A VIP Tour of Rhode Island’s Only Natural History Museum

Get lost in a world of discovery in our own city


Dear reader, allow me a moment to geek out.

I’m obsessed with the natural world around me, and was thrilled at the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes tour of Rhode Island’s only natural history museum. A museum is a place to let your imagination loose, an opportunity to explore history and be immersed in a moment in time. New York City and Chicago come to mind when folks talk about museums. But there’s no reason to travel great lengths to get your history fix. Roger Williams Park is home to the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, the only one of its kind in Rhode Island. It contains over one quarter million objects of natural and cultural history, with roughly 5,000 items on display at any time. The rest is kept in the temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults that open to the public twice a year (unless you get a sneak peek like this writer).

It’s not all about animals and plants though. Exploring the museum puts you face-to-face with long lost cultures. How they lived, hunted, fished and adorned themselves may be all that remains, but you can put yourself in that moment, that headdress, that necklace. Let your imagination take hold, you may be surprised what you leave the museum with.

The Tour Begins

Upon entering the museum, the jawbone of a right whale greets you. It’s a bit like Pinocchio, walking through what would be the mouth of a whale and into the unknown… or the lobby. Once inside, it’s hard to miss the grand staircase with a bear on the landing, upright, its claws outstretched, beckoning visitors to explore.

The lobby is an area curated by the museum’s docents. It includes some history about the Betsey Williams Cottage, the early history of the park, even a little about the zoo. It’s a chance to see how the grounds have changed through the years.

Celebrating Africa

Through a stately arch and into the next room, a cheetah and lion are preserved in all their glory: strong, magnificent, stunning. Walk up to the mammals, take a long hard stare into their eyes and imagine being on the receiving end of their chase. The teeth, the claws, the perfectly attuned body for the hunt.

There are also tapestries and statues, a nod to a time when everything was made by hand. “We highlighted three distinct regions,” explains Renée Gamba, director of the museum. “Africa is not a homogeneous continent, we wanted to make sure we divided it up.” The regions are easily distinguishable by the color of the display, and truly highlights the vibrant cultures.

Shifting Through Time

Winding through the historic museum, the Seismic Shifts room tells the story of Earth through the eons. This is the room where fossils, minerals and rocks are on display. The back wall highlights the geologic time scale, and explains how Earth is constantly changing, even now. Like global warming, for instance, as shown by the life size polar bears on display, a mother and her cub. If you were to get a foot away from a polar bear in real life, it would most likely be because you’re its meal. In this case, you can admire the fur, the gigantic paws, how tiny a cub truly is and perhaps make a mental note that just because there are no ice caps melting in Rhode Island, these creatures are losing their habitat.

The Birds and the Bees

Walking up a creaky, winding staircase and into the Natural Selections exhibit, a lioness and her three cubs welcome you. Turning the corner is a staged parlor behind a wooden railing. There’s a desk with an antique globe, preserved birds atop a white marble mantle, bookcases filled with animals from around the world and a glass room divider adorned with preserved birds inside it. I would imagine that explorers of yesteryear had a room similar to this while they were discovering new species on extended voyages.

Adjacent to the parlor is an active beehive on a desk with a duct leading outside. Sitting and watching the bees in action is better than any Discovery Channel documentary because it’s alive and in front you. Knowing that there’s no risk of being stung certainly helps maintain the excitement.

Preserved birds also pepper the room, and are Renée’s favorite. “I love the birds and I love being outside,” she explains. “With the natural selections exhibit, I did all of the cleaning and prepping of the birds.” The museum only has a staff of seven, so everyone does everything.

Out of This World

Continuing through the museum, the NASA room is a must-see. Starting this month, there will be Mars ascent vehicles on display, designed by RISD students for the exhibit The Red Planet: Journey to Mars. “When you say the Red Planet, everybody knows it,” Renée says. “This exhibit can show students that science is happening right here.” The back wall shows the process of how RISD students designed the ascent vehicles, working with the guidelines provided by their professor Michael Lye, an industrial designer and educator at RISD.

You’ll also see what scientists learned from the ascent vehicles, like what the geology and climatology is like on Mars, and, of course, the technology that NASA used for the mission. Basically, you get to see first hand what NASA is working with.

Life on an Island

The last room to explore looks like the ocean. Polished wooden cases hold treasures on a green background, and the wooden cases along the walls have a vibrant blue interior. It’s the perfect canvas to spotlight island populations. Artifacts from archipelagos like Polynesia, Micronesia, Fiji, Hawaii and Papua New Guinea are showcased. Imagine an entire primitive culture on an island, having only the resources of a very small area, needing to use everything and making sure nothing goes to waste. What you end up with are wooden bowls, jewelry made from shells and hog tusks, headdresses made from cornhusks.

In keeping with the rest of the exhibit halls, there is natural history on display here as well. Did you know that albatrosses are the size of a small dog? Or that clamshells can get as big as a small trunk?

This world is so big, and contains so many amazing species and cultures that have come and gone. The Museum of Natural History is a fascinating place to explore it.

Museum of Natural History and Planetarium

Roger Williams Park, 1000 Elmwood Avenue




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