The National Museum of Natural History

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I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Today we visit the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C."I'll meet you by the elephant." That comment is heard a lot in Washington, D.C. The elephant is in an unusual place. It is in the center of a large building on the grassy Mall area of the capital city. It is the first thing visitors see when they enter the National Museum of Natural History.

The African elephant was 50 years old when it died in Angola in 1955. It weighed eight tons. It was so large the hunter decided to give its remains to the Smithsonian Institution. Scientists at the National Museum of Natural History used the bones and skin to rebuild the elephant.

As you enter the museum, you see a huge elephant that appears to be walking across the grassy area where it once lived. Visitors of all ages stop to look up in wonder at its size. Then they walk around the elephant. They read facts about the animal, hear sounds of its natural environment and watch short films. This is what makes the Natural History museum so popular. Visitors learn about the natural world in many different ways.

The National Museum of Natural History is one of the most visited museums the world. From six million to nine million people visit the building every year. More than one million of them are international visitors. The visitors come to the museum to see many interesting things: Examples of huge ancient dinosaurs. Beautiful rare diamonds and other jewels. Live insects. Remains of creatures that lived in ancient seas. Ancient and present day mammals. Objects from African, Asian and Pacific cultures.

The museum has the largest collection of any natural history museum in the world. There are more than 125 million objects in its collection.

Scientists have been collecting these specimens for almost 200 years. The collection keeps growing as scientists working for the museum continue to explore and collect around the world.The National Museum of Natural History opened in 1910. It was the third museum to be created as part of the Smithsonian Institution. It is a center for the study of humans and their natural surroundings through history. So the museum's collection includes specimens of animals, plants, rocks, ancient and present day organisms, and objects related to human development.

Through the years, how the collection is shown to the public has changed. The newest exhibit is about the history of mammals in the world. The purpose of the new Hall of Mammals is to show how all mammals, including humans, are related. Almost 300 mammals that look very life-like are shown in their different natural environments.

While seeing realistic- looking animals found in Africa, visitors hear sounds of a violent rainstorm around them. Adults look up on the wall to see a video of a giraffe, zebras and a hippo around a water hole. At the same time, children look down at the floor to see a video of what small animals are doing under ground.

Hans Sues is the associate director for Research and Collections. He is the chief scientist at the museum. Mr. Sues says the specimens collected through the years help scientists find out how animals and plant life developed. The scientists learn by using new technologies such as DNA research on the specimens. Or they learn by just being able to study older specimens.

For example, some fishermen and scientists were concerned about spots they found on sea animals called crabs. They wondered if human-made pollution caused the spots. So they looked at the museum's specimens of crabs collected almost 100 years ago. Some of them had the same spots. This was evidence that the spots happened naturally.

No one can observe the changes in our natural world during hundreds of years. So the collections of the National Museum of Natural History, and other natural history museums, are the only way for scientists to observe these changes over time.Scientists working for the Natural History museum are doing research in 50 to 100 countries at any time. Mr. Sues says museum scientists have been almost every place on Earth. Through their research they continue to find new information about the natural world and its people, animals and plants.

For example, in 2003, a team of scientists explored the little known islands of Kula Ring, near New Guinea. They found three new kinds of fish, five new kinds of insects called damselflies, and 60 new kinds of water bugs.

Other museum scientists have made recent discoveries about the earliest history of the solar system, early man, and the continuing damage to coral reefs. Mr. Sues says there are many more discoveries to be made. This is because there is so much to learn about the 4,000 million years of this planet's history.

Each year museum scientists report their research findings in more than 700 scientific publications. They report important discoveries to the public in newspapers, popular magazines and on television. Now, the huge worldwide expansion of the Internet is making it possible for people around the world to get this information.Millions of people who are unable to visit the National Museum of Natural History in Washington can see part of the museum's collection on computers. In the future, museum officials hope to make it possible for people to use computers to explore all of the museum.

Robert Sullivan is associate director for Public Programs for the National Museum of Natural History. He says museum officials are excited about how the Internet is expanding the reach of the museum and what it can offer.

Mr. Sullivan says that for years museum officials have known that learning by doing is the best way to teach people. He says the new broadband computer technology will make that kind of learning possible. People will be able to take "virtual tours" of the museum. They will be able to use computers to walk through exhibits, move and measure objects, visit scientific laboratories and ask questions of scientists. Mr. Sullivan says the new Internet technology will let museum officials create a space to explore, not just offer pictures and words.

The Website of the National Museum of Natural History -- www.mnh.si.edu --offers a lot of information. For example, you can go to the museum Web site to find out about the Earth and how it changes. By typing in "The Dynamic Earth", you can read about how rocks tell the history of the Earth. You can see the famous jewel called the Hope Diamond. Soon you will be able to learn about volcanoes.

If you are interested in animals, you can go to the North American Mammals site. It is a guide to the living mammals of North America with detailed descriptions and images of more than 400 animals.

Or you can find out about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. They explored the western part of the United States in the early 19th century. Computer users can follow the path the two explorers took and learn about the plants and animals they found.

The museum Web site is very popular with computer users and will become more so as it expands. Yet the real museum building will not be forgotten. Museum officials say a visit to the National Museum of Natural History will continue to be a family education experience.

They are developing new ways to make the exhibits provide a learning experience that works in many different ways. The next major change in the exhibit space is in progress now. Near the elephant, a large new exhibit is being built that will show why the ocean is important to understanding the natural world. Ocean Hall will open in 2008. It will use the newest technology to help people of all ages learn about life in the ocean. It will be one more way millions of visitors can have fun learning from the National Museum of Natural History.This program was written by Marilyn Christiano and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.