Posted by: soniahs | August 12, 2010

Road Trip: Trilobites, Tiktaalik, and Trek

Our drive from Ithaca back to Orlando took a bit more than 20 hours. Driving north, we’d broken it up into two overnights (Charlotte, NC, and Scranton, PA), with a stop in Harper’s Ferry, WV. We decided to take it a bit slower on the way back, stopping just outside Philadelphia (taking the train into town to do some sightseeing), near Reston, VA, and finally just south of Charlotte in South Carolina. That worked out better psychologically, because we drove less and did more fun stuff along the way.

In Philadelphia, we visited the Academy of Natural Sciences, a mecca for diatom studies 🙂 While not the largest natural history museum I’ve visited, it did have some interesting and well-crafted displays. There was clearly a large emphasis on interactivity in the newer displays, though they also have some more traditional dioramas with stuffed megafauna. It was interesting to see three eras in museum philosophy represented in the same building. At the entrance, there was a sort of “curio cabinet” display of a mix of pressed plants, stuffed animals, and fossils presented without context in a series of cubbyholes, typical of early museum displays. Next, more modern dioramas situate stuffed animals in the context of the plants and scenery of the ecosystems in which they are (or were) found. Finally, there were the more (postmodern?) interactive and hands-on exhibits, like a glass globe which could show CO2 emissions, temperature, sea levels, continental drift, etc. over time, depending on what the user selected. I’ve always seen the more interactive exhibits as more part of science museums than natural history museums (the latter usually being attached to active research institutions so less a “learn about electricity” sort of emphasis than a “learn about the ecology of our river”).

(The trilobite and Tiktaalik from the title of this post came from the Academy. Several trilobite fossils were on display, as well as a cast and recreation of Tiktaalik. We also bought a fossil trilobite and Tiktaalik poster at the gift shop. Trilobites are an extinct group of arthropods who lived probably from 550 to 250 million years ago- a very long time span! They looked somewhat like big isopods (do not click on this link if you are afraid of giant bug-like critters), though weren’t closely related. Tiktaalik is an extinct fish from the Devonian period (~375 mya), with many features of early amphibians. It is one of a series of supposedly “missing links” between fish and amphibians that creationists like to pretend don’t exist.)

In Philadelphia, we also went to the Museum of Art. This is a huge museum, and we didn’t really have enough time to see everything because we wanted to get back on the road. The highlights I thought were interesting were several reconstructions of buildings in different rooms: a Japanese Buddhist temple and teahouse, a Chinese manor house entry and Buddhist temple, an Italian cloister courtyard, part of an Indian Hindu temple, and a European chapel. Very different experience being able to walk into a room and be surrounded by the works, rather than just viewing them on the walls. There were also a lot of paintings, many famous (Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, a bunch of Monets, that sort of thing…)

The next day, we stopped at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles, VA, part of the National Air and Space Museum. This is essentially a series of giant Quonset huts full of aerospace artifacts: planes, helicopters, replica satellites, missiles, and… the Enterprise! The space shuttle, not the starship, but still, it was pretty cool (and the Trek of the post title- hey, I did need another “T” word…). After having been to Kennedy Space Center, I was probably less impressed with the various space-related artifacts than I would otherwise have been, but KSC doesn’t have a shuttle in their museum. More sobering were the various missiles on display, as well as the Enola Gay (which is probably the single artifact responsible for the greatest number of human deaths that’s on display pretty much anywhere in the world).

Overall, it was nice to be able to catch a few museums along the way. Philadelphia would be interesting to visit for a longer period- we didn’t get to see any of the really historic areas. We also stopped in Savannah (GA) for lunch on our last day driving, and walked a bit in the historic district- it would be cool to spend a weekend there some time. Though maybe not in the summer…

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