December Book List: Holiday Classics

Reindeer cookie
Creative Commons License photo credit: Samdogs

Everyone seems to have one special holiday book from their childhood that stands out because of the special memories it evokes.  For me, the book is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  This book was originally written by Robert May for his employer, Montgomery Ward, to give away during the 1939 Christmas season.  The song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Johnny Marks was first recorded in 1949, and the rest is history.

Although Rudolph is on the list of holiday books posted this month, I have decided to write about a specific type of books I collect: Pop-Ups.

The earliest moveable books were created in the thirteenth century, and were for adults, not children. My interest in Pop-Ups began when I was a school librarian and read an article stating that Pop-Up books were the least expensive way to collect art.  As I thought about this, I saw these books in an entirely different light, and marveled at the paper engineering that makes these books possible.  Today’s Pop-Ups are incredibly complicated, and several names stand out: Robert Sabuda, Jan Pienkowski, Nick Bantock and David Pelham.

Three of Robert Sabuda’s Pop-Up books are on the holiday list. The Christmas Alphabet is a series of windows that open to expose the mostly white pop-ups behind each letter.  It is fun to ask a child what they think will see.  They will probably guess “angel” for A, “candle” for C and “ornament” for O, but they will never guess “friends” for F, “quartet” for Q or “zzzzzzz” (Santa sleeping) for Z.  Some of the pop-ups almost explode off the pages of the book. For example, “unwrap” for U, “snowflake” for S and “poinsettia” for P.  But, my favorite pop-up is “gift” for G.  As you open the window, you will see a small square box with ribbons appearing to be untied.  Follow the arrow on the top of the box and you will find your gift:  a kitten!

Sabuda also created the Pop-Up book The 12 Days of Christmas, a unique retelling of the Holiday classic.  All of the pages are laid out in the same way.  When you turn a page you see one pop-up that takes up ¾ of the space, then you lift a flap for the next part of the song.  Opening the book you see a very large partridge with five green pears, and when you open the flap you find two turtledoves in a fancy birdcage with a bow attached.

Sabuda uses the unexpected to keep the song fresh.  For example, the four calling birds are in a cuckoo clock that is getting ready to chime, the five gold rings adorn the antlers of a giant reindeer, the six geese a-laying are sitting on top of a piece of pie with a fork nearby, the seven swans a-swimming are in a holiday snow globe and the nine drummers drumming are tiny mice holding drumsticks.  Although it does not appear to be as complicated as some of the pop-ups, I particularly like ten pipers piping.  When you open the flap you see a chain of angels that appear to have been cut like paper dolls, and the scissors are part of the pop-up, too.  However, eleven ladies dancing may be the most complicated.  You see an open musical jewelry box, complete with a mirror on the back, and you can almost see the tiny ballerinas spinning.

The retelling of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas by Robert Sabuda is particularly striking.  The pages are laid out the same way as in The 12 Days of Christmas, and the members of the family are mice.

When you read “When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter,” you see Mr. Mouse springing into action.  His pillow has been thrown aside and he is heading for the window.  Look carefully and you will see the shade pull and the tiny town outside the window.  When you read “More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, and he whistled and shouted and called them by name” eight reindeer leap off the page at you.  They are harnessed together with a silver cord which Santa is holding, and each pair of reindeer holds their heads in a different direction.  The most elaborate pop-up is on the last page, “But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight, ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night’!”  You see the entire village complete with houses, a church, a bridge and a gazebo with Santa and the reindeer circling in the background.  When everything unfolds off the page it is always fascinating to me that all the objects fold down and the book closes.

While I was researching the list of holiday books, I thought about my favorite Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and decided to buy a new copy.  Can you imagine my surprise when I found a 1950 spiral-bound pop-up copy of Rudolph? The reindeer on the cover looked like I remember, so I bought the book immediately.  This copy is a bit worn and the simple pop-ups are simple. However, I look forward to sharing them with my grandchildren Abbie, Elizabeth and Emma, hoping that it will become a lasting memory for them, too.

May the holidays bring you and all those you love peace, joy and very special memories to last a lifetime.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Rhodochrosite

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.

RhodochrositeThis description is from Joel, the Museum’s President and Curator of Gems and Minerals. He’s chosen spectacular objects from the Museum’s mineralogy collection, which includes some of the most rare and fascinating mineral specimens in the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

Rhodochrosite
N’Chwaning Mine, Kuruman, Northern Cape Province, South Africa

The epitome of South African rhodochrosite is represented by gemmy, deep red scalenohedral crystals in solid clusters such as the beautiful 9.5-cm example pictured here. Though not quite as spectacular as the big rhombohedrons from the Sweet Home mine in Colorado, these clusters are highly valued for their deep red color, high transparency, brilliant sparkling luster, sharp crystal form, and large, aesthetic groupings.

Marvel at the world’s most spectacular collection of natural mineral crystals in the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org.

Vanishing Worlds – Still Vanishing

raoni cropped - Steven
Raoni
Photograph by Cristina Mittermeier

One of the tribes featured in our exhibit on Amazonian rainforest people is that of the Kayapó people. We also have on display a series of large photographs taken very recently by Cristina Mittermeier. These photographs show daily life among the Kayapó. The title panel of this section of the exhibit carries the title of “Guardians of the Forest,” and displays a portrait of the tribe’s leader, Raoni, a man famous enough to have an institute named after him.

Recently, Raoni’s image also appeared on the BBC world news website.  He was shown together with Sting, who was there to lend his support to the tribe’s long-standing opposition to the construction of a dam on their lands. Initial reports of the Kayapó’s success in opposing the construction of the dam appear to have been premature, with recent reports surfacing in Western media that the project was slated to go ahead anyway. Even though intense media scrutiny has caused this mega-project to have been put on hold, it remains to be seen if it will be permanently shelved. If implemented, it would impact huge swaths of Kayapó lands, including their burial lands and their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. In other words, their world would literally vanish in a matter of years as the waters rose and covered their land.

As always, there is another side to the story. Brazil, a huge country with a growing population, faces ever increasing demands for energy. Its efforts to become energy independent, by developing its own sources of energy, have received attention from many a country abroad. The potential for hydro-electric power is immense in Brazil, as shown in the case of the Itaipu dam. However, it is also subject to interference by Mother Nature, as a recent power outage in Brazil, leaving 60 million people in the dark, clearly showed.

shrunken
Shrunken Head on display at HMNS

Much further to the West, the story of the Shuar people (formerly known as the Jivaro), continues to generate headlines as well. Living in Ecuador, the Shuar are one of a very small number of Amazon tribes who once practiced the custom of shrinking human heads. The Shuar are also part of our current Amazon exhibit, as are two shrunken heads, possibly their handiwork. A recent National Geographic broadcast, part of what is dubbed Expedition week, focused on what could be the only known documentary film ever made on this process. The procedure is shown as taking place in a village, rather than in the field, which has made some surmise that perhaps we might be dealing with a “re-enactment” of this event.  I found it amazing to realize that the footage was considered rare, and unique, given that it was only made in the 1960s.

These two recent episodes of Amazon cultures making the headlines remind us that their world, just like ours, is always in transition. While we can deplore the disappearance of civilization and our lack of understanding of their past, those of us who work in museums can help document and thus preserve customs which are vanishing in front of our eyes. It may very well be that our treatment of the Kayapó in the exhibit will be overtaken by events and that our next write up or exhibit on these people will have to use the past tense when referring to them. Similarly, when we realize that the label “1960’s – era” may imply rare and gone, it emphasizes the need to document what we see today. Museums need not only collect “really ancient stuff”; they should also do so with much more recent materials, indeed materials that may still be abundant today. Collecting such recent items has the additional benefit of being able to collect data on who made the items, when and where they were used, etc. One can only hope that later generations will appreciate our efforts in preserving a trace of cultures now long gone.

It appears that vanishing worlds continue to vanish in front of our own eyes.

Don’t miss the chance to see our exhibit Spirits and Headhunters: Vanishing Worlds of the Amazon while it is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. With over 100 objects of rare artwork and body costumes used in daily life and rituals and ceremonies, these beautiful pieces show the unique lifestyles of disappearing Amazonian tribes.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Pre-Columbian figurine fragments

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 Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org - throughout the year.

Pre-Columbian figurine fragments - fourThis collection of ceramic figurine fragments was chosen because it illustrates the problem many museums face. What do we want to display? What do we want to collect?

In most cases, the answer will be “museum quality” pieces, which often translates into “pristinely preserved.” While there are a good number of high quality pieces out there, there are many more that are broken. That is what we see here.

These imperfect reminders of a past are no less important than an intact piece. For one, as is the case here, the sheer volume of figurine fragments from Mesoamerica tells us that they were abundant. What were they used for? Where do we find them? How were they made? Even broken artifacts like these can give us some answers. For this reason alone, they are treasured given a spot on our virtual exhibit.

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org