Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

Creative Commons License photo credit: Andrew Mason

In a previous post, you learned a little about what it means to be a Museum employee and you got to know the Temples a little better. 

Now I would challenge you to get to know yourself a bit better.  The human body is an amazing thing and in honor of our special exhibit Body Worlds 2 and The Brain – Our Three Pound Gem I challenge you to play a quiz game based on the human body.  The format is very similar to a show on t.v. hosted by a certain Mr. Trebek, so you shouldn’t have trouble learning the rules!

Click on the link below to get started and, if you are interested in seeing Body Worlds 2 and The Brain – Our Three Pound Gem, don’t wait until closing weekend (the exhibit closes Feb. 22).  Tickets will be sold out!


The Heart of a Collector: 500 pez dispensers don’t lie

Pez Collection
Creative Commons License photo credit: Okaggi

One day it just happens. You look around your living space and realize, oh-my-gosh, I have 500 Pez dispensers. Well, ok, maybe not Pez dispensers and maybe not 500 of them but you do have a whole lot of one particular item. Congratulations! Whether intentional or not, you’ve got a collection!

Since you’re reading the HMNS blog, I’m thinking your collection probably runs more towards natural specimens and artifacts. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s Pez dispensers or wombat figurines, every personal collection could use some management. And viewing your collection like a museum collections professional can be helpful.

To start, I’m putting on my registrar’s hat to caution all collectors strongly about specimen and artifact collection. There is a myriad of state, federal and international laws about surface collection, sale and import/export of natural history specimens and antiquities. Please be sure you’re up to date on them. Ignorance of these laws won’t get you out of hot water and the penalties are pretty stiff. If you want to know more about these laws contact me or a curator and we can point you towards the appropriate websites. Caveats issued, let’s begin.

Sand Dollars and Shells
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zevotron

First, define your collection – briefly please. Do you collect rocks, shells and fossils? Take a broader approach and say you collect natural science (or natural history) specimens. As you organize further you can break down the collection into its various categories of geology, conchology and paleontology. Next, spend some time pondering the scope of your collection. Are all additions welcome no matter how tangential? Or do you collect with a narrower focus? If your collection has a sharper focus what are the criteria? People collect for all kinds of personal reasons. The scope of your collection might be dictated by color, size, geographic place, cost or a combination of things. The important thing is to define it as one all-encompassing entity.

Now that you know what your collection is you have to know what’s in it. If you haven’t been an intentional collector it’s likely that you’re not so sure how many items you’ve got. An accurate count is essential. Start with an overall count of every item; for example, a pottery collection of thirty pieces. In the highly unlikely occurrence that you collect only one thing identically replicated over and over you can stop here.

Otherwise, the next step is where you truly put your own stamp on your collection. Decide and define the different categories of your collection. You’re not just a collector but a curator as well, so you can lump items together however it pleases you – size, shape, color, date, whatever. If you’re serious about natural science specimens, it is best to follow the Linnaean system. But whatever you use, get an accurate count of the number of items that fit in each category.

Harry Potter
A picture of the artist adds
to your collection.
Creative Commons License photo credit: lakshmi.prabhala

As every devout fan of the Antiques Roadshow knows, documentation is most important. Always document the date and place where you’ve collected. If you’ve added to your collection by purchase, keep the receipt. If your collection has ethnographic artifacts such as pottery or textiles, ask the artist if you if you can take their photograph. Getting yourself in a photograph with the artist also helps to document your collection. When collecting specimens be as specific as you can about location and circumstances.

Good images, digital or film, are very important. Individual images are best but group shots are good too. Brief written statements about your collection add to its educational value. Detailed documentation is of enormous help should you decide to part with your collection by donation or sale. It is absolutely necessary if your collection is lost to theft, fire or water. It’ll also stop your heirs from pitching it, especially if they haven’t a clue about what you collected.

How you keep track of your collection may also change over time.
This is the very first collections ledger for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
(Learn more in this year’s history series: 100 Years – 100 Objects.)

So, how do you keep on top of all that documentation and cataloguing? Again, it’s up to you. Many people do just fine keeping receipts, photos, etc. in an archival notebook or album. If you want to keep it all digitally you can scan hard copies (but keep those originals!) and use a spreadsheet for cataloguing. Excel will do, especially if you’ve got less than two hundred items. Should you want to get really serious, lots of collectors use Filemaker Pro, though I hasten to add that I haven’t personally worked with it. There are collection management databases but they’re all geared towards museums and libraries, expensive and way too complicated for the needs of a private collector.

These are just a few suggestions to start maintaining your collection. A future blog will cover basic care and preservation. And if all this seems too arduous, don’t worry about it. Collecting should be a fun and relaxing pursuit. After all, those 500 Pez dispensers are meant to be enjoyed.

Sea-Monkeys Turn You Pink

I recently went on a trip to San Diego where one of my main stops was the San Diego Zoo.  I was in awe of all the species housed in that amazing facility, particularly the flamingos.  While staring at them and holding my nose, as is quite necessary, if you’ve never been, a question and answer session from my childhood popped into my mind. 

Why are flamingos pink if they are born grey?  Excellent question!  Flamingos are filter feeders that exist on a mainly blue-green algae and/or brine shrimp diet.  What are brine shrimp, you ask?  You may know them by their more common name, sea monkeys.  Because sea monkeys contain relatively large amounts of beta-carotene, the flamingos’ familiar pink color evolves over time as they eat.

It seems strange that an animal’s diet can alter their coloration so drastically from the natural state, though flamingos are not the only creature that changes color because of their choice of meal! 

Consider the carrot, a wonderful source of beta-carotene.  If you were to eat large quantities of carrots everyday, for every meal and every snack, eventually you would end up tinted orange.  That’s right!  If you worry obsessively about your vision and overdo the carrots, you could end up looking like you belong in the factory singing anecdotal-lessons with the rest of the Oompa Loompas.  This unfortunate condition is called Carotenosis, and is, luckily, rarely fatal.

With all of this newfound colorful information in hand, I hope you take note of the fascinating natural world, choose your snacks wisely and, remember, everything in moderation.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Monocular Compound Scope

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Lisa Rebori, the museum’s Vice President of Collections. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent our Museum’s history, and our collections of historical technologies, that we’ll be sharing here – and on – throughout the year.

English, ca. 1820
HMNS #138
Museum purchase made possible with the support of the Junior League of Houston, Inc., 1990.

During the 17th and the first quarter of the 18th century, microscopes were made of wood, ivory and layers of paper covered with leather, vellum or fish skin, such as stingray. By the early 19th century, better microscopes were made almost entirely of brass.

This is a lacquered brass scope that is based on a design by Benjamin Martin, a teacher and instrument maker from the 1760s. This scope was designed to be portable and comes in a fitted wooden box with a variety of eye pieces and lenses to allow for various degrees of magnification. 

A feature of this type of scope is the freedom allowed to move the specimen being viewed.  [The item being viewed is held in place in the stage area by tweezers (shown below) or mounted to a slide.] This type of scope also provides increased illumination. The lens on the left is adjustable and works in combination with the mirror at the bottom, to focus light to the stage of the microscope.

Optical focus is achieved with a rack and pinion mechanism that moves the barrel up and down the pillar by means of the knob on the side.  Instrument makers had to have knowledge of optics, in addition to mechanics.

Check back soon for more of the 100 most compelling objects from the museum’s collections – we’ll be posting the series throughout 2009 as we celebrate a centennial of science in Houston.