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November 28, 2014

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An open letter to the Smithsonian blogger who trashed our Natural History Museum

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Erin Ryan

The Deinonychus (aka “Terrible Claw”) at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum took quite a beating from dino-geek blogger Brian Switek. But there is so much more to the community venue, and even the Claw has a thing or two to teach us about the ancient world.

Dear Brian Switek,

When the clerk asked how I heard about the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was your blog on Smithsonian.com, the one that sums up our city as slots, strippers and “some of the worst dinosaurs” you’ve ever seen.

I hadn’t visited the museum you insist is “more like a curiosity cabinet cobbled together out of taxidermy mounts,” so I spent $10 and several hours forming my own opinion. From International Wildlife to the African Savanna and Wild Nevada, the taxidermy is a highlight. The zebras are so lifelike I could almost hear them breathe (even the one being mauled by lions). Sure, there’s a see-no-evil monkey. Some scenes lack frills, and the sound effect for the Anubis baboon is genuinely scary. But this is a community venue dependent on donations and volunteers, and I don’t need a perfect diorama to learn why saiga antelopes look like extras from the Star Wars cantina.

Details

Las Vegas Natural History Museum
900 Las Vegas Blvd. N., 384-3466
Daily, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The real object of your disaffection was the Prehistoric Life Gallery. You wrote that the displays offer “a minimum of educational tidbits” and that some are so poorly lit as to be ineffectual. You wanted more fossils and context. You bemoaned the feather job on the Deinonychus and the push-button animatronics. Yes, the lighting is an issue in places. Some of the models are cartoonish. But I learned a great deal from the “tidbits,” and I overheard parents using them to start conversations with their kids, so it wasn’t all glowing red buttons and canned roars (which, whether you like it or not, work wonders when it comes to getting 10-year-olds to stop and hopefully think).

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Overall, the museum's collection of globe-spanning creatures immortalized through taxidermy is impressive.

One family camped out on the floor by an exhibit on Leonardo, the dinosaur mummy, so they could watch and discuss educational videos. They wouldn’t dare at the Smithsonian. This private, non-profit museum, though affiliated, will never have comparable resources or impact. But it has touched the lives of countless young people, who don’t appear to notice the flaws over glowing minerals and coral-mimicking frogfish, “Bambi with fangs” and a very rare Rhynchotherium skull.

Some will never see the Smithsonian’s Dinosaur Hall. So while you’re making hay with criticism, Mr. Switek, consider making a donation, too. Maybe our museum will use it to buy some fancy new feathers for your friend.

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