Make the magic happen: How a gift to the Museum is a gift to everyone

One of the recent and more popular exhibitions at the HMNS was called Magic! The exhibition was unusual in that it not only included artifacts, but also showcased live performances by real magicians. Magic! ended more than two years ago in September 2010, but did the magic really end with the exhibition?

Let me explain what I mean.

First, the obvious: We’ve all heard the stats in the news. Science test scores in the United States lag behind those in other countries. And unfortunately, cuts in education budgets have had a damaging effect on our schools. In too many cases, schools simply don’t have the resources to provide what students need in order for them to master the necessary skills, especially in science and math.

That’s where the Museum comes in. HMNS is dedicated to bridging the gap between the need for a scientifically literate population and our schools’ sometimes inadequate resources. Science education is at the very heart of everything we do. Our programs for students and educators are heavy into STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math. Just look through the education section of our website or flip through the Educator Guide to browse the almost 50 courses that are offered to students and adults.

HMNS Summer CampsBut the Museum offers more than science courses. HMNS offers experiences which make science magically come alive in a way that piques curiosity. Walk through the Morian Hall of Paleontology and you can see more than 400 specimens that stimulate the imagination, triggering visitors to speculate about what it was like to see these giant creatures roam the Earth (and in the case of our Giant Ground Sloth, greater Houston!) Stroll through the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals and you can marvel at the precious gem stones and hundreds of minerals, each one a unique specimen. Enter the Cockrell Butterfly Center and you’re transported to a tropical rainforest with thousands of fluttering butterflies, beautiful tropical plants and a waterfall, to boot.

HMNS’ magic is obvious, but here’s what you don’t see. Our Museum has more than 45,000 members who get free access to the Museum’s permanent exhibit halls. And in order to make the Museum accessible to everyone in our community, our permanent exhibit halls are free to the general public every Thursday afternoon from 2 to 5 p.m. during the school year and 3 to 6 p.m. during the summer. The Museum website contains not only general Museum info, but also free grade-appropriate and TEKS-coordinated curriculum guides for educators and receives more than one million hits a year.

Group Photo!Working behind the scenes are just 159 full-time employees and 169 part-time staff. These are the folks who work to create and care for all of the collections, the permanent and traveling exhibitions, Giant Screen Theatre movies, adult education lectures, cultural feasts, youth education classes and outreach courses, scouting programs…and the list goes on and on (and on). In fact, the Museum provides almost 2 million services each year, and of that more than 595,000 are for students. Pretty impressive, right? Here’s the conundrum.

In the real world, if you go to the grocery store for milk, you pick up a carton of milk and pay for it. The price you pay covers what it costs for the store to provide you with that carton of milk. So, it stands to reason that if you go to the Museum to view an exhibition or attend a lecture or watch a movie, the price of everyone’s ticket purchases should cover the costs that the Museum incurs providing those services.

But the reality is that they don’t. This year, tickets sales will only account for about 40 percent of the Museum’s revenue. So how can the Museum continue to provide an astounding 2 million services annually?

It’s up to you to make the real magic happen.

If each person reading this post decided to support the Museum, their support and the support of others like them would help us continue to make science accessible and provide critical educational programming that makes a positive impact in our community and beyond.

And supporting the Museum is easy. You can:

(1) Become a member. Benefits include free access to all the permanent exhibit halls and discounts on everything the Museum has to offer — including all the shiny goodness at the Museum Store.

(2) Give the gift of membership. It’s a gift that keeps on giving and is way more fun for Uncle Bob and Aunt Lisa than another tie or a new bathrobe.

(3) Donate. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law. That means every penny supports the Museum and its programming. Learn more by clicking here.

So at this, the most wonderful time of the year, make a little holiday magic of your own by supporting the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

It’s Baktunalia! Astronomy VP Carolyn Sumners on why Dec. 21 is cause for celebration, not wild imagination

December 21, 2012: It’s not the End of the World — it’s the Baktunalia! It’s time for a celebration, not an apocalypse.

Here are the facts: The Maya long count calendar will go from 12.19.19.17.19 to 13.0.0.0.0 as we go from December 20 to December 21, 2012. So December 20 is New Baktun Eve and December 21 is New Baktun Day.

(FYI for those who like numbers: The five digits of the Mayan long count are base 20, except for the second number from the right, which is base 18. Our numbers are base 10. We have ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands. The Maya long count has kins, winals, tuns, katuns, and baktuns. For the Maya, a day is called a “kin.” Twenty kins make a winal. Eighteen winals, or 360 kins, equal a tun, making the tun about a year long. Twenty tuns make a katun and 20 katuns equal a baktun. Thirteen baktuns is just over 5,125 years.)

The Roman Saturnalia festival also occurred at this time — a celebration featuring food, gifts, and celebrations around the Winter Solstice. Early Christians could celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, hiding their event within the Saturnalia festivities. Hence, I’m calling this year’s rare event a Baktunalia!

See 2012: Mayan Prophecies at the Burke Baker Planetarium

Did the Maya calendar-makers over 2,000 years ago plan for their long-count calendar to reach the 13th Baktun on December 21? This is possible, but it seems unlikely. However, December is the Winter Solstice, a day the Maya recognized as the shortest day and longest night of the year — the day when the sun rises furthest in the southeast, sets furthest in the southwest, and makes its lowest and shortest path across the southern sky in the Northern Hemisphere. The Maya astronomers observed the sun on the winter solstice to document its southernmost rising and the promise that the sun would now start moving northward. There would be another spring and a new growing season.

Unlike the Internet doomsday prophets, science does not support an apocalypse in 2012. Solar activity maximum is happening in 2013. Thus far, all natural disasters in 2012 have been within the normal range of activity on a geologically active planet with dynamic weather patterns.

But there is one interesting astronomical alignment. On December 21, the sun will reach its lowest point in the sky for the Northern Hemisphere while it is in front of a dark rift in the Milky Way and directly between Earth and the Milky Way Galaxy’s center. This alignment has been in place for several years, but is often cited by the doomsday prophets. The black hole near the galactic center has the same effect on us today as it does on any day. This alignment makes no difference. Nor is it significant on December 21. After all, the sun is its strongest on this date south of the equator.

Lost in all the apocalyptic talk are the very significant achievements of the Maya regarding both time-keeping and astronomy. In the Burke Baker Planetarium, we have a show called Mayan Prophecies that visits four classic Maya cities (Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque), as they would have looked over a thousand years ago. At Uxmal, we see a Maya astronomer watching the sun’s rays entering the Temple of the Magician just two 20-day months before the sun would stand overhead and the rains would come. After this event, the astronomer could prepare farmers to plant their corn and the king to plan festivals.

At Chichen Itza, the feathered serpent god called Kukulcan would climb down his pyramid, El Castillo, on the first day of spring. Astronomers would then know when to have festivities with human sacrifices, trading human blood for the coming rains — all to appease Kukulcan and the rain god, Chaac. We actually show this sacrifice (tastefully) in the full dome and very up-close in the Mayan Prophecies planetarium show.

At Tikal (located in the lowlands of Guatemala), the astronomer would climb his pyramid, now called Temple 4, to watch the rising sun on December 21. When the sun rose over Temple 3, it marked the winter solstice. After this date, the astronomer knew that the sun would rise more to the north each day and that the rainy season would come again.

At Palenque, there are inscriptions inside major temples featuring trees for the seasons. The great King Pacal supposedly rose and journeyed to the heavens on December 21. Inscriptions at Palenque also explain the beginning of the long count cycle on a date we know now as August 13, 3114 BCE. Three temples at Palenque symbolize the three hearthstones of creation, with a central fire lit at the beginning of the current long count cycle. There are also three stars in our constellation Orion that represent these hearthstones.

For all their predictive power, the Maya astronomer could not foresee his own apocalypse, which happened over a thousand years ago. A combination of factors adding to decades of drought brought famine to the Classic Mayan cities. This great civilization, that had measured time and predicted the rains, collapsed and its people returned to the rainforest and mountains. The story of the Maya people is perhaps a greater predictor of the challenges we face in 2012 and beyond.

Fascinated? Discover how the Maya aligned their pyramids and temples to watch their sky gods and used interlocking calendars to record the past and predict the future in our Mayan Prophecies lecture. Dr. Carolyn Sumners will share how archaeological, historical and astronomical records were pieced together to learn more about the Maya. This lecture includes a viewing of film 2012: Mayan Prophecies. For lecture tickets, click here.

Lions and zebra and black rhino, oh my! Join HMNS on an African safari next November

There are some things you just can’t see in your own backyard, or even at the Museum — so our entertaining and informative curators David Temple and Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout are bringing a group to Tanzania in November 2013.

The unique eco-system of the Ngorongoro Crater, the vast savannahs of the Serengeti, the forest and grassland near the shores of Lake Manyara, and the renowned anthropological and geological sites at Olduvai Gorge are must-see wonders of east Africa included in this HMNS-exclusive trip.

Herds running across road.HR.RM

This two-week trip includes safaris to superb areas for seeing giraffe, zebra, elephant, hippo, tree-climbing and black-maned lion, black rhino, wildebeest, impala, flamingo, warthog, baboon, and many other species of African wildlife. All are guaranteed a window seat for wildlife viewing in a 4×4 with photo roof. You will also visit the site where the roots of modern man were unearthed by Mary Leakey and a Maasai village.

Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, HMNS curator of anthropology, curated the human evolution section of the new Hall of Paleontology along with numerous special exhibitions, including Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. He has a special interest in this trip as Africa is the cradle of humanity. Tanzania’s Rift Valley has yielded important early human fossils, landmarks in the evolution of mankind. “We are all descendants of these early Africans. Visiting Tanzania will be a return home for all of us,” Dr. Tuerenhout says.

Maasai Men Jumping 6.HR.RM

David Temple, HMNS associate curator of paleontology, curated the Museum’s new Morian Hall of Paleontology and possesses a wide knowledge base of the evolution of mammals and modern African wildlife. “Tanzania is a perfect destination to learn of the great creatures of the past and witness the great creatures of the present,” he adds. Temple also holds a special interest African history, culture and economic development.

Lioness & cubs in Crater.HR.RM

Space is very limited. For complete itinerary, pricing and registration, click here and mark your calendar for our informational session March 19.

Style Spotlight: Jessica Winzelberg makes rough-hewn gems of jewels you can only get at HMNS

Have you ever sat at your desk, daydreaming about leaving your 9 to 5 and becoming an artist? (I never have, but then my job happens to be awesome). Jessica Winzelberg took that leap and left investment banking to become a San Francisco jewelry designer and metalsmith.

I stumbled across Jessica’s work surfing the internet one day (it’s called RESEARCH, I swear!) and knew immediately that her vibrant stone choices and elegant, streamlined metalwork would be a perfect fit for the museum store. Fortunately, Jessica thought that was a great idea, too, and we are now the only store in Texas to carry her gorgeous designs.

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Jessica handpicks unique stones just for us — like fiery boulder opals, unusual agates and jaspers, and sliced aquamarines — and custom creates each piece. Sometimes, because she knows we can never have too much of a good thing in Houston, she doubles up on the glamour by setting a polished, organically shaped opal with say, a brilliant pink tourmaline.

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While all of the stones are beautiful (I don’t want any of them to get their feelings hurt), the boulder opals are my personal favorite. Found in Australia, veins of opal occur in an ironstone rock matrix — it’s like catching a glimpse of a gemstone rainbow through a secret window.

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Check out Jessica’s work in-person at the Museum Store, or take a look online. Orders made by Dec. 17 are guaranteed delivery by Christmas, and 100 percent of the proceeds from our pretty things benefit the Museum and its programming.