Location: 1345 Jayhawk Blvd, Lawrence, KS 66045 (the museum is next to the Union on KU Campus)
Cost: Requested donation of $5 for adults and $3 for children, but you don’t have to donate to enter.
Web site: http://naturalhistory.ku.edu/
I hadn’t been to the Natural History Museum for years. My father’s a KU graduate (three times over–undergrad, grad school and law school), so we came to campus a fair lot when I was younger. What I remember the clearest are dioramas of early man where you could push a button to hear narration and other sound effects–those made quite an impression on me as a kid. Of course, there’s also Comanche, the sole survivor of Custer’s Last Stand–Custer’s horse (Dad’s a big Comanche fan). If you have similar fond memories of the museum, I recommend keeping them that way–don’t go back. The present-day reality is bleak and disappointing.
There’s nothing like walking into a state-run institution, asking if they’ve got anything for the visually impaired, and getting a flat-out “no” in response. What I took as an expression of ignorance–surely there was SOMETHING in the museum Peanut could enjoy–turned out to be a bleak reality. The museum is in poor repair, has no accessibility other than token efforts for the wheelchair-bound, and is very, very dark.
The first floor of the museum (fourth floor of the building) features a panorama of animal life in different habitats,
Comanche and the museum gift shop. The panorama is actually pretty neat, with tons of animals in cunningly designed exhibits. There are two activity carts that do have some
tactile elements, including one that helps you find out what different types of fur can do and identify that fur on your own. There’s also a polar bear on display without any “do not touch” signs on it . . . so you know it, we touched!
We then headed down to the third floor, where there are honest-to-God dinosaur fossils, most from creatures that lived in the Inland Sea when Kansas was ocean-bottom property. Unfortunately, the only thing older than the exhibits down here are the dinosaurs themselves: the exhibits haven’t kept up with the changing science. One exhibit mentioned the brontosaurus, for example, but as a Dinosaur Train watcher (there’s a lot of PBS in our household), I know that the brontosaurus isn’t a brontosaurus any more. I can’t remember what it *is* called, but I know it’s not a brontosaurus. The displays weren’t very engaging or very informative in this section, and the cave-like halls were very, very dark.
Also on this floor is the “Bug Town” exhibit. There’s a tunnel kids can crawl through with a raggedy stuffed earthworm, a variety of insects in glass tanks, and a “bug movie theater” that wasn’t working. It’s a lot of space without a lot of interest, although it was far better lit than most of the rest of the museum.
Next, trying to find the dioramas, we headed up to the fifth floor to “explore evolutionary science.” Again, virtually anything involving electronics was malfunctioning, and there was a lot of space with very little interest. There was a huge plaque thanking a large number of people for their involvement in the exhibit; I’m thinking if the people saw the exhibit, they would want their names removed from the plaque.
Finally, we headed up to the sixth floor, which promised live animals, for a quick visit. Of all the floors we visited, this was in the worst repair.
The photo at right shows typical maintenance for the museum: part of the lettering in “Birds in Kansas Wetlands” has fallen off and broken on the floor of the cabinet, but no one has bothered to fix it. There are clear tracks in the dust where the letters fell, so no one has bothered to clean this exhibit in a long time, either.
The “live animals” on this floor were snakes in gaudy habitats; you can see the same snakes in better habitats–with braille!–at the Prairie Park Nature Center. The openings to the displays are higher than the bottoms of the habitats, so all of the snakes on our visit were huddled under the edge of the window, making them impossible to see for this sighted mom, let alone for my vision-impaired toddler. There is a bee exhibit on this floor that has an active hive with outdoor access (meaning the bees can come and go from the museum as they please), but you can’t get close to the glass to actually see the bees because of the faux-tree display that houses the hive.
All in all, the Natural History Museum was a huge disappointment. The hallways are so dark that you feel like you’re in a cave. Some displays are theoretically being renovated, as there were several areas with empty cases, but even the new exhibits leave a great deal to be desired. There are enormous amounts of taxidermy, but many exhibits are in poor repair or simply outdated. Regardless of how good your vision is, the KU Natural History Museum is a site to skip.
(For those who are curious–those early-man dioramas? They’re gone.)