Today we will be discussing the history of natural history museums in America and the Western World.
Many natural history museums, in America and in the western world, were developed during the nineteenth century. These museums are both places to view and understand nature, they are also places that have a history in themselves. Museum goers look at dioramas of rare or extinct taxidermied animals, perhaps realizing that some of those animals behind glass were among the last of their kind, solemnly gunned down so that they might not be totally lost to us here in the 21st century and beyond. Today we will be discussing the history of natural history museums in America and the Western World.

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Transcript of The Rise of Natural History Museums

Researched and written by Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Produced by Elizabeth Garner Masarik and Marissa Rhodes

Elizabeth: Before motion pictures, reliable camera equipment, Google- the only way scientists could impart the enormous breadth and scope of the natural world, besides hand written notes and sketch drawings, was to bring physical specimens back from the field and into the laboratory or museum. This included shooting and skinning animals, birds and reptiles, it included preserving delicate marine organisms in bottles of alcohol, it included pressing and drying plants, and accumulating pounds and pounds of rocks and fossils. Early scientific expeditions typically returned with staggering amounts of objects from the field.

The typical natural history institution displays only about 1% or less of its specimen collection. The rest–often hundreds of thousands of specimens–is catalogued and stored away, inaccessible to the public. Unlike exhibit quality taxidermy, scientific specimens, like study skins, are prepared to be uniform and compact, able to fit and be stored in tiny museum drawers. Study skins provide a wealth of information about the external characteristics of an animal. With a large enough collection one can see the range of a species from geography, age, changing seasons, and even the time period. One large collection of a species of birds for instance could show all of the subtle changes in plumage over the seasons.

The visible portion of the museum is typically for the public. To excite and inspire. Many natural history museums, in America and in the western world, were developed during the nineteenth century. These museums are both places to view and understand nature, they are also places that have a history in themselves. Museum goers look at dioramas of rare or extinct taxidermied animals, perhaps realizing that some of those animals behind glass were among the last of their kind, solemnly gunned down so that they might not be totally lost to us here in the 21st century and beyond. Today we will be discussing the history of natural history museums in America and the Western World.

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Marissa

And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig.

Marissa: Collections of natural curiosities can be traced back to paleolithic times. People collect stuff. Perhaps we’re like little magpies but we’re also constantly curious about the world around us and we have an insatiable need to figure stuff out. But we also like cool looking sh*&.

Elizabeth: The word museum has classical origins. In its Greek form, mouseion, it meant “seat of the Muses” and designated a philosophical institution or a place of contemplation. But these were more like pseudo-universities, not really places of collection, like Ptolemy’s museum at Alexandria.

Marissa: Many Chinese emperors promoted the arts which manifested in fine works of painting, calligraphy, metalwork, jade, glass, and pottery. The Han emperor Wu-ti (reigned 141/140–87/86 BC) established an academy that contained paintings and calligraphies from each of the Chinese provinces, and the last Han emperor, Hsien-ti [shyuhn-tee] (abdicated AD 220), established a gallery containing portraits of his ministers.

Elizabeth: At roughly the same time, Islamic communities were making collections of relics at the tombs of early Muslim martyrs. The idea of waqf [/vʌkf/], formalized by Muḥammad himself, whereby property was given for the public good and for religious purposes, also resulted in the formation of collections.

Marissa: The word museum was revived in 15th-century Europe to describe the collection of the de’ Medici in Florence. The Medici family was a political dynasty and later a royal house founded on banking, wealth, and patronage. The family controlled Florence for centuries, so much so that four Medici men became popes of the Catholic Church.

a painting of francesco de medici

Francesco I de Medici | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Cosimo Medici, or Cosimo I (1519-1574) became a passionate collector of antiquities and rare objects. His collection was carried on and built upon by his descendants. In 1570 a secret studiolo was built for Francesco I de’ Medici, who became the first Grand Duke of Tuscany and ruler of the Florentine state in 1574 inside the Palazzo Medici. In order to display some of the Medici paintings, the upper floor of the Uffizi Palace (designed to hold offices, or uffizi) was converted and opened to the public in 1582. The collection was bequeathed to the state in 1743, to be accessible “to the people of Tuscany and to all nations.”

Marissa: By the end of the sixteenth century, establishing a musaeum was common across Europe in courtly circles. They took on different forms and names according to the settings and collections: pandechion, studiolo, gabinetto, wunderkammer, galleria, and kunstkammer. These ‘cabinets’, which have become known as ‘cabinets of curiosities’, were initially a room that might include books, coins, artwork, and natural history-type curiosities.

Elizabeth: An early naturalist was a Danish physician, Olaus Worm whose Museum Wormianum in 1655 held buckets and bins of crystals amid piles of dried pufferfish. He had dried snake skins on the walls as well as a stuffed lemur, iguanas and an armadillo. Stuffed birds, fish and a shark hung from the ceiling.

a black and white etching of Worm's museum

Olaus Worm’s Musei Wormiani Historia | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: The great voyages of exploration during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were what really pushed the interest in collecting natural history artifacts, or natural curiosities. Early collectors prized the strange and unusual. Aesthetics determined the layout of early museums more than say region, or function. So a stuffed alligator might live next to an ostrich egg.

Elizabeth: In 1758, with the publication of the encyclopaedic Systema Naturae, Carl Linnaeus attempted to classify nature. Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist, who created the modern system of naming organisms called binomial nomenclature.
The Linnaean system classified nature within a nested hierarchy, starting with three kingdoms. Kingdoms were divided into classes and they, in turn, into orders, and thence into genera (singular: genus), which were divided into Species (singular: species).[152] Below the rank of species he sometimes recognised taxa of a lower (unnamed) rank; these have since acquired standardised names such as variety in botany and subspecies in zoology. Modern taxonomy includes a rank of family between order and genus and a rank of phylum between kingdom and class that were not present in Linnaeus’ original system.
Linnaeus recorded the sense of wonder evoked by the astonishing colors, extremes of size, and unique structures in the natural world. Scientists, both professional and layperson, set about naming and categorizing animal and plant species.

Sarah Stone Watercolor - Natural History Museums

Watercolor of interior view of Sir Ashton Levers Museum London painted by Sarah Stone. This rare interior view is of one of England’s most notable late-eighteenth century private natural history museums displaying items collected on Cook’s and other voyages to Australia and the Pacific. Creative Commons

Marissa: In the eighteenth century a London-based naturalist, Sir Ashton Lever, turned his home into his Holophusicon, or “all nature museum.” A lot of its contents were acquired from the voyages of Captain James Cook. The collection was displayed in London beginning in 1775 and passed through various owners until finally being dismantled in 1806. The contents of the museum were well recorded, from a catalog of the museum created in 1784, and the sale catalog from 1806, and a contemporary series of watercolors of its contents painted by British naturalist, Sarah Stone. The watercolors show glass-fronted display cases containing thousands of mammals and birds including flamingos, sloths, a kangaroo and a full-size Asian elephant.

Elizabeth: The nineteenth century saw an enormous increase in the popularity of studying nature. In America particularly, one didn’t have to be rich or well educated to study nature. With the exploration and movement west, Americans of all social status had access to nature.

A painting of a young John James Audubon

John James Audubon, painted by John Syme | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: One of the grandfathers of modern natural history is John James Audubon. Audubon was born in 1785 in Saint-Dominque (modern Haiti). He was the illegitimate son of a French merchant, planter, and slave trader and a Creole woman from Saint-Domingue, most probably one of the family’s domestic servants. Audubon Sr. fled during Haiti’s slave revolts to France where Audubon was educated. When he turned 18, Audubon changed his name from Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon to John James Audubon and moved to Pennsylvania in 1803. He became obsessed with studying and painting wild birds. There was no formal training in ornithology, he taught himself the scientific study of birds. He shot birds he wanted to study, then took them back to his studio where he propped them up on twigs and sticks and painted them while they were still fresh. He conducted the first known bird-banding in America by tying yarn to the legs of eastern phoebes. By doing this he determined that they returned to the same nesting spots year after year. He also made an enormous collection of study skins which he used as a reference collection when creating his paintings of birds. He won renown as the foremost US ornithologist for The Birds of America, produced between 1827 and 1838, which included over 1,000 lifesize pictures of about 500 species. After 1827, he primarily resided in Edinburgh, Scotland, and produced an Ornithological Biography, which consisted of five volumes produced between 1831 and 1839, and Synopsis of the Birds of North America in 1839.

Elizabeth: And we do want to mention that the National Audubon Society allows you to view and download in high resolution all of Audubon’s watercolors for free. The society also does conservation work. You can check that out at

Marissa: One of the earliest natural history museums in America was put together by a well-to-do Pennsylvanian named Charles Wilson Peale. Peale had served with George Washington at Trenton, New Jersey. After the revolution he opened a gallery were he displayed and sold portraits of famous revolutionaries. He began to add natural history artifacts to his displays and soon decided to devote his attention to creating a natural history museum. There were few books or resources available on taxidermy during the time so Peale mostly taught himself how to skin and stuff animals for display. Because Peale was foremost an artist, he began making elaborate displays for the taxidermy he created. The collection grew and soon was moved to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Later his brand of museum opened in Baltimore and New York. Unfortunately Peale struggled financially and he had to sell his collections.

Elizabeth: A lot of his collection was sold to P.T. Barnum yes that P.T. Barnum – of circus fame-, whom many considered to be a sham and a huckster. Phineas Taylor Barnum’s dime museum was located in lower Manhattan, at the corner of Ann and Broadway. If you’ve seen Gangs of New York, there’s a good shot of what the museum looked like during the New York Draft Riot scene. Also, besides some of it’s flaws, I think the recently released The Greatest Showman with Hugh Jackman did a good job of showing what the museum looked like from the outside. Barnum’s American Museum was an enormous five story building. He covered it with brightly colored banners and giant colorful posters from top to bottom. There was even a taxidermy shop where for a fee, you could drop off your dead pet and have it stuffed and ready to take home by the end of the day.

Marissa: Inside he had the first floor gallery filled with glass cases, or cabinets, of stuffed animals. Barnum boasted that his American Museum was an “encyclopedic synopsis of everything worth seeing in this curious world.” It was said that his museum housed over 850,000 curiosities, some of them real, some of them fake. He was famous for showcasing outlandish hoaxes and made it no secret that part of the fun of the museum was not really knowing what was real and what was fake.

Elizabeth: One of Barnum’s most famous, and most audacious, deceptions played on the tools of natural history connoisseurs. He obtained a taxidermy mount of a “mermaid.” Instead of displaying it right away however, Barnum wildly hyped the mermaid, filling papers with tales of how the strange taxidermy mermaid was discovered in the far off islands of Hawaii. He called it the “Fejee Mermaid.” Posters advertised a voluptuous womanly mermaid, like the sea sirens of fictional lore. But, when the public was finally admitted to see the mermaid, after weeks of Barnum’s hype, they were sorely disappointed to find an extremely shriveled 18 inch long “mermaid.” It was an obvious fake, the work of Japaneses craftsment stitching together a monkey torso and a fish tail as a novelty item for sailors. For Barnum this was all part of his showman schtick, and all in good fun. However, real naturalists were infuriated. Barnum was making a farce of their science. He had bought up all of Peale’s specimens and was profiting off of natural history for inglorious, self-absorbed fame.

Marissa: But there were also American movements among the scientific community and naturalist hunters to establish more “respectable” natural history museums. One was of course, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth: The Smithsonian Institution came into existence through the remarkable bequest of nearly one-half million dollars in 1838 from James Smithson, an Englishman. He was impressed with the democratization of science in America and gave his entire fortune to the United States with the wish “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, and Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” And just an interesting aside here, he had his fortune shipped to the United States in ten wooden box crates aboard a ship. Each crate was filled with a thousand pounds of gold. No one was sure what this institution should be. Some argued that it should be a national observatory; others said it should be a university, a library, perhaps a museum- this all produced a bit of a stalemate.
In an attempt to force Congress’s hand, former Secretary of War Joel Poinsett created the National Institute for the Promotion of Science. He wanted the new institution to be the caretaker of the collections from the United States Exploring Expedition.

Marissa: The United States Exploring Expedition was called it the U.S. Ex. Ex., or simply the Ex. Ex., This was an ambitious expedition between the years of 1838-1842 consisting of six sailing vessels and 346 men, including nine scientists and artists. Besides establishing a stronger diplomatic presence throughout the Pacific, the Expedition sought to provide much-needed charts to American whalers, sealers, and China traders throughout the Pacific ocean. The Ex Ex was conducted under the direction of Charles Wilkes. One of the naturalists on board was Titian Peale, the son of Charles Wilson Peale whose natural history collections had been sold off to P.T. Barnum. Titian Peale had already accompanied expeditions to Florida and the West. He was a capable artist and an excellent naturalist hunter. The Ex Ex brought back tons of artifacts. The collection was first housed in the newly built US Patent Office and overseen by Wilkes. He had a sign installed over the entrance to the rooms where the collection was housed that read “Collection of the Exploring Expedition” in large gold letters.

Elizabeth: In 1846 the U.S. Congress passed legislation establishing the Smithsonian as an institution charged with representing “all objects of art and curious research . . . natural history, plants, [and] geological and mineralogical specimens” belonging to the United States. The U.S. National Museum opened in 1858 as part of the Smithsonian’s scientific program and formed the first of its many museums, most of which stand along the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Marissa: But, it still wasn’t clear at the beginning exactly what the Smithsonian Institution would be. It’s first director, Joseph Henry, was insistent that the institution be solely for scientific research, not a museum. Henry was part of a young group of scientists who were replacing the amateur collectors of the previous era. He envisioned the institution as a place for the practice of new science. He wanted space for laboratories and wanted the publication of scientific results. He did not want the resources of the endowment to maintain the display of a substantial collection of artifacts that would require a large, expensive building and a sizeable staff. One of his first moves was to refuse the Ex Ex collection and so it stayed at the Patent office.

a color photograph of the smithsonian castle

The Smithsonian Castle | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Now luckily for us- the people who love to geek out at museums- there was enough interest in Congress for the Smithsonian Institution to become America’s national museum. A new building was commissioned, which is now known as the “Castle on the Mall.” It’s a palatial, ornate Norman design and yeah, it looks like a castle.

Marissa: By 1850, it was clear that Henry needed an assistant to handle museum matters.The first museum curator hired was a man named Spencer Baird. Baird had always been a naturalist collector. He started out as a boy corresponding with John James Audubon who was in the process of preparing his book, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America- which that included descriptions and illustrations of every mammal on the continent. Audubon and his partner John Bachman, recruited and army of boy hunters to send them specimens of mice, shrews, rats- all manner of small mammals for examination. Audubon became one of Baird’s mentors and taught him how to draw and introduced him to the best taxidermists of the period.

Elizabeth: Baird had even been one of the people charged with sorting and labeling all of the zoological collections from the US Ex Ex when they were initially shipped to Washington.

Marissa: Baird became the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution in 1850 and oversaw the transfer of the Ex Ex collection to the Smithsonian in 1858. The Institution’s collection had already grown to the extent that the Ex. Ex. collection accounted for just one-fifth of the Institution’s total natural history holdings. The enormous space of the Smithsonian’s hall allowed Baird to expand and refresh the original Ex. Ex. exhibit, and much as Wilkes had done at the Patent Office fifteen years before, the words “National Museum of the United States” were placed above the entrance.

Elizabeth: One way Baird filled the Smithsonian with examples of natural history is he enlisted the help of auxiliary naturalists to help build the museum. Taking a cue from his mentor Audubon, Baird enlisted the help of naturalist foot soldiers in the US Army. When the US Congress authorized the Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853-1855, to figure out the best routes for the transcontinental railroad, the survey team of engineers and surveyors was accompanied by thousands of soldiers. Baird recruited soldiers to collect natural-history data along the way. Many soldiers signed on to help. A lot of them were already amateur natualistists and crack shots. Plus, Baird made a point of recruiting Army medics, whose familiarity with anatomy made them better at preparing specimens. The Pacific Railroad Surveys resulted in the collection of thousands of specimens for the Smithsonian Museum.

Marissa: To be clear, most natural history museums from the nineteenth century were filled with flora and fauna collected by both professional naturalists and amateurs. Teddy Roosevelt was one such amateur. As a child and young adult he had made his own museum of natural history in a room of his family’s New York City home. In fact, before he married his first wife Alice, he dismantled his collection and sent most of the specimens to the Smithsonian Institute and the New York American Museum of Natural History. When he did so though, he was just like hundreds of other amateur naturalists around the world who regularly donated their specimens to natural history museums. Roosevelt however continued to ship specimens to both museums throughout his lifetime. Many which are still there. Just for example, the Smithsonian still has some study skins of voles collected by TR, one from 1870 that he made when he was only twelve years old. Two of the elephants in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum in New York were shot by Roosevelt and his son Kermit.

Elizabeth: Men like Roosevelt called themselves hunter-naturalists. It’s a nineteenth century term for avid hunters who were also students of nature. Although more of a term for amateurs, people like John James Audubon, Charles and Titian Peale, and the famed taxidermist Charles Akeley (who we’ll discuss in a minute) also fit the term. Hunter naturalists were also seen as a key component of conservation efforts. Magazines such as Forest and Stream began in earnest around 1876 to advocate for sportsmen to study the animals they hunted, set reasonable limits on hunts, and adopt a strict code of hunting conduct- sportsmanship- so that there might be something left to hunt in the future. People knew that animals were going extinct. The bison were almost completely gone where they had once roamed in the millions. People knew that something had to be done in order to protect conserve what nature there was left. The hunter-naturalists displayed an ecological consciousness and a commitment to conservation and wildlife management but they were not sentimental nor overly romantic about nature. John Burrough’s, an American naturalist and nature essayist who was extremely active in the U.S. conservation movement remarked: “Nature does not care whether the hunter slay the beast or the beast the hunter. She will make good compost of them both, and her ends are prospered whichever succeeds.” But they were not without their detractors. Many people called them “game butchers” and decried any type of hunting, particularly of big game that were becoming more and more scarce. Most of the big game in the American west was decimated and that was beginning to happen to many African species in the late nineteenth century too.

Marissa: For natural history museums however, this was the way they got their exibits, by hunting, killing, skinning, and stuffing animal specimens. “Collecting” animals for the education of posterity seemed as a last hope for many conservationists.

Elizabeth: One of these people was taxidermist Carl Akeley. He brought a revolutionary level of detail to his work, which featured molded muscles and tendons covered with real skin and fur, essentially he was reconstructing the animal from the inside out. Dioramas by Akeley and others like him were built for conservations sake. They were bringing nature to the public, trying to show people what the animals looked like in their natural habitat. They wanted the public to appreciate nature, even though hundreds of animals were being killed in order to get the perfect specimen. In 1909 Akeley accompanied Theodore Roosevelt on a year-long expedition in Africa funded by the Smithsonian Institution and began working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where his efforts can still be seen in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals – where the previously mentioned elephants shot by the Roosevelts are still on display, taxidermied by Akeley. It was a means by which the natural history museums hoped to preserve images of these species which they felt were in danger of extinction. Akeley never stopped being a taxidermist, but he was able to persuade the Belgian government to create the first wildlife sanctuary in Africa, which in turn probably protected the mountain gorillas from going extinct. So needless to say, the legacy of these nineteenth century naturalist hunters and natural history museums is complicated.

Marissa: Now it’s safe to say that natural history museums have inspired thousands of people to become scientists themselves. It’s impossible to count how many school children have seen these exhibits over the years and went on to do great things in their lives. These museums inspire us and connect us to a larger world. They are also however, products of their time, and are historical artifacts in themselves. For example, natural history museums often misrepresent nature in profound ways. One way is in the sex ratio of animal exhibits. A case study published in 2008 found that in a typical natural history gallery and found that only 29 percent of the mammals, and 34 percent of the birds were female. And so if you’re thinking about all these naturalist hunters out in the world killing these animals for the purpose of being mounted as museum specimens-they are going to want to send the largest specimens- the animals with big horns, antlers, tusks or showy plumage. And those types of animals are typically the male in the species. So although understandable, the sex bias creates a misrepresentation of nature. Additionally, the study found that in most displays of male and female specimens of the same species, when displayed together, the males were typically positioned in a domineering pose over the female irrespective of biological realities.

Elizabeth: Other ways natural history museums highlight their grounding in the nineteenth century is through their colonial lens. Collecting became part of the act of colonization. American natural history museums are full of artifacts from the conquered West and Southwest. In British museums there are larger amounts of artifacts and specimens from colonial holdings like Australia than say from China.

Marissa: But natural history museums aren’t all that we see as visitors. Behind closed doors, they house shelves and shelves of thousands of specimens.The average institution displays only about 1% or less of its store. The rest–often hundreds of thousands of specimens–is catalogued and stored away, inaccessible to the public. And those specimens are actually still producing scientific discoveries! Natural history collections from across the globe hold thousands of species awaiting identification. Researchers today actually find more new animal and plant species by sifting through decades-old specimens than they do by going out into the field and surveying tropical forests and remote landscapes. An estimated three-quarters of newly named mammal species are already part of a natural-history collection at the time they are identified. Unfortunately, they can sometimes sit unrecognized for a century or longer, hidden in drawers, half-forgotten in jars, misidentified, or unlabelled.

Elizabeth: These collections are becoming increasingly valuable thanks to newly developed techniques. DNA sequencing, digital registries and other advances are allowing scientists to study existing museum collections in new ways. It shows more about Earth’s biodiversity but also how quickly that diversity is disappearing. Unfortunately, as these collections are growing more valuable, they are also quickly falling into decline. Many institutions like museums and universities are struggling with significant budget cuts.This results in many collections being neglected, damaged or lost altogether. Additionally the scientists who study them are also dwindling as their academic positions disappear. Across North America, more than 100 herbaria, or preserved plant specimens and associated data used for scientific study, have closed in the past two decades. In the United Kingdom, at least 64 museums have closed since 2010, with the majority of those being natural history-type museums. There was a pretty big ruckus over a collection in Louisiana a few years ago when Monroe University told the biology department they had to find another institution to take over its extensive collection of Louisiana plants and fish, one of the largest and most complete in the state, within a few months or the collection would be destroyed. Now through the power of social media the university backed away from their threat but unfortunately the situation was not that out of the ordinary.

Marissa: These collections are overseen by a shrinking contingent of managers and curators. And we’re not just talking about small university collections, we’re talking about the big ones. For example the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, had 39 curators in 2001, there were 21 in 2015. The National Museum of Natural History had 122 curators in 1993 and 81 in 2015. Many museums are emphasizing education and entertainment as they cut back on curatorial staff.

Elizabeth: Museums are also trying to reach wider audiences by digitizing their collections and making them more accessible. Which makes the collection more widely available for research and accessible even to the general public. But of course, that also takes money and time- something which many institutions simply do not have.
So lots to think about yeah? We invite you to visit our show notes on for sources and further reading. And also, we’ve also completely skipped over the anthropological, humans aspect of these types of museums. But don’t worry- Sarah will cover that whole jar of worms in a future episode.


Thomas L. Altherr, “The American Hunter—Naturalist and the Development of the Code of Sportsmanship,” Journal of Sport History, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 1978), pp. 7-22.

Jack Ashby, The Hidden Biases That Shape Natural History Museums


Christopher Kemp,“The Endangered Dead,” Nature, (Feb. 19, 2015).

Jay Kirk, Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man’s Quest to Preserve the World’s Great Animals, (Macmillan), 2010.

Sarah Laskow, It’s Hard to Be a Natural History Museum in the 21st Century

Darrin Lund, The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History, (Broadway Books), 2016.

Nathaniel Philbrick, The US Exploring Expedition

Susan Sheets-Pyenson, Cathedrals of Science: The Development of Colonial Natural History Museums during the Late Nineteenth Century, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 1988.

The history of the natural history museum. #smithsonian #museum #science #naturalhistory #history


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