Recent Museum Visits: Nature versus the Unnatural


I recently visited two sites in the DC area: the Mount Rainier Nature Center and the National Museum of Unnatural History. Both use elements of a natural history museum on a small scale – one to depict real science, and one to imagine the make-believe.

Here is how the two compare:

Red-Eared Sliders at Mount Rainier Nature Center

Red-Eared Sliders at Mount Rainier Nature Center

Who and Why

Mount Rainier Nature Center is part of the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation, which operates under the following mission statement:

In partnership with our citizens, the Department of Parks and Recreation provides comprehensive park and recreation programs, facilities, and services which respond to changing needs within our communities. We strive to preserve, enhance, and protect our open spaces to enrich the quality of life for present and future generations in a safe and secure environment.

NMUH is run by 826DC, a nonprofit “dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.” The point of the storefront museum is not to present true scientific information, but to spark interest and imagination. It also serves as a gift shop that sells fun gift items like Future Mold (empty food storage containers) to raise money for the nonprofit.

Logistics

MRNC is located within a mile walk of the West Hyattsville Metro station on the Green Line, though I’m not entirely sure about the walkability (are people really supposed to walk in that bike lane that is separated only by a white line from where the cars whiz by?). NMUH is about one block away from the Columbia Heights Metro station on the Yellow and Green Lines. Both are small spaces, and both are free to visit. MRNC is open 8:30-5 Tuesday through Saturday, and NMUH welcomes visitors from 12 to 6 every day.

Audience

I may have been an anomaly as an adult who visited each site alone. The activities available at each place imply that NMUH is geared toward older kids than MRNC. MRNC offered coloring stations, picture books, a large colorful rug, toys, and the classic Cat in the Hat movie playing on a TV, suggesting a preschool audience. At NMUH, whose mission is to help 6-through-18-year-olds with writing, the tongue-in-cheek displays and text that requires viewers to discern between real and pretend indicate an audience of older kids.

Critters

MRNC showcases live animals, including turtles, frogs, and insects. NMUH has a mascot, Alvarez, billed as the last living dinosaur – or perhaps an iguana who has lived its life in a DC residence before coming to its current home. NMUH also features taxidermy animals and tiny dioramas.

Plants

On MRNC’s grounds, visitors can see a butterfly garden and a rain garden, and a small courtyard. NMUH does not have outdoor space, but the room is adorned with some leafy plants.

National Museum of Unnatural History

National Museum of Unnatural History

Play Spaces

In addition to the indoor play areas at MRNC mentioned above, the site is also a recreation center with an outdoor playground, which was full of children and families on the warmish day I visited. Perhaps the biggest draw at NMUH is a cave in one corner, where visitors can hide and imagine.

Since It’s April…

I’ll mention that both sites have some Easter symbols: a live rabbit at MRNC, and so-called dinosaur eggs for sale at NMUH.

Happy Easter!

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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