One of the first places we visited in Pittsburgh was the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The museum, which was founded in 1896 by Pittsburgh-based philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, is known for being one of the best places in the world to view dinosaur bones.
It’s also well known for being home to Dippy the Dinosaur (Dippy even has his own Twitter account, @Dippy_the_Dino). Dippy’s full name is Diplodocus carnegii. He was discovered in 1899 in Wyoming during an expedition that was funded by Carnegie. You can still see his fossil skeleton on display at the museum, as well as a giant life-sized fibreglass sculpture version of Dippy which stands just outside.
Like most kids, both of my girls are fascinated with dinosaurs. I hadn’t told them much about the museum beforehand other than the fact that there would be dinosaurs and that we would have the chance to dig for dino bones. When we arrived at the museum they opted to skip past everything else and head directly to the Bone Hunters’ Quarry. This interactive kid’s exhibit transports visitors to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, where Carnegie palaeontologists have been digging since 1909. The girls were given protective goggles, a chisel, and brush. The hard “rock bed” needed to be chipped away at gently to reveal the realistic fossil casts buried below.
Earlier in the month, the girls had dug for dinosaur bones at Dinosaurs Alive, and I think they were expecting this to be much the same experience. It wasn’t. That was a giant sandbox, this was a solid bed of “rock”, a.k.a. a much more realistic experience that mimics the conditions a palaeontologist would actually work in. This version required some patience, but, once she caught on, Grace was enthralled. She discovered the vague outline of a new bone and started carefully chipping away at it in between shrills of excitement. While four-year-old Gigi was more interested in playing with the giant magnifying glasses, just walking around and looking and poking at everything.
Eye on the clock I decided it was time to move on (though it took a bit to convince the girls that they might actually want to see some of the rest of the museum, and not just spend the entire time in Bone Hunters’ Quarry). We worked our way back through the dinosaur fossil exhibits. The kids loved it. Though having no frame of reference I don’t think my daughters realised just what an amazing collection of bones this was.
We were only scheduled for a short visit to the museum. Not anywhere near enough time to see the entire place. So we concentrated on the Dinosaurs in Their Time section of the museum. We took our time reading the displays, poking the interactive screens and enjoying the exhibits. We explored up a staircase and were rewarded with a view out over top of a room full of dinosaur skeletons.
The room we happened to discover at the top of that stairway was Discovery Basecamp. At first, I thought this was a play area for kids. There were some wooden puzzles and puppets laid out. There were also some “please touch” things; animals skins, fossils and bones, both real and replica, that the girls enjoyed checking out. But then I noticed the giant tackle boxes and realised just how truly brilliant this room was. We were almost out of time at this point, but this one room had me already planning a return trip.
See, from the quick peek I took, it looked like each discovery box was labelled to match with a section of the museum. You could borrow one of these portable boxes, take it with you to the corresponding section of the museum and then open it up for a hands-on kid friendly add on to the exhibit. Is that not brilliant? I would so love to go back and spend an entire day exploring the Carnegie Museum of Natural History with the aid of a few of these hands-on discovery boxes.
One of the other unique aspects of the museum is that it is an active research institution. You can actually stand directly outside of the Paleolab and watch through the transparent wall as staff prepare fossils, getting them ready for display or research. This was one of my favourite parts, though it didn’t excite the kids as much as I thought it would.
We also took a quick tour of the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems, and were impressed with the many unique and beautiful gemstones and minerals on display.
On our way out, we detoured into the Carnegie Museum of Art side of things to take a peek at the Hall of Architecture. This stop was purely for me, as I love anything related to ancient Greece and Rome. It was a brief stop while I snapped some photos. At the time I didn’t realise it but this lovely skylit room full of plaster casts had a deep impact on the Gracie who is still talking about it weeks later.
Overall, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is definitely worth a visit. If you are in Pittsburgh, this is a must see stop. I’d even go so far as to say that it would be worth planning a family trip to Pittsburgh for this museum alone. I’m a bit of a museum junkie, and this was a museum I would definitely love to return to and spend an entire day exploring. You pay one admission to access both the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum of Art. The museums are also part of the Association of Science – Technology Centers Travel Passport Program, which means if you already have a membership at your local science museum you may be able to enter for free (so for example, if you already have a membership with the Ontario Science Center you’d be covered).