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Natural Wonders on Display at Smithsonian Natural History Museum

The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest museum complex. Its 17 museums display many of the treasured icons of America's past, the vibrant arts of the present and the scientific promise of the future. For producer Tabinda Naeem, VOA's Jim Bertel takes us to a museum dedicated to the wonders of the Earth.

Washington, D.C. is a city of museums, none more famous than those of the Smithsonian Institution. Millions of tourists from all over the world visit these galleries every year. One of the most popular is the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History -- dedicated to inspiring curiosity about the natural world.

A giant African elephant standing four meters tall greets visitors inside. It is the centerpiece of the museum's mammoth collection of more than 125 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts.

Larry O'Reilly is the head of Special Projects at the museum. "The primary focus of our museum is what they call taxonomic research,” he tells us. “In other words, we collect animals from all over the world, but then we classify them. In other words, to understand where an animal fits into the world and in evolutionary history. We've got exhibits here, for example, we have objects on display here that go back to the very beginnings of the Earth, when it was formed."

The museum was established nearly a century ago. In addition to exhibit halls, the facility houses seven different scientific departments with more than 100 researchers.

Museum curators say several of the museum's most popular displays have Hollywood director Steven Spielberg to thank for their newfound appeal. His series of "Jurassic Park" movies has sparked interest in the museum's giant skeletons in the Dinosaur Hall.

Matt Carrano is the exhibit's curator. "The oldest dinosaurs we know of are about 225 million years old and that is in the period of time known as the Triassic period. And dinosaurs begin then, they live through the next period, which is the Jurassic period, which is very familiar because of the movie, and then they live into the Cretaceous [period]. And at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, dinosaurs go extinct. And that is about 60 million years before the earliest ancestors of humans that we know of. So, there is a very large gap between the last dinosaurs and the first humans."

Evidence of dinosaurs can be traced back thousands of years, but understanding the significance of these findings only dates back to the 1800s, with the birth of the science known as paleontology. Today, more than 1,000 types of dinosaurs have been identified. Children are among their biggest fans.

While the dinosaurs are popular, museum curators say the number one attraction is the Hope Diamond, the world's largest deep blue diamond. The gem weighs in at over 45 carats and is believed to be a billion years old. This priceless jewel is just one of the thousands of exhibits awaiting visitors at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.