The ancient world on two dollars a day
January 18, 2021 11:38 PM   Subscribe

I want to build my own tiny natural history museum. In this fantasy, my living room has a display case filled with coins and trinkets from antiquity, fossils, minerals, crystals, petrified wood, arrowheads, etc.

There's no real theme to it. I like to feel connected to history, and to nature. I like the idea of sharing these with my kids (4 and 5) to inspire them to think beyond their modern suburban existences.

This question is a two-parter:

First, what other things would you include? Bonus points for things that kids can handle without destroying. And, ideally, inexpensive: I'm not a tycoon. I'm hoping most of these objects will be under $50, with a few centerpiece items (up to $500?) to be collected over the years. (Animal teeth/bones/feathers are cool, but no taxidermy because yuck).

Second, where can I source these things reputably and ethically? Online or local in the Pacific Northwest. I found Forum Ancient Coins from another question, and that's exactly the kind of resource I'm looking for---especially in that it includes provenance and description for even the inexpensive ancient coins. I don't want to support looters or end up with too many forgeries, so these stores must have sterling reputations.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This place is local to me but not in the United States; they have an amazing selection of stuff for just this kind of Cabinet of Curiosities project.

Their website is pretty low-fi but might at least be helpful for ideas. They also ship worldwide. They also have a Facebook page.

I've been eyeing off their storm glasses for ages – they'd make a perfect centrepiece item.
posted by RubyScarlet at 12:08 AM on January 19

I'd pick up some ulexite stone - it's a pretty dramatic natural science demo.

And I've always been craving somelab-grown ruby rough - sort of a ooh-shiny/look what humans can do!

If you eat fish, do a fish-print with the kids.

Cyanotype sun-printing kits are pretty kid-safe. You could do local leaves.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:08 AM on January 19 [4 favorites]

You're in Seattle? Check out the NW Rockhounds shop in Lake City. They're open with a limit on the number of customers in the store at a time, masks required, etc.
posted by hades at 12:44 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]

This Mini museum is pretty cool...they have done a couple different ones (this is the 4th) but lots of neat things....would make a pretty cool gift also.
posted by AnneShirley at 1:25 AM on January 19 [4 favorites]

And for the display case, a second hand china cabinet makes a great one. Many china cabinets come with glass shelves and lights. You can get them cheap because many people just don't have room for a big old china cabinet. You can also get little stick on lights with remote for not much. They frequently also have drawers and cabinet space down below where you can store your tools and accessories.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 5:24 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]

The best exhibits that are small still have theme and consistency across the items. For instance, this section is fossils, this section is artifacts from (specific ancient civilization). In a case, have the expensive and coolest items, on top of the case, have cheaper items (like coins, cheaper fossils) that people can touch and feel. Then, underneath the case in a cabinet, have the REALLY cool surprising item (the headdress, the golden sphinx statue, etc) that you can bring out with gloves for that extra wow factor.

I would recommend picking up some display cases from a closing jewelry store or similar. Plan out which sections are the most exciting and interesting to you, and I'm sure visitors will feel the same way!
posted by bbqturtle at 5:35 AM on January 19

If you want man-made curiosities, how about a bit of fordite or Detroit agate?
posted by Fuchsoid at 5:38 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]

Bog wood from the British Isles ? I have a piece my cousin from Ireland dug out of the bog himself and gave me, and I saw they make things from it as well to sell, so it can't be too rare or expensive. It is hardened and preserved by centuries buried in the bog.
posted by mermayd at 6:18 AM on January 19

A comment - I think it will mean more to your kids if you try to include some things they actually pick out or collect with you; i.e. going to a beach and coming up with some stones, shells and sea glass for example. Maybe have a special kids section?

For artifacts (arrowheads etc.), I really urge you to get mostly casts, reproductions, or contemporary things made by the people themselves. Casts these days are sophisticated, look like the real thing, and can be handled. For an example, you can buy repros. and casts from people like Occoquan Paleotechnics, link to store section (full disclosure, the owner Mike Frank is a former co-worker). Also, lots of museums sell repros. of iconic pieces, and not all of them are expensive, see William the Egyptian hippo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, which is a kid favorite.
posted by gudrun at 7:58 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]

I share gudrun's concerns with regard to cultural artefacts. This is a bit (ok, a lot) of a redirection, and it would presumably require a lot more initial research/investment, but maybe you could pool what you would have spent on roman coins or whatever to get an affordable-to-you 3D printing setup? (I think there are now DIY kits that can even print in colour?) Then you and your kids can browse for the models of artefacts that museums like the Smithsonian are starting to make available and make them yourselves.

I should qualify that I don't actually know anything about the logistics of 3D printing! If full-colour isn't an option, get the cheapest 1-colour option and have painting the models be part of the activity?

Anyway, it seems to me that way you'd get more and cooler things with much greater hands-on potential and none of the ethical dilemmas. And of course it can be supplemented with responsibly-sourced minerals/specimens, family artefacts etc.
posted by wreckingball at 8:41 AM on January 19

Seconding the idea that collecting some of your own things is the way to go. We have turkey vulture feathers, cardinal feathers, blue jay feathers, hawk feathers, etc. that we have picked up around town. Antlers that have been shed. Snakeskins. We had a hummingbird nest one year, and after the babies fledged we put it in the freezer for a couple of weeks and now keep it in a jar. I looked and looked for an owl pellet last summer, but didn't find one (in spite of seeing the owls every day for months, hunting our yard.) Milkweed pods are out there in the late summer/early fall. Every time we go to the beach I look for perfect things: sea glass, sand dollars, complete shells of various kinds depending on the beach.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:48 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]

Hey, just a note from someone who works with ornithological materials in their job: possessing feathers, eggs/egg pieces, nests, or bones of most native migratory birds is illegal for most people in the United States (and Canada and Mexico) except in certain limited circumstances, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Although FWS rarely enforces the MBTA against people who are all "the kid picked it up, idk?" they absolutely can.

(The Trump administration just issued an order to weaken/halt enforcement of the MBTA on January 5th, although they lost their original attempt to block enforcement of the MBTA in federal court last August. I expect the Biden administration will reverse the order.)
posted by Laetiporus at 11:53 AM on January 19 [5 favorites]

A porcupine quill was in my similar "museum" many years ago
Owl pellets .. if you can't find any yourselves they're available online (they aren't really yucky!)
As you mention, fossils are always great especially if you can find them locally: a local beach here has lots, for example. And different (unfossilized) shells from different beaches (jinx Lawn Beaver)
posted by anadem at 11:55 AM on January 19

Ooooh I did not know that about bird feathers and nests! Okay so take them off your list. I will... definitely... put mine back outdoors...?
posted by Lawn Beaver at 1:04 PM on January 19

A thought for you: Goodwill Online Auctions. There is all kinds of stuff that might fit your bill. Old books, sea-faring equipment, stones, etc. It may take you time, as it did for me, to know what to look for. I think you'll like it.

Here is an example of what you can find! This link is only good for a day, until the auction ends.
posted by zerobyproxy at 1:20 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]

If you ever make a field trip south to Portland, may I recommend Paxton Gate? I am fond of their collection of coproliths, owl pellets, and other waste products.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:33 PM on January 19

If you make this known to your family and significant others, within a few Christmases you will have so much Nat. Hist. stuff that you'll have to change out the displays. Walk in any woods; for a while I found small skulls, esp. in the spring, likely squirrels or other small critters.
posted by theora55 at 4:24 PM on January 19

The best curio cabinets are good because each object has a story, and I feel like buying them takes away from that vibe. Mine has a lot of stuff I found either traveling or doing fieldwork: illegal feathers, bones and antlers, coins from around the world, cool rocks and fossils I cracked myself, old toys and scientific gear from relatives' attics, more than one bottles containing messages, bugs I had to learn to pin properly, piles and piles of seashells...
I also collect interesting soil to make dorodango, a fun activity for the kids that literally cheap as dirt!
posted by Freyja at 9:48 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

On Etsy, you can buy US found fossilized shark teeth by the bag.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:08 AM on January 22

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