African bush elephant at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in DC

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is one of the premier attractions in Washington, D.C. The National Mall sees over 25 million visitors a year – more than Yellowstone, Yosemite, & the Grand Canyon combined. A wonderful combination of museums, monuments, memorials, and cultural attractions, all jam packed within a 2 mile span, makes this public park one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US, particularly with history buffs.

There are 19 Smithsonian museums in D.C., 11 of which are in The National Mall. The Museum of Natural History has long been a favorite of tourists, with over 4.8 million visitors in 2018. D.C. is now home to 4 of the top 20 most visited museums in the world. As of 2018, The National History Museum is the 7th most visited museum in the world, and 3rd in the US. This means that you must plan your trip accordingly and try to get here very early in the morning to maximize your time.

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in DC

This place can get so packed that at times it is hard to see anything. Oftentimes, there is a lengthy line wrapping around the building just to get in. With free admission and wonderful exhibits, it’s really no surprise that so many from around the world flock here on an annual basis. Plan for a weekday visit, if possible, to avoid the crowds! Definitely worth visiting though – out of all the free museums in D.C., this is one of my favorites!

What to do & see

First off, this museum is huge, as are all D.C. museums. The space is just so much more massive than you would expect. Over 126 million specimens and cultural artifacts are on display. It can be quite overwhelming when you first walk in amongst the throng of crowds. I recommend scanning the list of natural history exhibits online in advance. Concentrate on getting to your top attractions first, and then, see if you have extra time for any other exhibits. With so many interesting museums in the region, it’s best to budget your time!

Below are a few of the most notable exhibits you will definitely want to make room for!

African Bush elephant

African bush elephant at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in DC

One of the most recognizable sights at the Smithsonian is the iconic 11 ton, 13 foot tall African elephant named Henry. Henry, the largest elephant ever recorded, continues to wow visitors from all over, as he has since his debut in 1959. At this exhibit, you will learn more about African elephants, including poaching threats. Henry greets you in the rotuna as soon as you enter, so it’s quite impossible to miss!

The history of Taxidermy

history of Taxidermy

All the animals at the museum look incredibly lifelike and real, because they are real! Taxidermy is the practice of preserving an animal’s body through stuffing or mounting. Many believe the ancient Egyptians actually started the practice of taxidermy. Although the Egyptians preserved cats & dogs, taxidermy as we know it today began to thrive in 19th century England.

Natural history museums began using taxidermy as a way to research animals. Unfortunately, in the past, big game hunters donated the majority of the animals. Today, most donations come from zoos or private collectors. Taxidermy is a bit strange and creepy, although it is incredible to think that museums were able to preserve historically important animals. In a time before internet and TV, these displays were quite educational and extremely popular.

Hall of Mammals

Hall of Mammals at the Museum of Natural History in D.C.

In 2003, the Hall of Mammals replaced an old 1950’s style exhibit which featured many dioramas. Dioramas were popular glass enclosures which spotlighted recreated scenes from the wild. Staff placed taxidermied animals in scenes resembling their natural environment. Back in the days when these dioramas were popular, museums would employ a full staff of taxidermists.

At one time in history, these animals served an educational purpose for the millions of visitors wanting to learn more about these animals. This was back in the days before we had National Geographic and the Animal Planet. “They were the virtual reality machines of their age, the pre-television era, says David Skelley director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

In recent years, removal of these dioramas became the norm at many museums. Visitors saw these displays as outdated, and began to demand more modern tech friendly alternatives. In 2003, The Smithsonian removed most of these dated dioramas in favor of a new exhibit called the Hall of Mammals. This new section focused on displaying the animals in a scientific manner, emphasizing all the features mammals have in common.

Most of the animals for this exhibit came from zoos or private taxidermy collections. The last taxidermist retired from the Smithsonian in 2010. Strangely enough, a dated practice has once again has become popular. Museums today are seeing a resurgence in the popularity of taxidermy, which is now seen by many as a valuable throwback to the past.

Within this exhibit, you will see over 270 animals, some of which are now rare or extinct. Below are a few pictures from this exhibit.

Hall of Fossils

Hall of Fossils at the Museum of Natural History in D.C.

In this exhibit, you will be able to explore over 700 ancient fossils. Take a step back in time 4.6 billion years ago through various ecosystems, exploring the evolution of various animals and plants. Dinosaur lovers will love the Tyrannosaurus rex and Diplodocus fossils.

Dinosaur at Hall of Fossils at the Museum of Natural History in D.C.

Eternal Life in Anicent Egypt

Egypt exhibit at the Smithsonian museum in DC

This is one of the most intriguing and strange exhibits at the museum. Not as extensive as The Field Museum’s wonderful Inside Egypt exhibit, but still quite intriguing. You will be able to see how modern science was able to recover mummies from over 2000 years ago. Seeing all the different tools Egyptians used for their ancient mummification practice is both bizarre and fascinating at the same time.

The exhibit is very informative with much detail as to how and why the egyptians preserved and entombed their dead, the significance of amulets, why Egyptians worshipped cats, examples of ancient hieroglyphics, and much more. Three human and 16 animal mummies are currently on display.

The Egyptians also mummified cats, crocodiles, and other small animals. Egyptians worshipped the cat goddess Bastet. They believed that gods and goddesses could transform into animals. Some were mummified as offerings to the god, while others were mummified in hopes of joining their owners in the afterlife.

Below are a few of the cat mummies on display. Super weird and fascinating at the same time!

Nature’s Best photography

Gorgeous nature photography at the Smithsonian

Explore award-winning works of photography, from over 60 talented artists who perfectly captured nature in action. This is a temporary exhibit which will run through September 2019. The photographs featured were selected amongst 29,000+ entries! All of the artwork is breathtaking, including some amazing shots taking by young, extremely talented photographers. This is a must see for nature lovers & photographers alike!

A look at some of the winning selections!

Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals

Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in D.C.

This exhibit is most famous for the massive 45 carat “Hope Diamond,” donated by Harry Winston in 1958. You will also able to feast your eyes on the largest ruby ever found, a massive 168 carat MacKay Emerald, and basically browse through dazzling gems and minerals of every size and shape. It’s also interesting to read through some of the historical info on how meteorites brought these precious gems to the Earth.

The stunning Hope Diamond alone has drawn over 100 million visitors!

Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in D.C.

A few highlights from the Smithsonian’s gem collection

To the left, the Gachala Emerald weighing in at 858 carats. It’s rare for a crystal so large not to be cut into a hem. Harry Winston donated this gem to the Smithsonian in 1969. To the right, the Chalk Emerald weighs in at 37.8 carats. The greener an Emerald, the more valuable it is, thus the Chalk ranking amongst the most prized Columbian emeralds.

PIctured here is the 23.1 carat Carmen Lucia Ruby and a beautiful Burmese ruby bracelet, featuring 31 Burmese rubies and 107 pear, marquise and round brilliant cut diamonds . Burmese rubies are considered to be the most valuable.

Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in D.C.

On the left, the Harry Winston designed Sapphire Hall necklace weighing in at 195 carats. In the middle, the 98.57 carat Bismark sapphire, which was designed by Cartier Inc. And lastly, the massive Logan sapphire. Weighing in at a whopping 423 carats, it is one of the largest faceted sapphires in the world.

Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in D.C.

Check out the full list of current exhibits at the Smithsonian.

Additional Details

  • Location: 10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560
  • Hours: 10am-5:30pm, 7 days a week
  • Admission is free!

**There are lots of great free museums to enjoy during your time in D.C. Check out my full D.C. visitor guide.