A while back, I got the urge to seek out some resources to help broaden my understanding of plant life and nature. As a former botany student (way back when) I enjoyed learning about plant structure, form, and systematics. My knowledge has waned a bit in the intervening years and, honestly, I wanted to get my hands on a microscope again.
Living not far from Washington DC, the obvious choice is visiting the Museum of Natural History. Before jumping in the car, I visited their website to see if they offered a resource room of any sort and what kind of credentials you needed for access. Voila! They offer a free, hands-on research facility, the Naturalist Center, located in Leesburg, VA ~ a tad closer than DC and I don't even have to drive downtown! It's open to everyone, free of charge, lots of parking. Microscope included!
What you encounter when you walk through the door, aside from the gracious staff, is a kid- and family-friendly activity room chock full of natural objects to touch and learn about. And then, there's the research library: endless cabinets of wonder:
It's hands-on ~ but there are proper ways of touching this stuff without ruining it for the next guy. The staff and volunteers will lead you through easy guidelines for opening drawers and not petting polar bears with the palm of your hand, etc.
They offer a sizable botany library and plenty of herbarium specimens to examine and photograph. For me, it's like a dream come true. It was all so amazing that the next thing I knew, I was filling out a volunteer application form ~ and have been going back every Thursday to help out. My current task is to frame the scientific illustrations donated by Johns Hopkins students using found or free materials ~ and to try and remember to get some reading in!