Amazing Animals, Breathtaking Photography on Display Now at HMNS in Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibit

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is honored to again host the breathtaking beauty captured in Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Founded in 1964 and organized by the Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide, Wildlife Photographer of the Year is one of the longest and most prestigious photography competitions in the world. Now in its fiftieth year, the competition received over 40,000 submissions from amateur and professional photographers from nearly 100 countries, all of whom were competing for the prestigious title of Wildlife Photographer of the Year.


Every year, the best images submitted are selected to form theWildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, and are exhibited at art galleries, museums, and science centers around the globe allowing millions of visitors to view the stunning images, helping to ensure that biodiversity and sustainability remain at the forefront of public awareness.

Since its inception, audiences across the world have responded to the splendor, drama, variety and importance of life on Earth captured in the images. Over the years, the exhibit has inspired a new generation of photographic artists to produce a visionary and expressive interpretation of nature. The subjects generate greater public interest in the natural world and conservation, raising understanding of wildlife photography as a mainstream art.

Featuring 100 awe-inspiring images, from fascinating animal behavior to breathtaking wild landscapes, Wildlife Photographer of the Year harnesses the power of photography to promote the discovery, understanding and responsible enjoyment of the natural world.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is free for Museum members and with general admission.

Kanpai! Kuraray toasts to harmony and good fortune with traditional Kagamiwari Ceremony

Editor’s Note: This post was provided by Kuraray, local sponsor to the special exhibition Samurai: The Way of the Warrior on display now at HMNS.

Kagami-biraki is a traditional Japanese ceremony performed at celebratory events in which the lid of a sake barrel is broken open with a wooden mallet and the sake subsequently served. The kagami is a symbol of harmony and the kagami-biraki, represents opening to harmony and good fortune.

Recently, Kuraray purchased the MonoSol company, the global market-leading manufacturer of water-soluble polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH) films. Their products are used around the world and touch our lives every day. Monodose films are MonoSol’s fastest-growing product; these are water-soluble films used in products such as Cascade Complete, Tide Pods, Purex Ultrapacks, and other brands of single-dose dishwashing or laundry detergent.

Japanese-based Kuraray held the traditional Japanese Kagamiwari Ceremony at the MonoSol headquarters upon completing the purchase. This ritual of breaking open of a barrel of sake (Japanese rice wine) is a popular custom in Japan. It is performed at special celebrations such as the New Year, a wedding, an anniversary, or the opening of a new business. When the cask of sake is cracked open with a wooden mallet the sake is ladled to wooden masu (cups) and given to the participants, who then toast in Japanese, shouting “Kampai!” Literally translated, kagamiwari means “the opening of a mirror” or “breaking the mirror open.” Kuraray holds events like this for plant openings, dedications, and other important celebrations.

Watch the video below for footage of a Kuraray ground breaking event in Texas, including a Kagamiwari Ceremony.

The acquisition of MonoSol, one of the largest PVOH users in the United States, supports Kuraray’s strategy to expand its vinyl acetate chemical chain business around the world. Through this acquisition, Kuraray expanded its product offering of PVOH films into a wider range of industrial applications, thereby enhancing the company’s competitiveness. Kuraray currently supplies “Poval” PVOH film for optical uses, including a polarizing film, which is an essential component of liquid crystal displays. 

Want to learn more about Japanese culture and traditions? Visit HMNS to see Samurai: The Way of the Warrior,on display through September 7, 2015. Local support for this exhibit is provided by Kuraray.

The Battle of the Beard: Tut’s shave stirs controversy

I work in Cairo, and this week I had the interesting experience of being at the edge of a huge news story. Ancient Egypt is always popular but I’ve never seen anything like the media scrum that descended on the Cairo Museum last week. You all know why – the Minister for Antiquities and his colleagues were responding to allegations that the gold and glass beard on the funerary mask of Tutankhamun had been damaged by restorers. The truth was rather more prosaic than some of the wilder flights of fancy that had been circulating beforehand.

Beard Blog Media scrum

Courtesy J. Smythe

As most Egyptologists know, and had been patiently explaining to anyone within earshot since the story broke, the beard was made separately from the rest of the mask. Howard Carter detached it when he extracted the mummy from the solid gold innermost coffin in the 1920s. In fact the mask spent its first decade-and-a-bit on display in the Cairo Museum beardless.  It was re-attached in the 1940s.

Burton photograph p0751 Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

Burton photograph p0751
Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

So, rather than the beard being ‘snapped off’, all that had happened was that the adhesive used to attach the 4 lb beard (that’s a LOT of beard … ) had weakened with age and lost its mojo. The beard needed to be stuck back on again. Cairo Museum has its own conservation department, where specialists and visiting researchers keep track of the objects in the museum. At the press conference Christian Eckmann, who is one of the world’s leading conservators of ancient metal, gave a professional assessment of what had happened and what it meant. A heavy lump of smoothly polished metal needs a heavy duty adhesive to keep it attached to another lump of smoothly polished metal. A blob of Elmers isn’t enough. The museum conservators employed an epoxy resin to re-attach the beard.

Although epoxy might sound like the nuclear option, it can be a valid solution for heavier-duty repairs. The obvious problem with the repair is that some excess epoxy squeezed up between the join and smeared over Tutankhamun’s chin. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this can be remedied. Polished gold is an inert, slippery surface; adhesives, generally, don’t bond well with it. Given careful attention and time, Christian Eckmann said, the excess can be removed mechanically, or the whole repair dismantled and treated again. Solid gold is one of the more forgiving materials.

If this has turned out to be perhaps a bit more than a storm in a shaving basin, there are some bigger take homes from it.

1) The media frenzy is (partly) a reassuring display of how much the mask, and Egyptian heritage, means to people in Egypt and worldwide. Now the facts are out, we know where matters stand. If you want to keep in the loop, and show your support for Egyptian history, subscribe to the Facebook page of the Patrons of the Egyptian Museum

2) People often think of museums as places where nothing changes. In fact, we curators, registrars, and conservators have to work hard to keep the effects of time from the objects in their care. Sometimes things don’t go quite as we planned. Every conservator will tell you that each treatment has a potential downside to it, and every curator and conservator had an “I could have had to deal with this” moment when they heard about the beard. At HMNS, we’re lucky enough to have Ron Harvey working as our consulting conservator. Ron has worked for HMNS on material ranging from Lucy, the early fossil hominid, to our Egyptian coffins.

3) And, last but not least, if you’d like to get face-to-face with Tut without taking an 18 hour flight to Cairo, come to the Hall of Ancient Egypt and feast your eyes on two objects in particular.

The first is a small head from a statue of the god Amun. The heavy lidded eyes and pouting mouth are pure Tut, and clearly date the head to his nine year reign.

Beard Blog Amun

Courtesy Chiddingstone Castle

The second is this slightly under life-size bust of a man. He’s wearing the long, undulating wig and short-sleeved pleated shirt in fashion for high officials at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1320 BC). Just like Amun’s, his face is very close to Tutankhamun’s.

Courtesy Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney

Courtesy Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney

Why do both god and commoner look like their king? The answer to this helps reveal how the Egyptians viewed their world. This revolved around the king, a god on earth and intermediary between man and the immortals. As the king was the only god who permanently took human form, it made sense for his face to be used on representations of other gods, binding him closer to them. For the king’s subjects, adopting some of his facial traits brought them closer to him, demonstrating their loyalty and obedience. In the case of our bust, this might be rather ironic. The inscribed base of the statue is missing, but some people have identified it as a representation of Horemheb, Tutankhamun’s army chief. Horemheb became king a few years after Tutankhamun’s untimely death. Perhaps his loyal expression was only skin deep (er, a mask…?).

Educator How-To: Crystals, Geometry and Chemistry

Math is beautiful and inescapable. Especially in nature, patterns and equations just keep showing up.  The path of an orbiting planet, the growth of a nautilus, arrangements of leaves on a stem, the efficient packing of a honeycomb; we can find rules and algorithms and make predictions from them.

Crystals, with their obediently repeating structure, are an elegant manifestation of the ‘rules.’  To be a crystal, your building blocks (atoms, molecules, or ions) must follow patterns over and over and over and over and over.  Atoms, being predictable, simply do what their chemical properties and the conditions (temperature, pressure, etc.) indicate.  So what exactly does it take to go from a mess of elements and compounds to this[picture of green “Crystals of India” crystal specimen] example from the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land?

If you’ve ever tried making rock candy from sugar water or ornaments from borax solution, then you have some idea what it entails: something dissolved that is capable of making crystals has to slowly come out of solution – usually the longer you give it, the bigger it can grow and the slower it grows, the more perfect the crystals.

Freezing water into ice also gives you crystals; they just don’t stick around and let you handle them conveniently at room temperature. Water and solutions in water aren’t the only way to get crystals; molten rock cooling (slowly) can also give crystals, but that’s a little tricky for home experimentation.

So time is your friend for crystal growth, pressure is a factor, and it needs to be easier for atoms to attach to the forming crystal than to stay in solution.  Having a solution that is saturated or supersaturated so it can barely hold all of the dissolved material helps. It also helps to have places for the crystals to start forming; a tiny ‘seed’ crystal or sometimes even just a rough spot on a surface can provide the nucleation sites to kick off crystal growth. Are there other ways crystals and the things we consider ‘gems’ can form? Yes!

For those of us with shorter attention spans, a cool way so see the process is with crystallizing hand warmers – a pouch holds a saturated solution of sodium acetate. When you flex a metal disk inside the pouch, you kick off a chain of crystallization and end up with solid material (and released heat energy).  Because the process is so fast in the hand warmer, the individual crystals are very small and jumbled up (polycrystalline); oriented in all different directions, and as a mass they are opaque (light is refracting all over the place) and relatively dull rather than shiny and smooth as slower-forming large crystal faces can be.  The structure of most metals is also polycrystalline, and things like plastic and glass (even the kinds misleadingly labeled “crystal!”) are amorphous.

The external crystal shapes we see are related to the internal structure – there are a lot of different ways atoms can pack together.

Practically, there will always be some disruption in a crystal structure, no matter how perfect it may appear, which allows for some very cool effects – crystals “twinning,” impurities that alter the color; the reason ruby and sapphire (both corundum crystals) appear different.

Crystals aren’t always pretty! Sometimes we want to prevent crystallization to avoid things like kidney stones, but crystals are useful for all kinds of things; optical equipment and lasers, X-ray crystallography to figure out structures of proteins (and once upon a time, DNA), and silicon chips used in electronic devices. 

Whether you prefer your crystals practical or decorative (photo of white spikey crystal from Crystals of India), they are amazing!

Can’t get enough crystals? Check out the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land (free for members!)