A natural history museum exhibits natural history such as animals, plants, ecosystems, geography, paleontology, and climatology. Some museums feature natural-history collections in addition to others, for example, those related to art and science. These museums are truly places where wonder meets science, and they allow us to marvel at our complexly beautiful planet.
Our nation is richly blessed with schools that are so much more than just classes and degrees but are hubs of research, art, and education. Many schools have natural history museums, harboring fossils, scientific records, and incredible displays of our world’s history, and some are artifact repositories in their state. Here at Best College Reviews we have scoured the nation and found the most vibrant college and university natural history museums that our nation has to offer.
The list was chosen based on the following criteria:
- Number of artifacts/specimens in the collection
- Opportunities at the museum for college students
- The museum had to be open to the public
- Community involvement
30. La Sierra University – World Museum of Natural History
The La Sierra University World Museum of Natural History, located in Riverside, California, includes both geological and animal specimens from around the world, as well as many archaeological artifacts. These specimens can be seen every Saturday, with additional tours during the week by appointment.
The geological display’s chief draw is one of the world’s largest collections of mineral spheres. Other gems and minerals, including meteorites and tektites, can also be seen on display.
While it has many animal displays, the museum’s best is its reptile display. It includes turtles, tortoises, lizards, and snakes, as well as more than 90% of known crocodilian species.
Other items on display include contemplative stones, American Indian artifacts, petrified wood, and shells.
29. The College of Idaho – Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History
The Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History is the only natural history museum in the region encompassing southwestern Idaho, southeastern Oregon, and northern Nevada. It serves as an important resource for environmental and natural history education in the region. The collections at the museum include invertebrates, one of the world’s largest collections of insects from Baja California, vertebrates (mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds), the largest collection of modern fishes in Idaho, paleontological collections, Native American archaeological and ethnographic artifacts, Luther Douglas sand paintings, and artifacts from ancient Egypt and Rome including a kestrel mummy. The museum is open to the public Friday afternoons and one Saturday a month for workdays and public research seminars.
28. Washington State University – Charles R. Conner Museum
The Charles R. Conner Museum is home to the largest public collections of birds and mammals in the Pacific Northwest and is located on the campus of Washington State University in the quaint city of Pullman, Washington. In 1894, Charles R. Conner was president of the Board of Regents and persuaded the state of Washington to donate its exhibits from the Chicago’s World’s Fair to what was then known as Washington Agricultural College. These first exhibits displayed a mixture of agriculture, anthropology, geology, and biology. Over time, the museum’s theme has gradually narrowed and focused on vertebrate animals; today, the museum is home to over 700 mounts of birds and mammals and includes over 65,000 specimens.
27. University of Vermont – Perkins Geology Museum
Named for Vermont state geologist George Henry Perkins, the University of Vermont’s Perkins Geology Museum presents geology to students and interested members of the public in an engaging, entertaining manner. While the museum’s modern incarnation got its start in 1962, UVM has been showing its geological finds since 1826, and previously showed them as part of the Robert Hull Fleming Museum.
Perkins is best known for the Charlotte Whale or Vermont State Marine Fossil, a white whale fossil unearthed by railroad workers in the town of Charlotte during routine construction work in 1849. This find has helped geologists and biologists study the story of the Champlain Basin, including its time as an inland sea.
In 2002, the Perkins Museum started the process of categorizing its numerous specimens digitally. Those interested in geology who cannot make it to the museum itself can see the fruits of this categorization effort online.
26. Sierra College – Natural History Museum
The Museum’s major focus is the study of natural history, and its primary participants are the students of Sierra College who attends classes, field courses, lectures, seminars, and demonstrations. Also, the Museum is also a favorite place of the regional public. Thousands each year attend seminars, programs, field trips and activities sponsored by the Museum and designed specifically for the public. Sierra’s Natural History Museum is open during regular college hours during the week, but because there are classes in session in the building, visitors must be quiet as they explore. It is open on weekends only when there are no other activities in the building. Full of fascinating exhibits, a few highlights include A complete 38 foot long California Gray Whale skeleton, a Narwhale skull replica, a Bowhead whale baleen plate, and a complete Manatee skeleton. Also, journey back into California’s past and get a glimpse of what was swimming in and flying over our Mesozoic sea with models of a life-size Thalattosaur, Mosasaur, Plesiosaur, and Pterodon.
25. University of Oregon – Museum of Natural and Cultural History
The Museum of Natural and Cultural History is Oregon’s primary repository for publicly owned collections. The museum was created in the late 1800s when Thomas Condon joined the University of Oregon as one of its first three professors. Condon brought an extensive fossil collection to the U of O, later known as the Condon Museum. Today the MNCH is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnographic and archeological objects, fossils, and biological specimens from Oregon, the Pacific Northwest, and around the world. Graduate students can apply for one of two Graduate Laurel Awards to work in the Education and Exhibits departments; recipients of this award will receive a full tuition waiver. Visitors will be enchanted by the exhibits and collections on display at this treasure tucked away in the lush Pacific Northwest.
24. University of Minnesota – Bell Museum of Natural History
The Bell Museum of Natural History’s mission is to “discover, document and understand nature and the universe beyond, and promote informed stewardship of our world.” Collections at the Bell Museum are extensive, numbering over 4 million specimens of mammals, birds, fish, plants, mollusks, and insects that provide opportunities for research and learning. Not only does the collection document Minnesota’s biodiversity, but it also includes collections from around the world. Bell Museum is also home to stunning dioramas painted by local Minnesota artist, Francis Lee Jaques, who has painted for the American Museum of Natural History. These dioramas show the ecological interactions of animals and their habitats, bringing people closer to the natural world.
23. Benedictine University – Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum
The Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum is a small natural history museum at Benedictine University that represents the life’s work of three dedicated Monks. Fr. Hilary Jurica, O.S.B. and his brother, Fr. Edmund Jurica, O.S.B. were children of an immigrant family who came to America from Slovakia. During the early 1900’s, while they were teaching at Benedictine, they collected biological specimens for teaching purposes. Combined, these dedicated brothers taught for almost 100 years at Benedictine University. In the early 1970’s, the museum was placed in the hands of Fr. Theodore Suchy, O.S.B., who turned their collection of specimens into a thriving nature museum. Fr. Ted continued collecting, and the museum grew to over 10,000 specimens, ranging from a tiny aphid to a whale skeleton.
22. University of Arizona – Mineral Museum
Since its recognition in 1919, the University of Arizona Mineral Museum has accumulated over 19,000 mineral specimens in the main collection and over 7,000 in the micro mount collection. The collection currently represents 1,561 different species with over 2,000 minerals on display. The Mineral Museum also displays meteorites from localities around the world. Also, it also includes a micro amount exhibit that demonstrates the beauty and diversity of crystals too small to be appreciated with the naked eye. U of A’s Mineral Museum first started conducting tours during the 1950’s and continues to do so today. During the university school year (August through May), a guided tour for school groups can be arranged by appointment through the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium.
21. College of Charleston – Mace Brown Museum of Natural History
The Mace Brown Museum of Natural History is found in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences at the College of Charleston. Home to more than 3,000 fossil specimens which consist of, according to their website, “Dinosaurs, Crinoids, Oligocene Mammals of North America, Mosasaurs, Cave Bears, Pleistocene Mammals of the Carolinas, Fossil Shark’s Teeth Through Time, Ocean Life Through Time, Fossil Plants, ‘Megalodon’ Shark Jaw, Freshwater Fishes, and Fossils of Mammoths and Mastodons.” The Mace Brown Museum is open to the public and is manned by geology majors who work as student docents who deliver guided tours, not only bestowing knowledge and attention on visitors but also providing students with valuable experience.
20. Brigham Young University Museum of Paleontology
Built in 1876 with the goal to prepare, display, and house the rock and dinosaur fossils collected by Dr. James A. Jensen and his crews, the BYU Museum of Paleontology is an official repository for fossils found on public lands in Utah. The vertebrate fossil collection at the Museum is comprised of over 17,000 specimens with cave fossils that are over 15,000 years old. The fossils have come from locations in Utah, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming. Brigham Young University is a private research university located in Provo, Utah. It is the largest of any religious university and the 3rd largest private university in the United States. Owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, approximately 99 percent of the BYU’s students are members of the LDS Church.
19. Georgia Southern University Museum
Georgia Southern University Museum is located in a unique region of the United States, and the permanent exhibits tell this fascinating story. The story is told in the coastal plain: it was once a shallow, ancient ocean where mosasaurs swam, the Georgiacetus vogtlensis evolved as the most primitive North American whale in its Eocene waters, the coastal Native Americans created the earliest pottery 4,500 years ago, more than 10,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned during Civil War, and finally, a school was founded in 1906 in this historically diverse location, and has grown into Georgia Southern University. The Georgia Southern University Museum tells this captivating historical tale as well as provides other dynamic and interactive exhibits based on the work and research of the faculty.
18. University of Michigan – Museum of Natural History
The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History has it all – from educational programs, opportunities for college students, and amazing collections and displays. It is no wonder this museum is one of the best on the list. There are four floors of exhibits, including the largest display of dinosaurs in Michigan, Michigan wildlife, anthropology, geology, and rotating exhibits. College students have the opportunity to work at the museum; there are 40- 50 paid docents at any given time. The museum offers many opportunities for the community, including tours for school groups, summer camp, lectures, panel discussions, demonstrations, teacher training workshops, Discovery Days, family reading and science, preschool programs, and even the opportunity to have a birthday party at the museum. There is something for everyone at this top-notch museum.
17. University of Delaware Mineralogical Museum
The University of Delaware Mineralogical Museum, on the school’s Newark campus, grew from a collection donated by Irénée du Pont. Since it was founded in 1971, the school’s museum has grown to house more than 2,500 specimens. About 350 of these can be seen during any given visit, though the museum rotates out specimens frequently to encourage return trips.
Part of the museum’s collection has been designated as a reference collection. The specimens in this exhibit show specific properties, and can be used to illustrate those properties to students in geology, engineering, and the arts.
The display collection includes all specimens not in the reference collection. Some have been chosen to show themes like crystallography, while others serve as highlights of common minerals in regions in North America or around the world. Many come from limestone caves, and highlight the diversity of color and shape in these formations.
16. University of Wisconsin – Madison Geology Museum
The University of Wisconsin – Madison Geology Museum was founded in 1848, and has since grown to include about 120,000 geological and paleontological specimens. One of the major attractions is a Boaz mastodon, which was discovered in 1897 by the Dosch children. Almost half of the original skeleton was found while the other half was created by making an inverted model of the other side. The skeleton is 95 feet tall and 15 feet long. Along with the Boaz mastodon, the museum is home to more than a century’s worth of graduate student’s voucher specimens that were used for research. Visitors will enjoy free admission Monday thru Saturday, and rest assured; many do as the museum hosts thousands each year.
15. Humboldt State University – Natural History Museum
The Humboldt State University Natural History Museum provides exciting hands-on exhibits for visitors while providing excellent teaching resources for educators and parents. The Museum’s fossil collections comprise one of the great strengths of the Museum. This series of thirteen display cases illustrates the evolution of the Earth and life from the origin of Earth to the present day. Learn the story of mammal evolution in North America as illustrated by some fantastic specimens including a complete Archaeotherium skull, mammoth and mastodon teeth and the jaw and teeth of the early horse Hyracotherium. Students from Humboldt State assist in the design and curation of exhibitions at the museum, providing excellent opportunities for students interested in museum curation and natural history.
14. Rutgers Geology Museum
Geologist George H. Cook created the Rutgers Geology Museum in 1872, using it to display the numerous specimens found and collected by the New Jersey Geological Survey. Today, it shows historical and geological artifacts from New Jersey and elsewhere.
One of its marquee attractions is a mastodon skeleton. This skeleton was found in Salem County in 1869, and serves as a mascot for the museum, featuring prominently in the institution’s art and publications. Other major attractions include a Ptolemaic era Egyptian mummy and an exhibit that shows some of the state’s rare minerals.
More recently, Rutgers has added an exhibit about meteors and planetary science. This exhibit shows how meteors and other small pieces of space debris can tell the story of the universe.
Every month, the museum hosts guided tours for pre-arranged groups on the weekends. These usually take place in the latter half of the month on Saturdays.
13. University of Wyoming – Geological Museum
The Department of Geology and Geophysics oversees the University of Wyoming Geological Museum. Open to the public Monday thru Saturday, and offering free admission, this Geological Museum features a variety of displays that illustrate Wyoming’s past environments. The highlight of the museums is the 75-foot Apatosaurus, or Brontosaurus, a skeleton that is prominent in the museum’s exhibit hall. Along with this oversized wonder of the ancient world, the museum is also home to a display of the most complete Allosaurus fossil ever found, lovingly referred to as “Big Al.” The museum is undergoing renovations, including the addition of a modern lab dedicated to fossil preparation. The prep lab will be a working exhibit, where visitors can see fossil preparation in action.
12. Beneski Museum of Natural History – Amherst College
The Beneski Museum of Natural History hosts more than 200,000 specimens, of which more than 1,700 can be seen by visitors at any given time. Its non-display specimens serve the needs of professional, faculty, and student researchers.
The collection at Amherst includes samples of interest to many disciplines. While many of its samples are flora and fauna from generations past, others come from astronomical events, cultural sites, or mineral samples. These specimens could be of interest to art, biology, astrophysics, anthropology, or geology students, among others.
Researchers who want to visit Amherst and use its collection in their research efforts must contact the Beneski Museum at least two weeks in advance. To gain access, they must not only provide prior notice, but submit a proposal regarding the goals of the study and intended analysis methods as well.
11. University of Iowa Museum of Natural History
The University of Iowa Museum of Natural History has operated for more than 160 years, and stands as the nation’s oldest university museum west of the Mississippi. It shows about 140,000 specimens, objects, and artifacts across many exhibits. Many of its specimens were collected by university faculty and students.
It devotes the Iowa Hall to more than 500 million years of the state’s geological, cultural, and ecological development, showing visitors everything that has made Iowa the state it is today. The William and Eleanor Hageboeck Hall of Birds, meanwhile, shows specimens of almost every bird that resides in Iowa or visits the state seasonally.
Not all of its exhibits focus on the natural history of Iowa. Its Mammal Hall includes Canadian, Chinese, and Atlantic Ocean megafauna, among others. The century-old Laysan Island Cyclorama, meanwhile, shows a record of an island in the Hawaiian atoll that previously served as a bird sanctuary.
10. The University of Connecticut – Connecticut State Museum of Natural History
Located in the heart of the University of Connecticut campus, the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History plays an important role in fulfilling the University’s educational vision, which “focuses not only on passing knowledge to future generations but on applying this knowledge to solve problems and improve the quality of people’s lives.” Students benefit from the many opportunities the Museum affords through student research, work-study, and internships; working with the nearly 600,000 artifacts provides students with valuable hands-on experience. The Connecticut Archaeology Center, which was created in 2004 to house the Museum’s collections, contains the “largest repository of Connecticut Native American, colonial and industrial artifacts in existence.”
9. University of Nebraska State Museum
More than 10,000 years ago, in what would one day be western Nebraska, a pair of bull mammoths died locked together in battle. Discovered in 1962, the skeletons of these mammoths are now on display in the remarkable new “Clash of the Mammoths” exhibit at the University of Nebraska State Museum. This impressive museum is home to more than mammoths: there is an entomology collection of 2 million specimens that one of the best university collections in North America, a scarab beetle collection that is the fourth largest in the world, and the Manter Laboratory that holds the world’s sixth largest collection of parasitic organisms. The Museum’s educational staff conducts tours and programs for more than 8,000 students and families each year. The University of Nebraska State Museum is, without doubt, one of the most outstanding museums on the list.
8. Michigan State University Museum
Founded in 1857, the Michigan State University Museum is one of the oldest museums in the Midwest and was the first museum in the state to receive Smithsonian affiliate status from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D. C., the world’s largest museum and research complex. Today, the museum is Michigan’s leading public natural and cultural history museum and is a public steward for nearly a million objects and specimens of cultural and natural history from around the world. Students can take advantage of the many internship opportunities at the Museum, benefitting from the supervised work and learning experiences that include collections, public relations, visitor studies, festival production, education, and exhibitions. The Museum is open seven days a week, and admission is free with a suggested donation of $5.
7. The University of Oklahoma – Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History
In May of 2000, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History opened its doors to a new 198,000 square foot facility housing 12 collections, labs, libraries, offices and exhibit space. Today, the ‘treasure chest’ design of the building’s architecture houses more than 10 million objects. The museum was founded in 1899 and includes specimens from the life sciences, earth sciences, and social sciences. In addition to perusing this extensive collection, younger visitors will also enjoy the Discovery Room, a hands-on exhibit including tabletop activities, excavating dinosaur bones, and examining the many wonders on display. The University of Oklahoma is a coeducational public research university located in Norman, Oklahoma.
6. University of California Davis – Bohart Museum of Entomology
The Bohart Museum of Entomology, located on the campus of the University of California, Davis, has operated since 1946. Its specimens include insects from all over the world, and the collection as a whole is the seventh largest insect collection in the world.
At the time of the museum’s founding, these collections included two Schmitt boxes and little else. In 1966, however, the university decided to maintain a type collection, which now includes nearly 2,000 primary types. Today, the collection approaches 8 million specimens and has grown by nearly two million in the last two decades.
The Bohart Museum has started creating a digital database of its collection. Visitors can still see the scale insect collection, part of the bee collection, and the fluid-preserved collection while this initiative is underway. Visiting researchers can see more of the collection and visit during off hours, but must give prior notice.
5. University of Alaska – Museum of the North
The University of Alaska Museum of the North serves as Alaska’s only research and teaching museum, with more than 1.5 million specimens in its research collections. The museum focuses on issues that affect Alaska and other parts of the circumpolar North, such as climate change and environmental contaminants.
The museum hosts several outdoor exhibits, which include sculptures as well as pieces of Alaskan and other Northern history. These include a 34-foot sculpture, a traditional Tlingit totem pole, and a piece of a fortified Russian-American trading post. All pieces include as much of their original construction as possible, with efforts made toward authenticity in restorations.
The animal and plant collections include hundreds of thousands of specimens. The mammal collection alone consists of more than 125,000, and the plant collection comes in at 220,000. The museum also counts thousands of fish and marine invertebrates of the north among its collections.
4. University of Kansas – Natural History Museum
The University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Museum of Natural History has grown significantly since its creation in 1864. It started as a state-mandated cabinet of natural history, and has become a research organization and storage space for millions of living and fossil species as well as more than a million archaeological artifacts. Under the Biodiversity Institute banner, it has brought together all collections-based research programs, staff, graduate students, and public outreach initiatives under one roof.
The Institute’s offerings include both scientific and historical exhibits. One exhibit looks at the diversity of mammals, and includes nearly 50 mammal skulls. Another shows Comanche, the horse ridden by Captain Myles Keogh at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Those who cannot make it to the Institute but still want to know more about its offerings can search its collections online. Some of these collections, such as the mammalian collection and avian collection, are among the largest of their kind in the world.
3. Harvard Museum of Natural History
The Harvard Museum of Natural History is located on the campus of the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Established in 1998 as the public face of three research museums, the Harvard University Herbaria, the Mineralogical & Geological Museum, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard Museum of Natural History serves as a focal point in historic Harvard Square. Each year, the museum is host to more than 230,000 people, including 35,000 school children. The Harvard Museum of Natural History is the most visited attraction at Harvard; visitors are drawn to its historical collections, temporary exhibitions, and permanent galleries.
2. Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University offers students and visitors access to renowned collections containing more than 18 million specimens, including John James Audubon’s birds, Lewis and Clark’s plant collection, towering dinosaur skeletons, and an indoor tropical butterfly garden. The Library and Archives at Academy are internationally recognized for their rare and historic collections, with over 250,000 volumes dating back to the 1500’s. Students will benefit from the many volunteer internship opportunities that provide them with professional skills in various areas of museum operations and education. Those who are interested in science can take advantage of the museum’s extensive collection and work alongside scientists in caring for the 18 million specimens the Academy has in its care. There is no doubt that the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is one of the top natural history museums in the nation.
1. Yale University – Peabody Museum of Natural History
The Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University seeks to advance understanding of Earth’s history through geological, biological, and anthropological research. This museum hosts some of the best-known dinosaur exhibits in the world, as well as some major archaeological discoveries.
The museum’s best-known exhibit is its Great Hall of Dinosaurs, which includes a mural by Rudolph Zallinger as well as many paleontological specimens. Its largest attraction is a juvenile Brontosaurus, though it also displays several other skeletons, some petrified wood, toothed birds, and ancient flowers.
The Peabody Museum also maintains several other halls, as well as temporary and special exhibits. Some of these focus on biological finds and fossils, such as the Hall of Mammalian Evolution and Birds of Connecticut. Others, like the Daily Life in Ancient Egypt exhibit and the Hiram Bingham Collection, look at cultural finds from around the world.