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15 Fascinating Objects That Will Change The Way You See The World

A new Smithsonian exhibition will widen your perspective and blow your mind.

Posted on March 28, 2017, at 5:50 p.m. ET

On March 10, more than 1,000 rarely seen objects were placed on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to celebrate their outstanding collections and to indulge our human fascination of the world around us. Objects of Wonder: From the Collections of the National Museum of Natural History draws from the museum's 145 million artifacts and specimens to tell the tale of how scientists and scholars have widened our understanding of life on this planet.

1. Male Mountain gorilla skull

James Di Loreto / James Di Loreto

Mountain gorilla skeletons provide scientists with a rare opportunity to understand the effects of conservation efforts on gorilla health. Biologists working with the Rwandan government, veterinarians, and conservation organizations examine gorilla remains to see how disease, injury, and stress are recorded in their bones. One such researcher was Dian Fossey, who in 1967 established the Karisoke Research Foundation in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park to study the wild Mountain gorillas. While she began burying the animals that died on her watch, this particular specimen was not part of the massive exhumation event in the late 1970s.

BuzzFeed News spoke with Mary Jo Arnoldi, co-curator of Objects of Wonder and an anthropologist in the museum’s ethnology division, on how this enormous exhibition was developed and her personal experience on the front lines of research and learning:

"Objects of Wonder is an exhibition about who we are and what we do as a museum. It is about both the wonder and awe of seeing some of the unusual, quirky, and visually spectacular objects which are at the heart of our museum and it is about the wonder and curiosity that these objects excite in us as we ask new and probing questions about the natural world and our place in it.

This was a special exhibition and a special process that involved every department in the museum. To start, a call went out to the entire staff of Natural History to participate in the selection of objects that tell the many exciting stories of our collections and our work with these objects. The response was overwhelming and the job of our exhibit team (curators, exhibit developers, science writers, and educators) was to work with these many ideas and suggestions from throughout the museum to create the focused vignettes about our collections that visitors will see in Objects of Wonder."

2. Lapis lazuli

James Di Loreto / James Di Loreto

Lapis lazuli has been an important source of blue pigment in many cultures. The deep, vivid shade of blue that painters call “ultramarine” was originally made by crushing lapis lazuli and mixing it with binding agents. Weighing more than 250 pounds, this gem-quality lapis lazuli was mined from Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains and is among the largest examples of its kind. The name is derived from the Persian word, lazhward, meaning “blue.”

3. Tuxtla statuette

Donald E. Hurlbert

Unearthed by a farmer in Veracruz, Mexico, in the early 1900s, this statuette was the first example ever found of text from Mexico’s epi-Olmec culture. Researchers used this figurine to decipher the epi-Olmec writing system, which uses signs to represent both syllables and words. The date carved into the stone shows that this statuette was made in AD 162. The text tells of a journey filled with rituals, visions, and animal disguises.

"I've worked with the Smithsonian since 1984, although in my head it seems just like yesterday. As a curator for Africa at the museum I do studies on the arts and performances primarily in West Africa; I manage and conduct research on the museum’s African collections from throughout the continent and work with our collections and conservation staff on managing these existing collections; and finally, I bring the findings of my research in Africa and my study of the museum’s African collections to the public through exhibitions, through public lectures and programs, and through podcasts, blog posts, and other social media.

Of all the objects, two of my personal favorites is the Northwest Coast Tsimshian house front and the whale earwax — obviously for different reasons. The paintings on the 38-foot house front are spectacular and ... are so wonderfully brought to life with the audio storytelling of David Boxley, a Tsimshian artist and performer, who helps the visitor navigate the imagery and the story on the house front.

The whale earwax (one of hundreds collected over the last 50 years in our collection) might first have you saying "eeewwwwwww," but what is fascinating is how the earwax is currently being analyzed and [reveals] a richer story about the life history of individual whales and the bigger story of changes in the marine environment over the past 50 years that have affected these magnificent animals.

I have always had a passion for objects and for exploring and understanding the many ways that we know what we know about them — this is the story at the heart of this exhibit. Perhaps so eloquently expressed by our staff has been their passion for the collections and their dedication to research on and preservation of these collections. I hope that visitors will share in our wonder and curiosity about the collections and walk away with insight into the exciting science behind them."

4. The skeleton of naturalist Robert Kennicott

James Di Loreto / James Di Loreto

Robert Kennicott was a 19th-century explorer and Smithsonian Institution naturalist. Working with colleagues from the Grove National Historical Landmark in Glenview, Illinois, Douglas Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide opened Robert Kennicott's cast-iron coffin in 2001 to determine his cause of death and to document his mortal remains, coffin, and clothing. Robert Kennicott died at age 30 on the bank of the Yukon River in Russian America (present day Alaska) during the Western Union Expedition in 1866. Kennicott’s descendants donated his remains to the museum, where they are now part of the research collections he helped create.

5. Mayan Book of Sermons

James Di Loreto / James Di Loreto

This Book of Sermons written in the Mayan language, K'iche', was composed by Father Francisco Maldonado in 1690. It is the oldest manuscript in the National Museum of Natural History’s collections and offers scholars the opportunity to learn what the language was like 300 years ago while also offering modern-day K’iche’ speakers a link to their language’s roots. The book contains sermons and biblical passages translated into Quiche and Cakchiquel Maya during the 17th century. The book also contains various pages on "cures" for snake bites, etc.

6. Whale earwax

James Diloreto / James DiLoreto

Layer by layer, a whale’s earwax builds up over the animal’s lifetime into a large plug, sealing all sorts of information in wax, such as a whale’s age, stress levels, and exposure to pollution. This information helps scientists better understand how human activities are affecting these marine mammals and their environment.

7. Pinniped fossil: Enaliarctos mealsi

Michael Brett-Surman / Smithsonian Institution

This fossil represents one of the earliest members of the group of animals that includes living seals, sea lions, and walruses. Like its relatives, this animal had flippers and was clearly at home in the water, but its bones also retain features of its land-living ancestors. Thus, it helps us understand this land-to-sea evolutionary transition. It was discovered, beautifully preserved and nearly complete, by an amateur paleontologist who donated it to the National Museum of Natural History so that it could be studied by scientists.

8. Iridescent glass bottle

Chip Clark

When this Roman glass bottle was buried with its owner between 200 BC and 100 AD, natural weathering turned the glass opaque and produced an iridescent finish. The various shades of blue in the shimmering patina come from the chemicals in the original glass, including iron.

9. Passenger pigeon: Ectopistes migratorius

Donald E. Hurlbert

Martha, a passenger pigeon, is one of the Smithsonian’s greatest treasures. In life, Martha lived at the Cincinnati Zoo where she was visited by long lines of people eager to get a glimpse of the last living individual of her species. Martha died in 1914 and the passenger pigeon became extinct. Only decades earlier, her species had been widespread and abundant in North America, but was heavily hunted for food. The Smithsonian’s taxidermy mount made from Martha’s remains remind us that even widespread and abundant North American species can become extinct.

10. Tsimshian house panels

James Di Loreto / James Di Loreto

This painted Tsimshian house front from Canada is widely acknowledged as one of the very best examples of northwest coast formline design artwork. It tells the story of the mythical undersea chief Nagunaks and his connection with the clan that lived in the house. It is one of the only complete Tsimshian house fronts in a museum.

11. Coralline algae

James Di Loreto

Over the span of their long lives, coralline algae preserve 1,000-year-old records of environmental conditions in their hard, calcified crusts: Their seasonal growth bands mirror the expansion and retreat of sea ice. Smithsonian botanist Walter Adey discovered that the seasonal growth of these algae provides evidence that sea ice has rapidly declined over the past 150 years. Coralline algae, like this specimen collected in Canada from the Arctic sea floor, can help scientists understand changes to the planet’s climate over thousands of years.

12. Yellow-spotted golden bass and its larva

Barry Brown / Substation Curacao and Cedric Guigand / University of Miami

Confronted with a perplexing fish larva collected in the Florida Straits, Smithsonian scientists turned to DNA barcoding, which yielded an unexpected discovery — a match between the mysterious fish larva and adults of a new species of sea bass discovered off the coast of Curaçao.

13. Coleoptera

Chip Clark

This group of insects demonstrates the diverse holdings within the entomology department collections at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. Insects are the dominant form of animal life on Earth with more than 1 million described species and possibly as many as 15 times more remaining unknown and waiting to be discovered. Among insects, beetles have proven to be one of the most successful groups, representing 40% of all insect species and 30% of all animal species. To put that into perspective, if all animal species were laid out side by side, every fourth animal species would be a beetle.

14. Zuni pottery

James Di Loreto / James Di Loreto

This collection of Zuni pottery helps anthropologists compare different functions and artistic styles, and investigate how various motifs communicate Zuni cultural values.

15. Whale bone and harpoon tip

James Diloreto / James DiLoreto

This harpoon fragment once embedded in the accompanying whale bone raises many questions about early whale hunters along Oregon’s north coast and provides evidence suggesting that early inhabitants made and used whale-hunting tools 1,400 to 1,500 years ago, long before European contact. This specimen came from the Par-Tee site, a shell heap near Seaside, Oregon, containing over 6,300 tools and 100,000 vertebrate remains.

Objects of Wonder is on view at the the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History until 2019.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.