Cleveland’s University Circle

Welcome to part two of my Cleveland series. I spent a lot of time there over the last year and there is a lot more going on there these days. For me, it’s a great option because it offers enough activities, cultural sites, and historical sites to be enjoyable without the overwhelm of a place like Chicago or New York.

My favorite part of Cleveland is University Circle.

Cleveland Museum of Natural History

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History was more exciting than I expected. To be fair, I’m a big nerd, and likely to enjoy spending hours in any museum. Still, the folks at CMNH know a thing or two about how to construct an awesome exhibit.

I could see the T-rex, Triceratops, and some other big guys from way back in the day before I even walked through the door. What really caught my eye was what looked to be a giant armadillo. Indeed, the Glyptodon was related to modern day armadillos, but were approximately the size and weight of a VW Beetle.

Giant armadillo
A glyptodon was about the same size as a VW Beetle.

The temporary exhibits brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. Finding Lucy: Our First Steps in Discovery and the related exhibit Fossil Hunters: The Search for Our Past told the incredible and controversial story of Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis discovered in Ethiopia by former CMNH curator Dr. Donald Johanson.

Dr. Johanson and his team were packing up after a dig and walking back to their camp when someone spotted what turned out to be a tiny arm bone from Lucy. Some say they just got lucky, but I know I wouldn’t have noticed a tiny bone among a bunch of similarly colored rocks, even if I looked right at it. While celebrating back at camp, someone popped the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album in the cassette deck. Upon hearing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the team’s discovery was named.

Lucy is the reason we now understand that humans walked upright before we became intelligent. At the time, she was our oldest known ancestor, over 3 million years old, and brought us several steps closer to discovering our link with chimpanzees.

Lucy team
The team of archaeologists who discovered Lucy.

Two aspects of this are awe inspiring for me. One, the idea that if an anthropologist walking through one very specific spot in Ethiopia in 1974 had been looking up rather than down at that one precise moment in time, Lucy’s secrets may still be buried out there in the desert. And two, the creature who is Lucy, back when she was alive, was just trying to find enough food to survive. She had no idea how important she would become to humanity over 3 million years in the future.

The Fossil Hunters exhibit was incredible and made me feel like I was on a dig with the team in Ethiopia. The exhibit included video and floor-to-ceiling photos to immerse you in the experience. They had displays showing different stages of the work, including a camp with tents and all the gear used on the dig. Dr. Haile-Selassie’s tent is his field “office” and workspace.

Field notebook and clothes
Field notebook from 2007.

In the center, there is an interactive exhibit that challenges you to identify the bones among rocks. It’s harder than you think!

These temporary exhibits may no longer be there when you go, but I’m sure they will have other fun exhibits in their place.

My favorite permanent exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the one that made the place unique compared to other museums I’ve been to, is the Perkins Wildlife Center. This outdoor exhibit includes five ecosystems and lots of different wildlife. They have coyotes, songbirds, a bald eagle, foxes, bobcats, some shy river otters, and a tired albino raccoon that slept the whole time I was there. I didn’t get to see the otters, but the raccoon was hiding in a nook where I could just see a speck of white ear and paw.

All the other animals were happy to interact with me. I spent the most time with Lancelot, a porcupine  who seemed to be doing a dance for me. He was a riot! He looked like he was moshing at a rock concert. Is this normal behavior for a porcupine? I’m not sure. But he seemed happy enough and he didn’t shoot any quills at me. Good thing, too. Turns out porcupines have as many as 30,000 quills, each with 800 barbs that open up and snag your skin on the way out. Yikes!

Many of the animals in Perkins were formerly in captivity, abandoned, or orphaned in the wild  and can’t be released back into the wild. They have been sent to Perkins from all over the country, from Arizona to Pennsylvania. There were even a couple of cranes named Niles and Daphne (some 90s sitcom fans may know the reference) who came from Howell Nature Center, right here in my home state.

There are plenty of other exhibits that you should check out if you go to CMNH. I won’t write about all of them in detail here, but I did enjoy seeing the Ringler Dugout Canoe, the lunar rock sample, and the dunkleosteus terrelli that has 90% original fossil from one single animal.

Ringler dugout canoe from 1500s

It was fun to imagine people using this canoe in the 1500s. You can see the scuff marks and places where they sat.

Prehistoric shark

You can tell the difference between a prehistoric and modern shark by looking at the mouth. Prehistoric sharks had a terminal mouth.

Moon rocks & earth gems!

Dunklesteus terelli
Dunkleosteus terrelli used in musems all over the world.

A famous fish! Museums around the world use plaster casts of this original dunkleosteus terrelli specimen.

There is a lot more to see, but I only had three hours. I typically need a whole day in a museum to see everything.

There are so many other things to do in and around University Circle, including Cleveland Museum of Art, Botanical Gardens, and Cleveland History Center.

When you are looking for a place to relax in University Circle, the best spots are near Cleveland Museum of Art. The Botanical Gardens and Wade Oval are great options, although there are often events happening in Wade Oval. If it’s too crowded and noisy there, you can head south past the art museum to the Fine Arts Garden and Wade Lagoon. You can also walk north along Martin Luther King Jr Dr and East Blvd to explore the two mile stretch of Cultural Gardens. At the north end, you can enjoy the Lakefront Nature Preserve and other parks in the vicinity. If you need an indoor break, the Langston Hughes Branch Library is on Superior Avenue just east of East Blvd.

Just down the road from University Circle is Lakeview Cemetery, where you will find the tomb of President Garfield as well as the graves of Eliot Ness, Alan Freed, and John Rockefeller, among others. I was primarily there to see the jukebox shaped grave marker of Alan Freed, the Cleveland based radio DJ who is credited with coining the term “Rock & Roll.” He is the reason Cleveland is called the rock & roll capital of the world.

At first, I felt kind of uneasy about walking around a cemetery as a tourist. There were people who were obviously there to visit the grave of a loved one, but they were outnumbered by tourists. Lakeview is a known tourist site, and as long as you are respectful, you will be welcome there.

Lakeview is also home of the famous Haserot Angel, the bronze angel of death statue that appears to be weeping black tears. It is caused by the aging bronze, but creepy nonetheless.

The Haserot Angel crying black tears.

The President Garfield memorial was under construction while I was visiting, so I couldn’t go to the top of the 180-foot dome to enjoy the view or get the full effect of the artfully designed building, but the main floor and tomb were open.

When you first walk in, just past the lobby, is a room featuring beautiful stained glass windows and a 12-foot statue of President Garfield. I was impressed to learn that the statue was carved from a single slab of marble, chair and all.

Garfield tomb
President Garfield marble statue.

The tomb itself is in the basement, where the caskets of President Garfield and his wife, as well as the ashes of their daughter and son-in-law are on display. Their daughter was only 14 years old when President Garfield was assassinated just short of his 50th birthday.

I hope to explore more of University Square next time I’m in Cleveland and review more places.

My next post will feature Hudson, a great small town with a gaming café to rival that of any large city and a great downtown with plenty of restaurants and shops.

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