such as:
Studying the changing ranges of plants through time
Tracking the spread of invasive species
Documenting plant diseases
Locating rare and endangered plant species
Identifying the relationships between plants, insects, and animals
Documenting changes in levels of carbon dioxide, pollution, and temperature over time and their effects on plants
Providing material for medical studies
One of the world’s most famous gems, The Hope Diamond's history of mystery and intrigue—as much as its size, beauty, and rare color—lure millions of visitors a year. The Hope was cut from the famous French Blue, a fabulous 115-carat diamond brought from India to France in 1668. King Louis XIV had the diamond recut, reducing it to 69 carats. More than a century later, during the French Revolution, the diamond mysteriously disappeared.
A 45.52-carat blue diamond—almost certainly the recut French Blue—turned up in London two decades later and was apparently sold to England's King George IV. From there, it came into the hands of Henry Philip Hope and then passed back and forth between diamond merchants and collectors in London, New York, Paris, and Washington, D.C. Finally, in November 1958, jeweler Harry Winston presented the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution and the American people.
The Museum’s U.S. National Meteorite Collection consists of 45,000 specimens of more than 20,000 distinct meteorites. This meteorite, known as Allan Hills ALH 84001, is one of the most famous meteorites in the world. It was discovered in 1984 in Antarctica by a U.S. meteorite-hunting expedition and was determined to have originated on Mars 4.1 billion years ago at a time when there may have been liquid water on that planet. It achieved fame in 1996 when NASA scientists conducted microscopic and chemical analysis on the meteorite and identified structures that resembled fossil bacteria within it. The possible evidence of extraterrestrial life made headlines around the world. While the possibility that life existed on Mars remains a topic of ongoing debate, there is no doubt that Allan Hills has contributed to the ongoing interests for exploring Mars and uncovering life beyond our planet.
Can you guess which artist created this sculptural work of art?
This was created by none other than Mother Nature. These pyrite crystals formed exactly as you see them. Their cubic shape mirrors the internal cubic arrangement of iron and sulfur atoms. Because of its color and luster, pyrite is also known as fool's gold.
This is a specimen of smithsonite, a mineral named after James Smithson, the founding donor of the Smithsonian. He was an English scientist who lived c. 1765-1829. In a secondary clause in his will, he left his fortune to the United States of America—a place he never visited—to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
The chemical name for smithsonite is zinc carbonate (ZnCO3), and it is one of a group of ores that yield the metal zinc. It was named in honor of Smithson because it was he who first identified the mineral in 1802.
When Smithson began to conduct his experiments on zinc ores, there was much confusion surrounding the mineral that at that time was known generally as calamine. Miners and metalworkers had long known that some kinds of calamine produced zinc, while other specimens—which contained zinc and appeared identical—did not. Through careful analysis and the skillful use of an instrument called a blowpipe, Smithson revealed that what was called “calamine” was not in fact a single substance but essentially two distinct minerals: zinc carbonate (which was later named smithsonite) and zinc silicate (which came to be called hemimorphite). He identified the carbonate as a good ore for zinc and the silicate as a poor one.
Treasured Remains: A Real Neanderthal
This fossilized Neanderthal skeleton is one of 10 individuals excavated from Shanidar Cave in Iraq. The site yielded one of the largest samples of Neanderthal fossils found anywhere in the world.
Scientists uncovered more than 130 bones and many small fragments of just this one individual. Assembling them into a single skeleton was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle.
It was discovered in 1957 in Shanidar Cave, Iraq. Between 1953 and 1960, the skeletons of seven other adults and two infants were excavated from the same cave. The fossils were discovered in sediments about 13.7 m (45 ft) deep along with stone tools, hearths, and evidence of purposeful burials.
Who Was This Individual?
Scientists estimate he was a 40- to 50-year-old male, about 1.69 m (5 ft 6 in) tall. He suffered from arthritis and most likely died from a stab wound to his chest. He may have been buried by members of his group or by a rock fall from the cave roof.
Using the latest forensic science, museum experts solve puzzles regarding significant historic events, people and places. Here, forensic anthropologists excavate 17th-century burials from the Brick Chapel at Historic St. Mary’s City, the first Roman Catholic church in English America, shedding light on the lives and burial practices of early Americans.
The museum’s experts and anthropological collections play an important role for communities to recover indigenous knowledge and to preserve endangered languages and world views. They reflect important historical expeditions of discovery, and help document changes to cultures over time, including the impacts of climate change and globalization.
This weatherproof cape is made out of seal intestines in traditional Aleutian manner but constructed in the style of a cloak worn by Russian officers. Capes such as these were often presented as gifts to visiting captains and dignitaries. Charles Wilkes, leader of the important U.S. Exploring Expedition (the first American expedition dedicated to scientific exploration to circumnavigate the globe), acquired this cape in 1839 in the Pacific Island of Moo’rea, French Polynesia. Its hybrid of indigenous materials and European style, along with its lengthy travel from artic regions to the south Pacific documents the impacts of cross-cultural influences and global trade in the 19th century. Objects like this collected during the U.S. Exploring Expedition became part of the founding collections of the Smithsonian Institution. This rare cape, seldom seen by the public, will be on display in the upcoming exhibit, Objects of Wonder: From the Collections of the National Museum of Natural History.
This ceremonial human-raven mask was collected by Franz Boas from the Bella Coola (Nuxalk) culture on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Masks such as this represented supernatural beings, which the people of the Northwest believed were integral parts of their world.
Franz Boas was one of the most influential anthropologists of his time and is often called both the “Father of modern anthropology” and the “Father of American anthropology”. His ideas helped shape anthropology into the rich field of study it is today.
The National Museum of Natural History is home to hundreds of diplomatic gifts given to the United States by nations around the world. These gifts were given to presidents, vice presidents, members of congress and other government officials. They were given to commemorate important events such as the signing of treaties, anniversaries such as our centennial and bicentennial, and as tokens of friendship to the American people. These items are held in trust at the museum for the nation.
The first state gifts presented to the United States were given by the nation of Japan to Commodore Matthew C. Perry, leader of the historic Japan Expedition (1853-54) that ended Japan's self-imposed isolation from the western world, beginning a lasting diplomatic, economic and cultural relationship between two Pacific Rim nations.
In feudal Japan, war fans (uchiwa dansen) were carried by high-ranking samurai officers. This war fan was part of a number of items from the Perry Expedition. The artist of the woodcut prints on both sides of the fan is the reknown ukiyo-e master, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). The fan would have been presented to Perry while Hiroshige was alive and practicing the final years of his craft. Items from the expedition became some of the founding objects of the Smithsonian's anthropology collections.
The museum’s national collections are a vital resource for understanding our natural world and our place in it, reflecting and informing ongoing new discoveries, and deepening scientific and cultural knowledge. Its contents are held in perpetual trust for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people.
This exhibit is published by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Content courtesy of Smithsonian Books, excerpted from
The Official Guide to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum
© Smithsonian Institution 2014
Special Thanks To:
NNMNH Office of Exhibits
Produced by Charles Chen
Exhibit Developer / Experiential Technologist
NMNH Office of Exhibits