Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Museum Attractions

The terra cotta warriors from the tomb complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, are currently the attraction exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I’ve seen these guys on TV before, and I think the tomb is pretty cool, so I’ll most likely head over to the museum to check it out a couple times before the exhibit moves on.

What exhibits are on display at museums near you that you want to see? What exhibits or museum attractions that you’ve seen in the past have stuck with you and why? What are your “must sees”?

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The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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63 Comments

  1. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been to a bunch of different museums around the region and world, so I’ve seen a number of great exhibits.

    The ones that have always stood out to me are the dinosaur reconstructions at Yale’s Peabody Museum, since so many of them date back to the Bone Wars between Marsh and Cope. These really had a great impact on me during my dino-mad childhood, and still remain impressive to this day.

    I was also quite impressed by the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum in London. The Elgin Marbles have one of the best and most informative set-ups in a museum, making them more interesting than the objects would be on their own, while the Rosetta Stone is just SO important to anthropology that it carries a certain amount of weight.

    I will also say that one of the most disappointing things I’ve seen in a museum would have to be, unfortunately, the Mona Lisa. The crowd around it at the Louvre is almost always huge, and the painting itself is behind several layers of glass for security and preservation. It’s also VERY small, far smaller than I’d anticipated. All of this makes it really hard to fully take the painting in, despite all of its significance.

  2. I recently went to an exhibit at the Royal BC Museum of items on loan from the British Museum – sort of a survey in art and artifacts from throughout history. It was pretty interesting, although due to my unfortunate choice of companion (my thirteen-year-old cousin) I didn’t get to stay as long as I would have liked.

  3. I saw that “The Body” exhibit when it came through Rochester NY, and what stuck with me most was when I got back and was describing it to my husband and he said, “wait, the bodies were REAL?!” Heh. Yeah.
    I always try to see the George Eastman House when it’s decorated for Christmas.

    I really wanted to go see the mythical creatures exhibit when it was in NYC but never made it there. I was hoping to visit the Shedd Aquarium this summer but money is short so I’ll have to settle for the A Christmas Story House & Museum and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame…

    Internationally, I’ve been to pretty much everything there is to be to in Paris at one point or another, and I particularly love the Rodin museum.

  4. I have to second Expatria on seeing the Rosetta Stone. It was worth the extra money you have to pay to see it.

    The British Museum would have been awesome even without the Rosetta Stone. I liked seeing the Parthenon Frieze and the Egyptian mummies.

    Seeing the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels was probably the favorite part of my London trip.

    The Bodies the Exhibit was very cool.

    The King Tut exhibit was something I went out of my way to see. I remember the first time King Tut artifacts came to the US and I so wanted to go see it but I never did.

    The one I really wanted to see was Lucy but it came nowhere near me.

  5. I got to see those statues when I was a kid, in London. I thought they were the coolest thing ever.

    I love the Egyptian statues at the Boston Museum of Art. There are all these small hallways and rooms and then suddenly, you’re in this high-ceilinged room with these very large, imposing, ancient statues.

    Seeing “American Gothic” at the Art Institute of Chicago was more fun than I thought it would be. It’s such a beautiful funny painting in person. It really looks like the couple are *just* about to smirk at you, or that they’ve just finished smirking at you while your back was turned.

  6. The Evolution Gallery at the Field Museum in Chicago is excellent. The exhibit is one long timeline, showing evolution from single celled organisms through dinosaurs to our primate ancestors. Amazing fossils are interspersed with state-of-the-art digital displays and hands on activities. I would highly recommend it.

    @Expatria: I would agree with your assessment of the Mona Lisa. It seems to me it’s more hype now than anything else. I much preferred the Winged Victory of Samothrace – displayed to full advantage at the top of the staircase.

  7. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has an excellent museum up above Boulder. Lot’s of hands-on-weather displays including a tornado generator done with water vapor inside plastic cylinder. Good for kids and adults alike.
    For computer history nerds like me there is even more including their original Cray computer out on display on the lower level.

    NOAA’s building was designed by I. M. Pei and is worth having a look at. The property backs up to the Flatirons with miles and miles of gorgeous hiking opportunities and climbing for the more adventurous. Actually the very coolest way to get to the museum is to take your favorite bus to Boulder, bike or walk up the hill to the Chautauqua and hike the Mesa trail directly to NOAA. It takes about an hour from Boulder station if you bike up the hill. This makes for a solid day of science, nature, and exercise with the opportunity to regain the calories at one of Boulder’s awesome brewpubs afterward.

  8. I’ve seen the terra cotta army as well (actually, maybe more like just a small platoon of them) when it was at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, some years ago, and I found it a wonderful exhibit.

    My favorite exhibits, however, tend to be those dealing with ancient Egypt. I just recently saw the Tutankhamun exhibit currently touring the U.S. when it was at the Dallas Museum of Art, and it was very cool. More extensive, though, was an exhibit on Hatshepsut at the Kimbell a few years ago. And my all-time favorite was an exhibit on Ramses II (Ramses the Great) when it was in Dallas back in the late 1980s.

    A few other exhibits have stood out, too, such as the Body Worlds exhibit when it was here in Dallas last year — that was pretty unforgettable. There was even a very nice and thorough exhibit of ancient Etruscan artifacts at SMU’s Meadows Museum here in Dallas last year. And the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., were a joy to explore when I got to visit that city a few years ago.

    ~David D.G.

  9. @Gabrielbrawley: Awww…I love that place, too. Funny story, we went there the day they were doing the Olympic Torch run through the city. Of course, the Exploratorium is on the opposite side of where the run was supposed to go so we thought we could sneak in and out. Well, little did we know, they did a bait and switch, (neither did the media), and the torch run was made right in front of us. We are sitting at a stoplight, going, WTF? That can’t be real, right? And low and behold it was.

  10. Oh, and seeing a preserved coelocanth at the Harvard Museum of Natural History was amazing. Reading about and seeing pictures of its lobed fins is one thing, but seeing them in person really geeked me out.

  11. A few months ago, I had only a panel of glass and a foot of air between me and the actual remains of Lucy, the type skeleton for australopithecus afarensis, on a temporary visit to the science center here in Seattle. I could hold out my forearm right over hers to compare length. I have never been in such archaeology-geek heaven. ;)

  12. @Sam Ogden: We’re driving from Rochester to Detroit for the Woodward Dream Cruise and we have to pass right through Cleveland both ways so we can’t not go! :-)

    I also want to see stuff like Eastern State Penitentiary, The Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride, the Fright Factory, Hershey PA, The Clubhouse strip club… but I’m not sure if those count.

    Things more likely to count but that are nowhere near me (yes, I have a list):
    – the New Orleans insectarium
    – John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
    – the Mutter Museum

    See, I have to separate “things I want to do” from “things I will reasonable ever be able to do what with having a husband who does not boat, plane or train.” Things on the first list include Petra, the Tatooine set in Tunisia, Egypt, the Taj Mahal, Australia, the Galapagos, the Planet Trail in Zurich, and seeing every piece of artwork at the Louvre.
    But I’m way off topic, aren’t I?

    I really, really, really want to go to the Mutter Museum. Maybe next year.

  13. @jrose: “I had only a panel of glass and a foot of air between me and the actual remains of Lucy”

    So here is a question that has always troubled me about museums. Was that really the Lucy skeleton and not a reproduction? If I owned Lucy I’d keep that puppy in a vault. It’s not like anyone really knows or cares if it’s the real thing behind the glass, and you’re really taking an awful risk letting it travel around like that.

    I’m not trying to rain on your parade, @jrose. I’ve had exactly the same question when supposedly standing in front of the Hope Diamond, the Crown Jewels, and innumerable paintings. Would it even be a rip off if it wasn’t the real thing? From three feet I doubt anyone can tell the difference between a hunk of glass and a flawless diamond. I certainly can’t.

  14. I was also underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa. Glad to see I’m not alone. I mean, sure, it’s good, but not *so* good that it’s worth racing by all the other beautiful pieces in that hallway just to catch a ‘meh’ glimpse of the Mona Lisa.

    The best art collection I’ve ever seen was in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. Ilya Repin’s work makes me swoon.

    I wanted but didn’t have the time to see the Freud Museum in St Pete’s that’s apparently set up to be like walking through one of Freud’s dreams, with smoke and lights and smells and narration and everything. Sounds nightmarish but worth experiencing.

    I’ve seen the Bodies exhibit in London and Boston. In London, though, there was a little boy (let’s say 8-years-old) looking through the part with the different stages of fetuses with his mother. As he looked at them he mused aloud in his adorable British accent, “They look like aliens, mummy.” After pondering this for a bit and looking at all the samples he proudly declared his conclusion: “They are! They *are* aliens, mummy!” So. Frakking. Cute.

    Speaking of mummies, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had a few mummies (I forget which ones. Bad Sara.) kept in glass cases that you could walk right up to such that the mummies themselves were about a foot from your face, nothing between you and them but that thin layer of glass, and you could see their hair, teeth, fingernails, etc. Just exquisite.

    The Triceratops exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science literally brought tears to eyes.

    I haven’t been to the planetarium in Boston yet and I really really wanna go.

  15. @Vengeful Harridan (Elexina):

    I saw one of those Bodies exhibits when it was at the South St. Seaport in NYC. I went with my dad, who is a dentist (meaning that he’s had a bunch of anatomical training and even had to work with cadavers). He was utterly FASCINATED in there, and read every piece of text in the exhibit. For myself, the really pretty circulatory systems were the best, and the bits of the brain after a stroke REALLY stood out. SCARY.

  16. @spurge:

    You had to pay to see the Rosetta Stone? I’m pretty sure I saw that without paying when I was there! That STINKS.

    The best non-free museum in London (IMO) was def. the Tower of London. You can easily spend a day in there. The torture chambers are pretty freaky, but the best thing is to take a tour with a Beefeater and go into the chapel where all of Henry VIII’s wives are buried.

    Oh, and I love the ravens, too. I want a raven!

  17. Just recently got to visit NY and they had the “Extreme Mammals” exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. It was something I insisted on doing as part of my trip, I was so excited!
    It turned out to be kind of “meh” – I ended up enjoying the dinosaurs much more. Still, glad I saw it even if it wasn’t quite what I expected.

  18. I’ve been to the Mutter Museum 2 or three times. I *loves* it. Deformed babies in jars=fascination, education, *and* birth control. The siamese twins, the soap lady, the largest giant and smallest dwarf skeletons, all the human skulls marked with when and where they died and their occupation….so much coolness. They have some of the first bodies dissected and preserved as medical teaching specimens. neat neat neat.

  19. I was really amused by the Mona Lisa. I just stood back and watched all the tourists wandering in saying, “Where is it? There it is. . .it’s so small. . .”

    My favorite museum in Paris, though, is the Musée d’Orsay, both for the fact that it is located in a converted railway station and because I particularly enjoy the Impressionists.

    For unexpected fun at a museum on vacation, I vote for the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

  20. @Expatria:

    I saw the Rosetta Stone about 12 years ago. It may very well have changed since then. I was kind of put off by having to pay but I really wanted to see it.

    The TOL tour was awesome. I don’t remember a better tour guide than the Beefeater or as they prefer to be called Yeomen Warders.

    I forgot about the Ravens. One of my favorite birds.

    You really can’t go wrong when you go to a place with room fulls of weapons and armor.

  21. @spurge:

    Ah, that makes sense then. In the interim, more and more of London’s museums have gone admission free, taking donations instead. Many DO have separate sections that have admission costs, but these tend to be temporary exhibitions, travelling exhibits, or private wings. Almost all of the good stuff is free!

    @N47W122:

    I wish I’d been old enough to appreciate the Orsay when I was in Paris (this would have been about a decade ago). Impressionism is my fav. style of painting. The Orsay wasn’t on my group’s itinerary, but at that age I was mainly after the experience of being in a foreign city and wasn’t going to spend my free time in ANOTHER museum :-P

    Also, if you like the Orsay’s architecture, I suggest the Tate Modern in London, housed in a converted power station. I’m no great fan of modern art, but that’s an AWESOME space. When I was last there, there was an installation of slides (that one could actually RIDE!) in the former turbine room. It was crazy!

  22. @davew: No, it’s a valid question – in this case, yes, it was the actual skeleton – they had a replica up in the exhibition room as well, along with a number of replica skulls and so on of various points Human ancestor-species, but the actual remains were also there.

    Why am I so confident? Admittedly, I have some insider knowledge – I have a degree an anthropology, but more importantly I used to work at this museum and others in my area. I know how they work – if there’s limited entrance into an area and security guards all around, particularly in a relatively small museum like this, it’s a genuine – other exhibits have to put up with just the regular old staff and volunteers as guards. ;)

    Additionally, there was quite the hubbub in the archaeology community about Lucy’s little sojourn – it was the first time the skeleton had *ever* left Africa, if I recall correctly, and there was a lot of debate about whether or not it was a good idea, given potential damage.

    There’s other tricks and hints as well (you get to know the look of plaster after a while, for one thing…) – my boyfriend mistook the admittedly-convincing replica that we came to first for the real one, but from experience I could tell it wasn’t.

    Obviously I’m not saying I couldn’t be fooled, or that there’s not a lot of replicas floating around museums being touted as the real thing – there definitely are, particularly among fossils. But from everything I’ve heard, read, and seen, this was the real deal.

  23. I agree with everyone on their love of the Bodies/Body World exhibit. That one holds a special place in my heart because it really solidified my decision to pursue medicine as a career.

    [email protected]stacie: I also adore everything at the Mutter Museum (sorry, I don’t know how to make umlauts happen) in Philly. They have Grover Cleavland’s tumor on display and a GIGANTIC colon too!

    The dinosaurs in the New York Natural History Museum have always been a favorite since I was a wee tot. The full size blue whale can suck it, the fossils are way more badadd

  24. Sorry – way too long a post, but this AI has hit my passion button.

    Firstly, I second The Rosetta Stone at the BM, The Bodies exhibit and the Musee d’Orsay.

    Really enjoyed seeing a stuffed Dodo bird at the Natural History Museum in Oxford (fabulous building too – built as a Cathedral to Science with steel and glass vaulted roof). Don’t miss it if you go to Oxford.

    Seeing the Boticelli’s for real at the Uffizi in Florence and everything at the Vatican – especially “Laocoon and His Sons” sculpture, oh, and Michaelangelo’s “Pieta” in the incredibly arrogant, opulent, big swinging dick which is St Peter’s Basilica.

    Not sure if you’d really call them museums but the Colosseum in Rome was mind-blowing, the Alhambra Palace in Granada the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, the Mezquita in Cordoba peaceful and thought-provoking, at Ephesus in Turkey you could easily imagine the Ephesians going about their daily lives around you, the Aya Sofia in Istanbul was mind-blowing again and the catacombs under Paris were creepy and surreal.

    If you’re in London, highly recommend some of my fave places to visit – The Courtauld Institute for the impressionists, The Dulwich Picture Gallery, British Library for the illuminated manuscripts, Leighton House for mad moorish decoration and pre-Raphaelite paintings, Tate Britain for the pre-Raphaelites and National Gallery for, well, everything – though maybe I’m biased as this is where my education in art began.

    Loved the giant crack installed(?) in the floor at the Tate Modern last year. Very thought-provoking – and amazing that some people managed to twist ankles etc as they tried to walk over it thinking it wasn’t real. Doh!

    Leaving London to move back to Australia next week, so planning to hit ‘Futurism” at the Tate Modern, JMW Waterhouse at the Royal Academy, “Baroque: Magnificence & Style” at the V&A, and finally, the Maritime Museum at Greenwich – 20 minute walk away and haven’t made it there in 3 years.

    Not sure how I’m going to survive the cultural desert of Brisbane after gorging myself on the smorgasboard of cultural delights in London and Europe for the last 4 years – hopefully fulfilling my long-held dream of studying a BA full-time will keep me busy. At least, I’ll still have Skepchicks to keep me sane.

  25. I am a museum geek. I work at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and plan to work at a museum in Chicago (Field?) when I move out there. I also visit every museum I possibly can when I travel. Because of this, I’ve seen quite a few neat exhibits. The Body Worlds exhibit that came through DMNS a few years ago was on of the most phenomenal exhibits I’ve ever seen. I also love the paleontology exhibit at the Field Museum. It has this neat virtual aquarium, filled with ocean life from the Cambrian. It’s amazing.

    Just in general, museums rock.

  26. Actually in thinking about it a bit, there’s an exhibit at the NY Natural History Museum that’s always stuck with me. It’s in the Hall of Ocean life, but it’s not the Blue Whale–down at the bottom floor level there’s a corner exhibit of a sperm whale battling a losing giant squid. I think because it represents this window to a totally black void with these monsters looming out of it, it has always stuck with me.

  27. Oh! I forgot to mention the Te Papa museum in New Zealand. Beautiful museum all around with lots and lots of fascinating cultural tidbits, not to mention the giant squid, but the best exhibit I saw there was a superwayamazingcool exhibit of all the miniatures from the filming of LOTR and many of the props and costumes as well as Borimir’s wax body. There may or may not be a picture of me stroking a giant picture of Viggo Mortenson’s face after that trip…

  28. Oh, and I forgot the Museum of the American Indian in DC. We really enjoyed that.

    And when I told my wife about this question, she immediately said “the Scottish crown jewels at Edinburgh Castle.” But she’s genetically predisposed to that sort of thing.

  29. I absolutely love the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. That, and the Exploratorium are two of my favorite museums. About two years back, the CA Academy has the most amazing exhibit on ants, from argentines to leafcutters, to an airtight structure containing a colony of frickin’ army ants!

    Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Seattle to see Lucy at the Pacific Science Center, and it was worth every penny. Unfortunately, it looks like Lucy’s Tour may be cut short…

    http://blogs.sciencemag.org/origins/2009/03/lucys-american-tour-fizzles.html

  30. Anywhere with real moon-rocks.
    The National Air & Space Museum in DC.
    The Sutton Hoo treasures in the British Museum.

    The best surprise I’ve ever had in a museum was wandering vaguely around the Norsk Teknisk Museum in Oslo and coming across the Gemini 10 capsule sitting in a corner – and with no irritating security guards to stop me getting right up close.

    (Pet dislike – the Kon Tiki museum in Oslo. Why do so many people flock to this monument to human eccentricity and ignore the infinitely more interesting
    Fram museum next door?)

  31. I want to go see Ida at the National Geological Museum here in Oslo. (Nothing’s really stopping me: http://www.nhm.uio.no/english/ )

    I loved the Questacon, Australian’s National Science and Technology Center in Canberra.

    I found the exhibits on the history and culture of the Blackfoot at Glenbow Museum in Calgary fascinating. And the Burgess Shale diorama at The Royal Tyrrell Museum in the Albertan badlands was ace.

    And the Louvre was excellent, even though we rushed through it in a day.

    I plan to see a few museums in London when I go there for TAM this fall. Got to remember this AI and go back through it for pointers. :)

  32. @Wallace Finch: Seriously, though, do you have more information about this?

    @Bjornar: What is it that they say about the Louvre? Even if you only stand in front of every piece of artwork for 30 seconds, it would still take you 8 months (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) to see every piece, right? At least that’s what I’m going to spread around on the internet without independent verification.

  33. I’ve been to the Field Museum when they had a Star Wars exhibit which was pretty cool, as well as just to see Sue. Been to the Smithsonian, which was also fun. And I’ve been to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. The latter being in essence an historically accurate Ren Fest, set in the 19th Century.

  34. Okay, the Louvre website says 35 000 pieces of art on display. 30 seconds on each is 12 days, 3 hours and 40 minutes. Lets add an ample 5 seconds for walking, that’s an additional 2 days.

    Or 5 weeks and 3 days if you stick to the opening hours.

  35. I’m ridiculously spoiled living in the DC area. So many museums and so little time…and a lot of them are free.

    The ones that stick with me are the Olmec head exhibit that was at the national gallery over a decade ago and the Afghan exhibit that was there during the past year.

    The Afghan exhibit was amazing. The amount of history and beauty that those Afghani curators risked their safety to hide from the Taliban is staggering. Is is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until September 20th. If you will be in New York before then, I cannot recommend this enough.

  36. The Field Museum was highly impressive and it seemed like my one trip to Chicago was less of a trip to the city more of a trip to the museum because me and my roommate spent most of the day there. At the time, the museum had an exhibit on Einstein which was excellent, but a bit crowded.

  37. @femmebieninformee:

    I’m gonna go ahead and agree with you about both the Uffizi and St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s alone is worth the trip to Rome, both for the Michelangelo (and other) sculptures, and because it’s just so FRIGGIN huge! I mean… it’s crazy how big it is. I wish I’d had more time so I could have gone up into the cupola to look down.

    I also wish the stupid pope hadn’t been holding an audience in the Sistine Chapel that day, because I’d have loved to have seen that as well.

    @killyosaur42 & @LOLkate:

    I got to see BOTH a travelling version of the LOTR and Star Wars exhibitions here at the Museum of Science in Boston, and both were amazing. The LOTR one had more (and better) props and costumes, but, admittedly, had less to do with science. They at least tried to tie in potential future technologies, etc, with the Star Wars exhibit.

    @Bjornar:

    Be sure to check out the Science Museum in London. It’s rather large… tons of stuff to see and do there. The Natural History Museum is also great, with loads of dinosaurs and exhibits about evolution and what not.

    And, if you choose to go to the British Museum, you had better go in with a plan. That place is just too big! Decide which highlights to see and hit them first, then pick one or two collections to spend the rest of your time in. Otherwise you’ll either hit info overload and need to leave, or simply run out of time before you’ve seen all that you want to see!

  38. Like a bunch of people have mentioned I saw Body Works when I was in London.

    I also saw the olderst surgery in the UK. It has a great collection of scary looking medical instruments and hold the record for the most number of people who died as a result of an operation (1 audience member who had a heart attack, a medical student who was nicked during the amputation, and the patient).

    I also saw the Darwin exhibit when it came to the Royal Ontario Museum. I went three times before it moved on!

  39. Great topic, especially since museums (in the US, anyway) are really feeling the hurt as the economy yanks, so get on out there & pay those entrance fees, y’all (full disclosure– i work in the field)

    Just saw the “Rivals in Renaissance Venice” at the MFA-Boston; which was wonderful both for the artworks themselves but also as a light on Venetian culture. Beautiful, lush paintings with the intense Venetian-styled saturated, dark colors. Venice is one of my favorite cities to visit, & this show really makes me want to go again. Tomorrow, if possible.
    http://www.mfa.org/venice/

    Anyone in/visiting NYC, I’ve gotta recommend the Caillebotte exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, if it’s still running. Even if you’re sick of French Impressionism. The Brooklyn Museum always has something interesting, and isn’t as overwhelming as MOMA or the Met.

    @femmebieninformee– someday I want to get to Oxford for a gallery/museum field trip. Glad to see the prop.

    And, I have to mention my one of favorite museum to take kids– the Spy Museum in DC. Also has a great gift shop. Am happy to have an excuse to take my wee cousin there in August.

  40. @csrster: We went to the Kon Tiki museum when I was a kid (visiting family in Norway), but I’ve never gone back as an adult, didn’t seem worth it. But I still enjoy going back to the Fram, and can’t help but hang out looking at the viking ships. Man, but I need to get back to Oslo.

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