Curious Late Nights at HMNS – The Mystery of Imperato’s Lost Tablet

Disclaimer: This fictional story was written by Julia Russell in Youth Education Programs.

Hello everyone,

My name is Julia, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since I started my research as a graduate student at HMNS. It really seems like it was just yesterday…

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I’ve loved museums since I was a child. I was always fascinated by the huge and impressive collections museums were able to acquire. It’s a curiosity of mine that has never fully disappeared. Being a mini-museum connoisseur growing up, I had many of my own collections. I had the traditional stamp collection. I had the cumbersome rock collection. (Gathering new specimens for my collection probably wasn’t the highlight of our family vacations for my parents.) I eventually moved on to collecting books about my two favorite topics: sharks and dinosaurs. This also led to a lot of “excavations” in my backyard. I was fairly unsympathetic about destroying the landscape of our backyard when I was on a search to uncover the greatest dinosaur fossil ever found. I never actually found it, but I did triumphantly reassure my dad that the numerous holes in the backyard were in the name of science and discovery!

Eventually, I decided to study history and biology at the University of Fibonacci. Throughout my time as an undergraduate student, I tried to find career paths that would let me combine my dual interests in the humanities and the hard sciences. The one place I could bring these two passions together? A museum! In keeping with my childhood, I continued to marvel at the world’s museums and their Impressionist paintings, ancient Greek pottery, dazzling gems and minerals, mummies, fossils, and so much more. The one question that began to echo through my mind as I visited these institutions: why do we collect? What drives people to create collections? Is it human nature to collect? Since four years of undergraduate work wasn’t nearly enough time to satisfy these questions, I decided to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Noneya to explore the art of collecting a little further.

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To better understand why, I had to start with when. At what point in our history did we start collecting? If I could find a starting point, I had a better chance of understanding the why. As it turns out, the practice of collecting is as old as humans themselves. The concept of collecting in an effort to better understand the natural world around us seems to be an inherent part of our human nature. In all of my studies, there was one particular collection that struck me: the collection of Ferrante Imperato.

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Like most people, I’m intrigued by the unknown. I think that’s what draws me to Imperato and his collection. We don’t know much about this…apothecary? Or was he an alchemist? I decided to make Imperato and his cabinet of curiosities, a kind of precursor to the natural history museums of today, the focus of my graduate thesis. Enter HMNS.

I came to HMNS after hearing that they were bringing Ferrante Imperato’s collection over from Naples, Italy. They were going to have his actual collection. It was a researcher’s dream. I reached out to HMNS and began studying the numerous objects and texts left behind by Ferrante and his son, Francesco.  

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I combed through original texts and flexed my semi-fluent Italian language muscles. I was particularly entranced by Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale from 1599. This engraved text outlines Imperato’s natural history collection, making it one of the first texts to do so. While I was interested in the extensive catalog of his collection and his reasons for collecting, I couldn’t help but notice some strange references throughout his texts. The word tesoro appears several times in Imperato’s writings. Tesoro is the Italian word for “treasure.” Of course, since Ferrante Imperato was an enthusiastic collector, I assumed he was referring to his collection as a treasure. As an 8-year-old, I frequently boasted about my collections of “treasures” though my treasures mostly consisted of dirt clods from my backyard excavations that I had yet to “prep out” as I explained to my parents. However, as I continued to read Imperato’s texts, I came to realize he wasn’t referring to his entire collection as a “treasure.” He was referring to a single object, a tablet.

I’m a firm believer that Ferrante Imperato was an alchemist as well as an apothecary. In my quest to understand what drives people to collect, it seems that Imperato was determined to use his collection to find natural remedies for a variety of ailments. He also frequently discussed the transformation of matter, a concept near and dear to alchemists’ hearts. Could this tablet be part of Imperato’s work as an alchemist? And more importantly, could this object be in the very Cabinet of Curiosities I’m studying right now?

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While I love talking about my research and the topic of my thesis, as any graduate student does (seriously, I’ll talk about it for hours), I really wanted to write this guest blog to ask for help. I need to solve the mystery of this tablet. I don’t have much longer to work with the collection before my thesis is due and my time at HMNS is up! So here I am, reaching out to the HMNS community for help. Can you unlock the secrets and solve the riddles of Ferrante Imperato’s Cabinet of Curiosities before it’s too late?

If your group is interested in helping Julia solve the mystery of Imperato’s lost tablet, email education@hmns.org for more information on this special Curious Late Night program.

 

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Kids Can Learn About Physics at This Block Party, Too!

by Kavita Self

The Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land’s summer special exhibit, Block Party, Too! opened Friday, June 3. At the End of School Festival the day before, patrons got an exclusive sneak peek at the summer fun, and it was a big hit!

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Similar to Block Party at HMNS, but with a Sugar Land twist, kids of all ages had a wonderful time exploring and building in the five Build Zones. Each zone highlights principles of science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) in a family-friendly, hands-on environment. With connecting building blocks, magnetic tiles, foam blocks, oversized bricks and more, we had creative inventions — a bridge, a chair, a life sized person — in every zone!

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The Game Zone, featuring classic games like Giant Tic-Tac-Toe, Giant Snakes and Ladders, Twister and more, saw kids (and adults) competing fiercely for the win! We hope to see these families return again and again as the popularity of our newest hands-on exhibit continues to grow. Take a look at the rest of these preview shots, then come on down and build using your own imagination!

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Editor’s Note: Kavita is the Director of Programming for HMNS – Sugar Land.

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Leave Unique Meetings to the Experts: HMNS Has Special Events Down to a Science

 

by Ashley Zalta

unconventional6Recent studies have found the current attention span of a human is between eight and nine seconds. That’s the same attention span of a goldfish! To say the least, your typical boardroom meetings aren’t capturing people’s attention anymore, so how do we make more interactive and engaging meetings? Well, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Special Events Department has a few answers for you.

1. Hold a meeting in an unconventional location.

Unconventional locations capture attention from the get-go, as clients’ senses are heightened in unfamiliar spaces. At HMNS, we offer meeting spaces that allow guests to view all of our permanent exhibit halls during their breaks. This gets people up and moving and not in a “meeting-coma” as the day proceeds.

Desmond Dino Tour 22. Seating matters

Nowadays, you have so many more options than typical conference chairs and board tables for meetings. The trends are leaning towards a more fun style of seating. Try using bean bag chairs. This allows guests not only a comfortable place to sit, but also elicits more group conversation.

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Also try charging furniture — that is, furniture with outlets. With all guests “plugged in” these days, it’s hard to find enough outlets for everyone without wiring up the room. Well not anymore! Charging furniture now puts live plugs both wall style and usb right into the couches, chairs, and tables where guests are sitting.

unconventional3. DIY food stations

The food served at a meeting can be a great way to get people up and moving and create new conversations during an event. With DIY food stations, people not only create the exact food perfect for their dietary needs, but this type of meal can also be a point of conversation, and for some, even a competition.

Taco station — it’s a festive spin on Tex-Mex that leaves everyone satisfied.

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Salad bar — something healthy, something for everyone.

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Decorate-your-own gingerbread cookie — perfect for informal competitions!

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At HMNS, we’ve got engaging audiences down to a science, so contact us at specialevents@hmns.org to help make your next event truly unique.

Editor’s Note: Ashley is the Assistant Director of Special Events at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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Meet the Volunteers Who Have ‘Donated Their Bodies to Science’

by Gail Peterkin, HMNS Volunteer

“Donate your body to science — volunteer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science!” Or so the tagline goes. Apparently, some volunteers have interpreted the phrase quite literally, and a number of volunteers have spent many years, if not decades, as HMNS volunteers. HMNS currently has 610 active volunteers at all three of our campuses — Hermann Park, Sugar Land and the George Observatory. Collectively, volunteers gave 41,783 hours of service in 2015. That’s a lot of hours! Volunteers contribute to the museum in a variety of ways. Although the vast majority are docents who interact with and educate visitors of all ages about the museum’s exhibits and items on display, others work behind the scenes with the museum staff, and a very select few, with special knowledge or expertise, work directly with museum curators.

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Sandy Wilkins

Sandy Wilkens began volunteering at the museum during the 1982-1983 school year, when her daughter was in second grade. With a degree in education and a teaching certification, she found a niche at the inception of the Early Investigations program, a science education program for younger children. She recalls sitting on the floor around a teepee, telling inquisitive K-2 students about life on the Plains. Sandy likes to use everyday things to give kids a sense of perspective. For example, she points out that a child’s foot is about the same length as a T. rex tooth! Sandy and her family donated a corn snake named Houdini to the museum. An escape artist like his namesake, Houdini was known for vanishing from his tank. Helpful hint: To capture an escaped snake in a classroom, set up a small, sealed container full of mice (i.e., dinner) on the floor. Chances are you will find the snake wrapped around the container within the next day or two! Most recently, Sandy has coordinated the annual staff appreciation luncheon, given by volunteers to thank museum staff for their support.

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Mary Briscoe preparing for a Guild luncheon.

Mary Brisco, a retired pharmacist, became a volunteer in 1987 to further her interest in science. Over the years, she has volunteered in almost all of the permanent exhibit halls, although she admits that the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals is a personal favorite. Mary likes to tell visitors about the mesolite with fluorapophyllite specimen. Extremely fragile, it traveled by air from India on a first-class ticket, packed in powdered soap for protection! Mary has served in many roles in the Volunteer Guild, including a term as Guild President. Mary’s most memorable museum experience was winning a raffle for a gold-and-diamond necklace and earring set at one of the Galas! Nowadays, Mary is enjoying a change of pace, working in the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s greenhouse on the seventh floor of the parking garage.

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Elaine Swank with HMNS President Joel Bartsch.

Elaine Swank came to HMNS in September 1988, when HMNS President Joel Bartsch was a museum security guard! They became friends, and she remembers when he returned to HMNS as Curator of Gems and Minerals. Elaine especially enjoys school tours, and she continues to work regularly with Houston fourth graders through the HISD/HMNS Program. Although she has experience in all the permanent halls, she usually takes the kids to the Hall of the Americas, where she tells them what to do if they discover an archaeological artifact, and then brings them to the Morian Hall of Paleontology. She always reminds the kids to look up, to see the Quetzalcoatlus from Big Bend National Park in Texas flying overhead! Elaine is well known for carrying an artificial rose, to keep her school groups together.

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Crafty Inda Immega.

Inda and Neal Immega are well known to frequent museum visitors. Inda and Neal are both geology Ph.D.s who worked in the oil and gas industry. Inda, a mineralogist, began consistently volunteering around 1996. She spends much of her time in Gems and Minerals, but also enjoys the challenges posed by special exhibits — here today and gone tomorrow. She claims she could easily spend a lifetime among the exquisite pieces in Fabergé: From a Snowflake to an Iceberg. Inda is popular with families and young visitors — she organizes and assembles kids’ crafts and activities for Members’ Nights and other special events. Her most memorable question was when an adult visitor asked about Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition: “Is the real ship in there?” Uhh, no, check the bottom of the North Atlantic … Of course, Inda takes all questions seriously and responded politely!

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Docent training with Neal Immega.

Neal became a regular volunteer after retiring from Shell Oil in 1999. A paleontologist by training, he was thrilled to return to the world of paleontology. Neal says simply, “Paleo has always been my home.” He conducts tours, trains other museum docents, and provides specimens and repairs for the touch carts in Paleo, the Wiess Energy Hall, and for special exhibits like Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs. Neal also works on special projects in paleontology. He curated the Zuhl petrified wood collection, which entailed working closely with Mr. Zuhl; has written labels for some special exhibits; and helps out with “orphan exhibits,” such as repairing and maintaining the steam engine on the lower level. Neal excels in artifact reproduction (fondly called “Nealifacts”), and he is particularly proud of the copper chisel and Egyptian-style wooden hammer he produced for one of the touch carts in the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

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Neal and Inda Immega.

The Immegas both came to the museum at the urging of Irene Offeman, who was then the Curator of Paleontology. She said the museum needed more volunteers with formal geological and paleontological backgrounds, and the rest is history! Both Inda and Neal have joined HMNS and Curator of Paleontology Dr. Robert T. “Bob” Bakker at the museum’s Permian excavations in Seymour, Texas, and Inda recalls going on a “Dipsy the Diplodocus” trip to visit the original dinosaur quarry in Wyoming. They also got a close-up peek at the scaly skin of Leonardo, a Brachylophosaurus dinosaur mummy.

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Malacology volunteers, from left: Barbara McClintock, Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway, Lucy Clampit, Jim Lacey, and Rachel Zelko.

The intrepid team of malacology volunteers deserves special mention. They have convened regularly for as long as most museum staff can remember! In fact, two malacology volunteers, Barbara McClintock and Jim Lacey, preceded the arrival of Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway! Barbara, a retired biology teacher, has been involved with HMNS for 64 years. When her children were small, she drove them up from Baytown to attend museum programs. When she retired from teaching in 1995 or 1996, her daughter Margaret (also a volunteer) told her to investigate volunteer opportunities at the museum. Barbara found a home in malacology and has never worked anywhere else — although she admits to a secret fondness for Gems and Minerals, too. Jim, a retired geology Ph.D., originally wanted to work on paleontological specimens. When he was told there were no paleo openings available, he switched to malacology and has remained there since 1998.

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Colonel Currie’s Epitonium — see if you can find it in Cabinet of Curiosities!

Tina Petway came to the museum as a volunteer under former Curator John Wise, who relied on her shell identifications; Tina has a photographic memory for shells. A former schoolteacher, Tina has been a member of the Houston Conchology Society since age 12. Tina recruited the newest members of the malacology team: Lucy Clampit, a retired librarian and longtime member of the Houston Conchology Society, in 2005, and Rachel Zelko, the “baby” of the group who joined in 2015. While they don’t interact directly with the public, and work “behind the scenes” at the museum’s collections facility, the malacology group has established close personal relationships based on their shared love of shells and good food!

The group meets every Thursday, and usually more often. Rachel, for example, often comes in three or four times a week. They work on new collections—checking the data on incoming specimens, cataloging specimens, verifying identifications and the like. They have been very busy lately. Over the past several years, more than 20,000 specimens were added to the scientific malacology collection — a collection that is worldwide in scope and becoming one of the best in the world by reputation. An exciting discovery in one of the new collections included some shells collected by Colonel Edward Currie, who died in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 — along with their original handwritten labels! These Epitonium shells are now on view in the museum’s Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit.

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Malacology volunteer Barbara McClintock on the HMNS trip to Ethiopia.

Astute readers may have noticed that volunteering at HMNS is often a “family affair,” and there are many families who volunteer together — husband and wife (like Inda and Neal), parents and young adult/adult children, even grandparents and grandchildren. For example, Julie Swank, a summer volunteer on break from Baylor University, took photos of her grandmother and interviewed her for this blog! Barbara McClintock has several family members who have joined her at HMNS — son John McClintock, daughter Margaret Slutz, and daughter-in-law Susan Peterson.

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Second-generation docents Jody Vaughan and Peyton Barnes.

Peyton Barnes and Jody Vaughan are both “second-generation” volunteers. Peyton, a retired surgeon, only became a volunteer three years ago — but his mother, Mrs. J. Peyton (Gertrude) Barnes, Sr., preceded him and served as Guild President in 1971-1972. Jody’s mother, JoLene Whitehurst, was an HMNS volunteer in the 1970s. An RN, she worked in the museum’s health and biology area, which featured a giant mouth and toothbrush, a life-sized transparent plastic body named Tammy, and models of human development from zygote to newborn. HMNS was an important part of Jody’s childhood — her Mom even gave her a museum membership as a wedding gift! Jody is honored to follow in her mother’s footsteps as an HMNS docent and fondly recalls bringing her Mom back to the museum after becoming a docent herself.

So why don’t you yourself make some lasting memories, share some quality family time, or simply join the fun by becoming a volunteer at HMNS? You can join us, too! No advanced degrees required, and prior scientific knowledge isn’t necessary — just interest and enthusiasm. Information on volunteering is available on the museum’s website. Consider giving your body to science, and maybe we’ll see you in the halls!

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