Evelin was so nice to me yesterday: We got to do all the things I wanted to do.
First, we headed down to The Mall to see the new Hall of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History. Fantastic! The Smithsonian did a really good job with this, mixing dioramas with animals standing alone in naturalistic poses. Some of the animals were carried over from the old exhibits, and retain their old poses, for example the leaping tiger, but others are new additions the collection.
Actually, two new additions have me wondering: The two giraffes on display are both Masai giraffes, and a person at the information desk told me that they were not part of the old collection. Both Ryma and Griff, adult Masai giraffes at the National Zoo, died within the past four or so years and the zoo is part of the Smithsonian, which makes me wonder if the two giraffes on display in the new Hall of Mammals were Ryma and Griff. On one level it seems a touch ghoulish, but if the museum is going to display dead animals, I guess it's better to take advantage of locally sourced animals that died of a natural death rather than mounting expeditions to "collect" new specimens, as would have been done in the old days. The Natural History website has an interesting online exhibit about what the taxidermy team does to get the animals ready for display.
[ADDENDUM: Well, it seems likely that the giraffes in the hall are (were?) Ryma and Griff. An short article in the November issue of Smithsonian notes that while some of the animals came from the old Hall of Mammals, "The rest of the specimens -- including the orangutan, which came from the National Zoo [his name when he was at the zoo was Tucker] -- are more recently departed residents of zoos, game preserves and research facilities." The Holland [Michigan] Sentinel has a Washington Post wire story with more about the work of the taxidermists and a few references as to sources of the animals in the new hall.
addendum continued ... Actually, the idea of displaying animals at Natural History who were on exhibit at the National Zoo during their lifetimes shouldn't be surprising. In 1999, when Hsing Hsing, one of the two giant pandas given to the United States by Mao Zedong, died, there were plans -- delayed and eventually scrapped -- to have him exhibited in the Natural History rotunda near the African Elephant. There is a panda in the new hall, but it is not Hsing Hsing or Ling Ling.
addendum continued ... I'll probably revisit all this in another posting later, but according to a Washington Post article, some of the mammals were, in a sense, collected new for the new hall. Kenneth E. Behring, who donated a lot of money to renovate the hall, is a big-game hunter, and he donated some specimens from his collection for use in the new Hall of Mammals.]
From there we wandered back to our car, walking through the National Gallery of Art to avoid a little of the cold. I haven't been through there in a while, and we took a walk through the new sculpture galleries, which are really nice and flooded with natural light.
In the late afternoon, we caught a matinee of Love Actually at the Old Greenbelt. Super-cute Christmas date movie. I've liked Richard Curtis's other work (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Black Adder, The Vicar of Dibley, etc.), so I was looking forward to Love Actually and wasn't disappointed.
Afterwards, we flipped by Franklin's for a quick dinner and then it was off to the University of Maryland Observatory for its twice-monthly open house. After a short lecture by Elizabeth Warner, director of the observatory, about what's going on in the night sky during the first half of 2004, we got to take some peeks through the observatory's telescopes, espying the Pleiades, Andromeda, and Saturn. The Pleiades were similar to the naked-eye view, just greater distance between the seven sisters; Andromeda was just a bit of diffuse light; but Saturn was so cool. You could see the rings, even a bit of separation between rings. The person who looked before Evelin and I did was able to pick out moons, but we couldn't. Still it was really neat.
When we got home, I tried looking at Saturn through our binoculars, but it wasn't too clear. Then I realized I was looking through the wrong end (true story, embarrassing but true), but they still weren't strong enough to really bring Saturn into sharp relief. Plus, without anything to brace against, my hands kept wiggling too much to get a clear, non-wiggly view of the planet.