On the third Sunday of every month, the Maryland Natural History Society has a sort of an open house. A theme is announced (this month it was “skulls”), and various naturalists bring their collections for informal show-and-tell. It was remarkable. In contrast to visiting a natural history exhibit in a museum, here we were free to touch and pick up whatever we liked, as long as we did so carefully and respectfully.
The kids got to handle everything from a shark jaw to an otter skull to a moose antler to a raccoon penis bone (really!). We were all particularly struck by the rows and rows of extra teeth folded down in overlapping layers inside the shark’s jaws, and by the massive front teeth on a beaver skull.
There was an entomologist there who had brought along a couple of microscopes. Alex and Colin spent at least twenty minutes with him, as he patiently loaded slide after slide and told them what they were seeing. I tried to gently move Colin along at one point, sure that he was young enough to be a burden, but the entomologist insisted that Colin was doing fine and loaded up more caterpillar jaws and scale insects for him to study.
Besides the skulls, there were miscellaneous other collections… “on display” isn’t really the right word; more like “lying around.” Cases of butterflies and other insects, snakes preserved in alcohol, giant turtle shells, taxidermied birds, fossils, geodes, cocoons. One of the organizers spent a bunch of time showing us a set of drawers with beautiful mineral and crystal samples. Everyone there was unbelievably generous with their time.
It was a fascinating afternoon. Our interactions with the naturalists were remarkably lecture-free; instead, they were great at answering questions, pointing out an interesting detail or two, and asking questions that prompted the kids to make discoveries. Their deep enthusiasm and expertise was evident, yet no one made me feel like an idiot for being an interested novice. We will surely go back, and back, and back.