Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

  • Q?rius - NMNH Learning Center
  • Washington, DC
  • 2012


NMNH is one of the most visited museums in the US, but no experiences on the Mall in any museum highlighted Smithsonian research or collections.  Several primary goals were established to guide the planning and design of a totally new type of visitor experience:

  • Real science with real artifacts should be the foundation for all activities
  • Real people, stories of scientists should be integrated into the experience
  • Use the scientific process of hypothesis, investigation and discovery as a model for all activities.
  • While focused on teens, the experience should be accessible for all ages and profiles of visitors (single/family/group)
  • Sustainability should be integrated into the design and as a message

The prime location of Q?rius in 18,000 SF at the Constitution Avenue entrance with large windows matched the vision of the museum’s leadership and staff to create a signature experience that is physically and intellectually at the center of the museum. By developing a deeper and more personal understanding of one specimen, the larger value of collections and research could be experienced.


Predesign – Through interactive workshops with Education, Research and Collections  staff, a range of concepts and models were considered.  What emerged was for visitors to have a set of self-directed interactive experiences using a specimen of their choice as a lens to learn about the natural world. The notion of identity and empathy was felt to be the most successful approach in changing specimen into a point of entry that was relational and impactful.

Design – Q?rius was designed with visual signatures along the perimeter walls and an open center with flexible furnishings supported by robust infrastructure facilitating change to make Q?rius more audience responsive.  The visual signature‘Collections Wall’ organizes thousands of specimen for the visitor’s experience to ‘take an object’ around the space in self-directed activities at additional ‘lab stations’.   The immersion theater and two glass walled facilitated labs allow more in-depth work to better understand how specimen are collected, preserved and used, and how they contain bits of information that inform us about our natural world.


Q?rius has grabbed the attention of visitors with the average dwell time of over 90 minutes (where the average out-of-town visitor allots 2 hours for their visit to the museum!).  The range of experiences allows visitors to emgage with the museum as accessible and open to their interests.  Visit the dedicated website at  http://qrius.si.edu/ to learn more about  Qrius and the programs that continue to evolve there.