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81st Street-Museum of Natural History is a local station with four tracks and two side platforms. However, in this area, the local tracks are stacked, northbound above southbound, and the express tracks are stacked in the same order to the east of them, so both platforms are on the west side, one above the other. The station is at Central Park West and 81st Street rather than the major crosstown 79th Street (though an entrance exists that this street too) to accommodate the American Museum of Natural History, which largely fills what was once Manhattan Square. The 79th Street Transverse Road through Central Park exits the park here. An underground entrance directly to the Museum is at the south end of each platform.

When the station was renovated in the 1990s in coordination with building the new planetarium, the Rose Center for Earth and Space, a program of tile mosaics was undertaken, covering the stairs and platforms, extending to floor inlays. Stairwells evoke descents into the geological strata of the Earth (at 81st Street) or into the Ocean (79th Street) and many creatures are evoked in mosaic vignettes that punctuate the stretches of white tiled wall. Fossil casts seem to emerge from the tiles as though the subway platform itself were an excavation, which indeed it is.

Under the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Arts for Transit program, a mixed-media installation was created. Entitled "For Want of a Nail", named after the old proverb, it addresses the interconnections of entities that are as vast as a galaxy and as small as a single cell. Using ceramic tile, glass tile, glass mosaic, bronze relief, and granite as primary materials, the design team depicted the evolution of extinct, existing and endangered life forms—from single celled organisms to the towering T. rex dinosaur. It shows images and symbols ranging from the earth's core, to the sea, the sky and the cosmos beyond. No artist has been identified in this group project.

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For the want of a horse the knight was lost.
For the want of a knight the battle was lost.
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
...All for the want of a horseshoe nail.
— proverbial.

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