YOU'VE been on a beach vacation, say, and picked up a shell you're having trouble identifying. Or the guidance your child is seeking for a school science project goes way beyond your bounds. Maybe you're just plain curious about how the size of a camel hip bone compares to that of a sea lion.
The Smithsonian's new Naturalist Center, a hands-on outpost of Washington's National Museum of Natural History, is designed to respond to queries from the common to the obscure. Just opened in Leesburg, Va. (a 45-minute car ride from the capital), the center is home to some 30,000 specimens that range from stuffed birds to dinosaur bones.
Visitors will find there is much more to do than just look around the brightly lit room. Here, they are encouraged to pick up objects on display and rummage through others that are organized and labeled in drawers.
When was the last time you ran your hands over the coat of a mountain goat? Or cradled the 125-pound tusk of an elephant? If you've chanced upon either animal in the wild, it must have been from a distance. And observing them in a traditional museum has meant looking, but not touching.
"There's nothing like this anywhere else in the world, in size or in scope," says Richard Efthim, manager of the new center, who has worked at the Smithsonian since 1980. Similar facilities from North Carolina to New Zealand have been modeled on the Smithsonian's hands-on center, a concept that began at the National Museum of Natural History in the mid-1970s.
Mr. Efthim, known internationally for pioneering "nature's reference library," returned recently from a trip to Australia where he advised the Museum of Victoria on how best to catalog and present its holdings in an interactive visitors' center.
Rather than spoon-feeding information, Efthim underscores the importance of "letting people construct meaning from facts." A group of high school students was just in to pore over 15 million-year-old fossils and a contemporary collection of sea shells. "After a careful contrast, they were able to determine what environment [the fossils] came from," he says, beaming.
He also likes to "let people come in with their own stories, and build their own connection to what they are seeing." Witness Deirdre Merwin, who works in Washington State's Olympic National Forest and is examining a cougar skin with her sister, Caitly, who is in sixth grade. Warned about "cougar encounters," Deirdre appears to have a great deal of respect for the animal, even when it's flattened. The sample at the Naturalist Center is the closest she wants to come to experiencing the live cat, she says.
The girls' father, David Merwin, is a frequent visitor here. "If you have a flash of curiosity, you can learn about things very quickly here without going through all the bureaucracy" and limitations imposed by most museums, he says.
"The Smithsonian is really working to make itself a more national museum, with greater outreach," Efthim says. It's already on the Internet (httl//www.si.edu/) and conducts its own version of an electronic classroom.
"We are the most-visited natural history museum in the world," says Randall Kremer, the museum's spokesman. For all of those who cannot make it to the nation's capital, its electronic classroom can make its way into any school in the country. "What's on display in the museum in Washington is only a fraction of what we have in storage," Mr. Kremer says. Those who plug into this two-way interactive video can visit giant squids or inspect the insect zoo.
Opening the Naturalist Center in Leesburg last month extends the museum's reach to those who might not travel to the city museum, he says.
The entire inventory of minerals, animal skins, and the rest were under the Natural History Museum's roof until the Smithsonian decided to make way for a large-format theater. Given the shrinking federal budget, Efthim and his colleagues looked around for the best financial arrangement before they settled on the Leesburg site in Loudoun County.
"For the Smithsonian, this is sort of revenue-neutral, because the county government gave us this place rent-free for the first three to five years," Efthim says. The county sees the center as a magnet in its economic development scheme, while the museum likes the site's accessibility to schools in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
Sitting near a table where a variety of owls, ducks, and woodpeckers are perched, Yasha Arant sketches a Scarlet Tanager.
"I'm getting ready to illustrate a book," Ms. Arant says, grateful for the opportunity to get a look at "specimens that don't move no matter how close you get." It's a great way to learn, agrees her daughter, Mariah, who is working on her own set of drawings.