Natural History Museums
A natural history museum exists for two reasons: to preserve and curate artifacts for today's and future scientists, and to teach the public the science of everything not created by modern humans. Natural history museums serve all of us in a way that university science departments cannot, playing a unique and important role in an enlightened society. They deserve our participation and our support.
Click on any museum name to visit its website.
Washington, District of Columbia
The National Museum of Natural History is part of the Smithsonian Institution, a group of nine museums, 21 libraries, nine research centers, and a zoo. By itself, the NMNH is the largest natural history museum in the world (145 million specimens) and also the world’s most visited natural history museum (30 million people annually). Museum research covers anthropology, botany, entomology, invertebrate zoology, mineral sciences, paleobiology, and vertebrate zoology. The new David H. Koch Hall of Fossils - Deep Time, is a trip from the beginning of life on Earth through the reign of the dinosaurs to the present, and it is spectacular and engaging, no matter how old the visitor. The Koch Hall of Human Origins is profoundly interesting, if you are human, and the Janet Annenberg Hooker Gem and Mineral Collection is dazzling with over 15,000 individual gems in the collection — including the Hope Diamond and the Star of Asia Sapphire -- as well as 350,000 minerals and 300,000 samples of rock, meteorite, and ore specimens.
New York, New York
Bordered on one side by Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History is one of the biggest natural history museums in the world and a cultural icon in New York City. An impressive fraction of its over 30 million-item collections are on display inside the striking Romanesque Revival building, built in 1888. There are great slices of ancient giant sequoias, stone moai from Easter Island, early human remains, classic American fauna, and a Titanosaur cast that’s so big, its head peers around the entrance to its own exhibit. Don’t miss the Hayden Planetarium, a destination and spectacular resource in its own right that offers astonishing celestial and music shows.
First displayed at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, the Field’s ever-growing collection has been housed at its current location by Lake Michigan since 1921. During its first 50 years of existence, over 440 expeditions under its banner acquired specimens from all parts of the world; the museum now manages nearly 40 million specimens and artifacts. Its celebrity is Sue the T. Rex — one of the largest, best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons ever unearthed. Nearby, Máximo the Titanosour is 122 feet long, it is one of the largest dinosaurs yet discovered. Four billion years of Earth’s history is presented in the Evolving Planet exhibit; other in-depth exhibits focus on Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Aboriginal cultures. The Patterson Herbarium, Ayer Ornithology Collection, and Strecker Butterfly Collection are also outstanding.
A premier repository for artifacts and specimens collected on state and federal lands in Alaska, the UAMN has a tripartite mission of teaching, collecting, and collection-based research. Its botanical, geological, zoological, and cultural collections, primarily from Alaska and the Circumpolar North, are used to promote understanding of the local as well as global past, present, and future, and the museum’s Rose Berry Gallery of Alaska Art showcases 2,000 years of Alaskan art, from ancient ivory carvings to contemporary sculpture. The sleekly modern building houses 2.5 million specimens, artifacts, and art history objects and offers spectacular views of the Alaska Range, Denali Mountain, and Tanana River Valley.
Founded in 1989 by two University of Alaska professors as the state’s only museum dedicated solely to natural history, AKSCI’s collections range from the Aleutians to the North Slope to the Panhandle and from prehistoric times to the present. Bone and dinosaur aficionados will enjoy the large range of dinosaur bones, teeth, claws, and eggs on display — including a full-size Pterosaur, a flying reptile with a fearsomely long, sharp jaw and a wingspan as wide as 36 feet across. Reconstructed mammals and avians are also well-represented. AKSCI’s Bare Bones exhibit offers a comparison of bones of numerous modern and ancient animals plus a display of early hominid skulls from Africa, and its Rocks and Minerals exhibit features an extensive collection of Alaskan and exotic multicolored specimens, including meteorites.
The Anchorage Museum focuses on the art, history, ethnography, ecology, and science of the Circumpolar North, and it regularly conducts public programs, collaborative research programs, and traveling exhibitions to increase understanding of northern peoples, cultures, and environments. Founded in 1968, the AM’s collection has grown to 26,000 objects, 700,000 photographs and archives, and 15,000 books, rare books, maps and periodicals, much of which are in frequent demand by publishers, scholars, and other researchers. Its Smithsonian Arctic Center features more than 600 Indigenous Alaskan artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution, selected and interpreted with help from Alaska Native advisers. Other significant offerings include the Imaginarium Discovery Center science galleries and the Alaska Exhibition, one of the most complete presentations of Alaskan history and ethnology.
The Burke is an active research museum with over 16 million artifacts and substantial collections in entomology, herpetology, ichthyology, malacology, mammalogy, ornithology, botany, archaeology, paleontology, paleobotany, and minerals. Founded in 1885 as part of the University of Washington, this oldest museum in Washington State was designated four years later as the Washington State Museum. It was renamed the Burke Museum in 1962, and in 2019 moved into a new, larger building, designed with input from 29 regional Native tribes. The innovative design enables museum visitors to see researchers and artifact preparers at work. Taking advantage of the larger spaces and improved display and educational opportunities, new exhibits were created and a wide variety of public programs are offered. Its Holm Center is a premiere center for the study of Native arts of the Pacific Northwest.
This aquarium, museum, and salmon hatchery on Crescent Bay is “dedicated to increasing understanding and awareness of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of Alaska” and has three research arms — genetic and ecological interactions between hatchery and wild stocks, natural disaster research, and climate change impacts on ecosystems — as well as summer and “Scientists in the Schools” programs. Take the guided tour of the hatchery operation to experience the full cycle of salmon life from spawning to release. The Center’s aquarium, touch tanks, and research libraries educate on this and other Alaskan ecosystems.
San Francisco, California
Founded in 1853 and one of the largest natural history museums in the world, the Academy holds over 24 million specimens. Located in the heart of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Academy’s mission is to regenerate the natural world with biodiversity science, environmental learning, and collaborative engagement, and its in-house experts collaborate with partners around the world to regenerate fragile ecosystems. The Academy’s immersive exhibits engage visitors in faraway environments such as the Osher Rainforest exhibit, the largest of its kind in the world, a 90-foot-diameter glass dome housing a neotropical environment of 1,600+ live plants and animals; the capacious Steinhard Aquarium, home to nearly 40,000 live sea creatures; and the Morrison Planetarium, offering cutting edge visualizations and hyper-realistic space environments via its 75-foot NanoSeam projection screen.
Los Angeles, California
One of LA’s oldest cultural institutions, the NHM is the largest natural history museum in the western US. Its Gold Rush exhibit is a visitor favorite, as are the skeletons of a pregnant Plesiosaur and her unborn baby, the largest known ammonite discovered to date (6 ‘5”), and the magnificent colonnaded rotunda with its stained-glass dome and stately bronze statue of the Three Graces. What particularly distinguishes the NMH is its ongoing research at La Brea Tar Pits, 7-½ miles away, which sit atop a trove of Ice Age fossils, preserved by bubbling, oozing asphalt, thus creating an active paleontological site right in the heart of urban LA: mammoths, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, and hundreds of other Ice Age creatures have been discovered since excavation began in 1913; the oldest specimens date back as far as 38,000 years. The on-site George C. Page Museum displays and interprets the paleontological discoveries, and immersive 3D shows are on view in its movie theater.
Santa Barbara, California
Founded in 1916 by an ornithologist as the Museum of Comparative Oology (the study of bird eggs) and home to the only full-dome planetarium on the Central Coast of California, the SBMNH collection of over 3.5 million specimens focuses on birds, mammals, geology, Chumash ethnobotany, regional habitats and ecologies, and space. Its Maximus Gallery showcases a collection of over 3,500 engravings and lithographs. Its life-size dioramas and activity areas like the Curiosity Lab, an aviary that houses rehabilitated raptors, and the museum’s Sea Center on Stearns Wharf, a few miles away, offer hands-on, interactive educational experiences for children and adults. Join four generations of visitors and push the button on the rattlesnake exhibit.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
The UM Museum of Natural History began as a collection in 1837, which has since grown to over 20 million items. Exemplifying the marriage of research and education, in 2019 the UMMNH moved to a new Biological Sciences Building that also houses the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The UMMNH also works closely with three other UM research museums: Anthropology, Zoology, and Paleontology. Like the Burke Museum (q.v.), laboratories in the UMMNH have picture windows that afford a clear view of the research within; at the fossil-preparation lab, visitors can push a button to talk with a professor or student-researcher inside. In addition to its numerous permanent exhibits, the museum features the world’s only male and female pair of mastodon skeletons, reconstructed and placed on a fossilized piece of landscape delved by mastodon hooves unearthed not far from Ann Arbor — the only mastodon “trackway” in the world. Visitors can also enjoy the museum’s impressive new acquisition, the 20-foot-long Majungasaurus from Madagascar.
The Fernbank Museum, on the edge of a 65-acre preserve that includes the country’s largest old-growth urban Piedmont forest, is an ecological island surrounded by the habitat of nearly six million people. The Fernbank Forest is home to more than 64 native tree species, 150 bird species and 52 species of amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and fish. The museum was created in 1992 to preserve and educate about the forest. In addition to managing access to the forest — which was reopened to the public in 201 after restoration — the museum’s 10-acre Wildwoods area offers outdoor exhibits, trails, and a forest canopy walk. Although a relatively young institution (founded in 1992), the Fernbank is world-renowned for its collection of over 1 million Native American artifacts dating to the 16th century, unearthed at St. Catherines Island, an unspoiled barrier island off the Georgia coast. Another Fernbank archaeology research program led to the discovery of important 15th-century artifacts tracing to Hernando de Soto and garnered the support of the National Geographic Society. Other museum offerings include the “Walk Through Time in Georgia” natural history exhibit and the 123-foot-long, plant-eating Argentinosaurus (the largest dinosaur ever classified) in the “Giants of the Mesozoic” exhibit.
Vancouver, British Columbia
The UBC Museum of Anthropology, housed in a superbly designed building inspired by the post-and-beam architecture of northern Northwest Coast First Nations people, focuses on world arts and cultures with a special emphasis on the First Nations peoples and other cultural communities of British Columbia, Canada. MOA has nearly 50,000 ethnographic works from almost every part of the world; the UBC Laboratory of Archaeology, also in the building, has an additional 535,000 archaeological objects. MOA has sizable Northwest Coast collections, including the largest collection of works by Haida artist Bill Reid. Works by Musqueam artists greet visitors at the Welcome Plaza, and the spectacular 15-meter- (49+ foot)-high Great Hall displays posts, large poles and carved figures, canoes, sculptures, and household objects. The museum’s collections of world textiles and European ceramics collections are highly regarded, and its archives contain extensive holdings from anthropologists, linguists, historians, and explorers.
The Carnegie is one of the world’s most respected natural history research museums, with more than 10,000 specimens (from its collection of over 22 million) displayed in 20 galleries. Its Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems, one of the finest and most important mineral exhibitions in the country, showcases 1,300 dazzling specimens from all over the world. The Carnegie’s Powdermill Nature Reserve, 55 miles away in Rector, PA, is home to the museum’s GIS lab, a nature center with ecological exhibits, and an avian research center that hosts one of the longest continually running bird banding stations in the United States. Researchers from around the world conduct diverse long- and short-term scientific studies in herpetology, botany, invertebrate zoology, and ornithology there, and a wide variety of public education programs serve children and adults.
Combining Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Mineralogical and Geological Museum, HMNH is the public face of the three within the university’s research arsenal and welcomes a quarter of a million visitors each year. One of its standout offerings is the beautiful, to-scale glass replicas of sea creatures, invertebrates, and flowers crafted by the father and son duo Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka as a practical, long-lasting way to display perishable items of scientific value. Other highlights include David Rockefeller’s collection of colorful beetles and a 42-foot-long skeleton of a Kronosaurus that once plied the Tasman and Coral Seas.
Founded in 1812 and associated with Drexel University since 2011, the ANS is the oldest museum of natural science research institution in the U.S. and holds an internationally important natural history collection of over 18 million biological specimens and hundreds of thousands of volumes, journals, illustrations, photographs, and archival items. All of the natural sciences are well-represented. Its botanical collections include some of the oldest and most important botanical collections in the Americas; its herbarium is the second largest in the world. The entomology collection contains more than 3.5 million specimens and includes the Titian Peale Moth and Butterfly Collection, the oldest entomology collection in the U.S. Of note is the Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research, focusing on applied ecology, which was founded in 1947. It is one of the earliest U.S. environmental consulting concerns as well as the first to employ interdisciplinary teams of scientists to study freshwater systems and the first to regard biodiversity as a central criterion of water quality.
New Haven, Connecticut
The Peabody, founded in 1866, is one the oldest, largest, and most prolific university natural history museums. It features collections exhibits of anthropology, paleontology, botany, entomology, herpetology, ichthyology, ornithology, zoology mammalogy, mineralogy and meteoritics, Babylonian artifacts, and the history of science and technology. Two exhibits of special note are the Hiram Bingham Collection of Incan artifacts from Machu Picchu and its outstanding ornithology collection — one of the largest and most taxonomically inclusive in the world — with its associated William Robertson Coe Ornithology Library. The Peabody’s vertebrate paleontology collections are among the most extensive and most historically important in the U.S. When the museum reopens in 2024 after extensive renovations, visitors will be greeted not only by the museum’s famous juvenile Brontosaurus skeleton and its 110-foot-long mural “The Age of Reptiles,” but also by a recently assembled Poposaurus, the most complete specimen of an early crocodilian.