Science isn’t just my degree, it’s my passion! On my holiday to New York and Washington, D.C., I couldn’t resist visiting both the American Museum (New York) of Natural History and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (Washington).
I’ll start off by saying I personally preferred the American Museum, they both definitely had their different strengths (and weaknesses):
Cost: At the Smithsonian, you can simply walk in. At the American Museum, you pay a donation (the suggested donation is around $20) for a scanned ticket to get in. At the latter, there is definitely more pressure to donate, but ultimately, it’s up to you what you pay. Perhaps pay a small initial donation and at the end of your visit, donate what you think the experience was worth.
Location: Both museums are in great locations that are easy to access for any tourist. The Smithsonian is right on the mall with virtually all the other monuments and museums and the American Museum is just west of Central Park half way between the north and south ends of the park, making it easy to do both in one go.
Visit duration: We spent about two hours in the American Museum before it closed, but if time wasn’t a constraint, I could have easily spent two more hours in there. We spent about three hours in the Smithsonian and saw all we wanted to.
Exhibits: Personally, I went for the animal, fossil and environment exhibits. Exhibits I breezed over were earth and space and human and culture. At the Smithsonian, they had some missing bits or incomplete permanent exhibits, which I thought was a bit sloppy. We were looking in every corner of the glass trying to find the specimen that matched the text! At the American Museum, they left a note where there was a missing specimen.
I was quite disappointed that the Smithsonian didn’t have a larger array of animal groups. They had a lot of mammals and sea creatures and a few small dinosaur and insect exhibits, but in addition to all of the above, the American Museum also had birds, reptiles and amphibians (my favorite one) and an exhibit just for primates.
While the temporary exhibits at the American Museums were low on my priorities of exhibits to see, I thoroughly enjoyed the temporary exhibit at the Smithsonian: Nature’s Best Photography. It was the best part! It was incredible to see these beautiful photographs of animals and nature all in one place. Each picture had a description of the animal and ecosystem as well as the photographer’s personal story about taking the shot.
The Smithsonian had a lot of information, possibly too much, especially in the sea creatures room. It was really overwhelming trying to remember what I hadn’t read and figuring out the best route through the massive rooms. The American Museum seemed a lot more logical flow of specimens and an appropriate amount of fascinating information.
The Smithsonian is definitely more kid-friendly, which for adult tourists can be a big pain in the ass. The American Museum didn’t have much for the kids to see or do in the permanent exhibits. If you have kids, you can look forward to kid-friendly exhibits and age-appropriate text on nearly all exhibits at the Smithsonian.
Crowds: As I mentioned, the Smithsonian had a lot families, and more families means more kids and even worse, strollers. Nearly everywhere was crowded with clueless families (in some exhibits, you could barely turn around) and obnoxious kids (note: we did come to Washington on Labor Day weekend, so it might have been more crowded than usual).
The American Museum was hectic in the African mammals exhibit, but largely quiet other than that. We weren’t fighting for any space or feeling rushed through the exhibits.
While I really enjoyed the temporary photography exhibit at the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History was larger, had a more diverse range of animal exhibits and was less crowded at the time.