For as long as I can remember, my eight-year-old son has been fascinated by whales. Consequently, we've spent a lot of time exploring the displays in the American Museum of Natural History's Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, including many hours lying on the floor staring up at the famous 94-foot-long, 21,000-pound fiberglass Blue Whale model suspended from the ceiling. Now fans of these massive aquatic mammals like my kid can learn all about their evolution, biology and place in the cycle of life in the museum's new special exhibit Whales: Giants of the Deep.
As AMNH exhibits go, Whales: Giants of the Deep definitely skews older. There's a lot to read and not that many interactive elements, plus it touches on the whaling industry which might freak out some children.
The exhibit examines 80-odd species of whales and dolphins. Their evolution is incredible: Whales weren't always underwater. Eons ago they had four legs and feet with hooves, and recent research shows that they're actually closely related to hippos, sheep, pigs and giraffes! The contemporary biology of whales is also explored: Kids learn about the differences between toothed whales, like an orca or killer whale that hunts for food, and baleen whales, which eats by straining microscopic krill through their large mouths.
Whales also examines the relationship between whales and humans. Whales used to be a source of food, oil and raw materials for household objects and weapons for New Zealand's Māori tribe and other indigenous peoples from the Arctic, South America and the Pacific Northwest. The installation also touches on the American whaling industry of yore, with artifacts like a 1830s logbook from a Massachusetts' whaling ship, scrimshaw samples and an early illustrated edition of Moby Dick. If you have a sensitive child who will be upset by people killing whales, you may want to skip this area.
The centerpiece is a 58-foot-long sperm whale skeleton, which particularly intrigued my son and his young friends. Since sperm whales have square-shaped heads, they could tell from looking at the skull that the majority of it was made of flesh. How's that for scientific observation?
The highlight for my son and his friends was crawling inside a life-size replica of a blue whale's heart—it was almost as tall as I am! They also enjoyed the Search and Destroy theater, where they watched a virtual sperm whale attack and eat a giant squid, an animated short that was created using data from a digitally tagged whale. There are a handful of other interactive areas, like a sound booth where you can listen to the songs of the humpback whale, and a video game where you're a dolphin avoiding ocean obstacles (I have a feeling there will always be a line around that one).
But overall, Whales is heavy on reading, light on interaction. My son was into it but some of his friends lost interest pretty quickly. If you've got a hands-on kind of kid, you might end up blowing through this one pretty fast.
Whales: Giants of the Deep is on view at the American Museum of Natural History through January 5, 2014. Admission is $25 for adults, $14.50 for children ages 2-12.
Find out about other cool things to do this season in our Spring Fun Guide.