About Donna

Despite many childhood visits to HMNS, Donna was clueless that she would have a career here as a registrar instead of as a world famous ballerina. She has worked so long in the Collections Department that it must be more than a quirky, passing phase. When not processing new acquisitions into the permanent collections, peppering the curators with questions, or making people put on gloves, Donna can be found in a dance class, a bell tower, at a dance performance, or reading a book.

The Reinforcement Crew [HMNS at AAM]

Last month Houston museums were buzzing more than usual during the American Association of Museums annual meeting.  It was a great time for all of us to show off our institutions to colleagues from across the country and the world.  In addition, Houston museum professionals had the opportunity to soak up a plethora of information about the latest discoveries, standards and issues in our field.  Keynote speaker Neil deGrasse Tyson from the Rose Planetarium in New York also gave us a lot to ponder.

And the HMNS staff was right in the middle of it.

In my last blog I posted about a session open to the public that Lisa Rebori put together.  She was also a panelist in a session which covered the federal indemnity program that enables so many wonderful temporary exhibits to travel around the country.  Lynn Wisda, Director of Volunteers, gave a presentation on the creative use of volunteers in collections.  Daniel Burch from our Adult Education program weighed in on interpreting current events for public audiences and Kathleen Havens from Youth Education shared how HMNS works with local homeschoolers.  Of course the Lois phenomenon of last summer deserved its very own session and Erin Flis, Brad Levy, and Zac Stayton related all the merriment to a thoroughly entertained audience.  (Ok, I’m biased, but this was one of my favorite sessions.  Thanks again Lois!)

So every single day of the meeting there was a HMNS staff member making the museum proud.

The Reinforcement Crew

However, it wasn’t all dashing about inside the convention center.  The meeting is more than just sharing information and networking; often a real impact takes place.  Every year the Registrars Committee has a volunteer day in the host city the day before the meeting begins; it’s called the Reinforcement Crew.  Collections management professionals from all around the country volunteer to come a day early and help out in local museum collections, usually smaller institutions that can use a little extra labor and expertise with a day long project.  This year these gracious folks, twenty volunteers, worked tirelessly to better our hometown museums.

Bryanna at the Holocaust Museum

Starting last summer Carol Manley, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Holocaust Museum, and I set about the Houston museum community asking who might want help and what kind of help their collections might need.  It was very rewarding to be allowed to work with five local museum collections.

At the Buffalo Soldiers Museum a crew of four managed to identify, photograph and tag over two hundred objects.  The group working at the Printing History Museum inventoried 918 (wow!) printed music sheets and re-housed them in archival boxes.  HMNS Collections staff Bryanna O’Mara volunteered her expert sewing skills and textile expertise at the Holocaust Museum where they carefully rolled banners and folded WWII uniforms and hats in acid-free tissue and placed them in archival storage.

The volunteers at the Maritime Museum spent the day delicately cleaning ship models of all shapes and sizes.  But it was the good, not to mention hardy, folks who helped sort through collections in an un-air-conditioned section of the Fire Museum who deserve an extra round of applause.  (Yes, there were many comments made about being hot in a fire museum.)  None of this great work would have happened without Mark Ryan and Heather Kajic of the Registrars Committee who oversaw the organization of volunteers, donations of archival supplies, and every other logistic to pull the whole project off.

So while AAM and thousands of museum professionals left Houston weeks ago, there remains a lasting impact from these volunteers who selflessly and with much good fellowship left five Houston museum collections in better shape.

The Reinforcement Crew did all this without publicity or even much recognition of their efforts because they love museum collections that help tell our stories.  All of us at HMNS extend our heartfelt thanks to them for sharing their skills and time in our Houston museum community.

Reinforcement Crew at the Buffalo Soldiers Museum
Reinforcement Crew at the Maritime Museum

AAM is Coming to Houston!

So what is AAM and why should you care?

In a nutshell, the American Association of Museums is the organization that accredits and supports all sorts of museums in the USA, along with many other programs that promote professional growth and education of museum workers.  It’s a fairly large organization and each year holds an annual meeting in a different city.  These meetings can bring as many as five thousand attendees to the host city.  And this year the AAM Annual Meeting is being held in our fair city!  It may not be the Quilt Convention or the OTC but it’s still a pretty big dang deal.

The meeting is usually three to four very full days of presentations, panel discussions, and workshops.  It’s both exhilarating and exhausting.

Get involved!

This year, AAM wants to invite the citizens of Houston to share insights and knowledge from the museum professional community.  These offerings are free to the public, most of them at the George R. Brown Convention Center.  If you’re interested in attending the meeting or just want to help out, there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer.  For every four hours of service, volunteers receive a free one day pass to the conference. You can find a full listing of the public events and volunteer information here. Also, be sure to check out the free performances and exhibitions that will be taking place at Discovery Green Park, right across from the Convention Center, throughout the meeting.

George R Brown convention center
See you at the George R Brown for AAM!
George R Brown convention center by J Jackson Photography on Flickr.

Public Session

In particular I want to highlight a public session that is chaired by HMNS’ own Vice-President of Collections, Lisa Rebori, on Sunday afternoon May 22 from 2:45 – 4:00 p.m.  With panelists Amy Fulkerson, Collections Manager; Jill Whitten, Conservator; and Michelle White, Curator; this session, titled “Committed to Collections,” will delve into process of museum collections management.  You’ll hear the different perspectives that each collections professional brings to the care and maintenance of a museum collection.  There’ll be discussion of what distinguishes a museum collection from a personal collection.  And there will time for your questions.  (I’m betting that the conservator will receive the most inquiries.)  Below you’ll find the information and location of the session.  So please join us for the “Committed to Collections” session as well as the many other public offerings from AAM.  See you there!

Committed to Collections
Sunday May 22nd, 2:45 – 4:00 p.m.
George R. Brown Convention Center, Room 360 E/F
Moderator: Lisa Rebori, Vice-President of Collections, Houston Museum of Natural Science
Amy Fulkerson, Collections Manager, The Witte Museum, San Antonio
Jill Whitten, Conservator, Whitten & Proctor Fine Arts, Houston
Michelle White, Curator, Contemporary Art, The Menil Collection, Houston

Building a Texas-Sized Exhibition

“…a wise and prudent administration in the commencement of her national existence will be universally expected; improving upon the difficult and delicate task of settling in complete and successful operation a political body based upon principles so hazardously asserted and so gloriously maintained.”

Sam Houston’s signature

The above quote could easily be attributed to any number of government entities that have arisen since 1776.  In fact, I wager that it’s applicable to many political upheavals we’re following in 2011.  At least, that what struck me as I recently read this historical document.  The phrase that was deliberately omitted from the quote is this, “For Texas.”  It comes from a letter President Sam Houston wrote to Edward Hall on November 3, 1836 from the town of Columbia.  You can see this letter yourself in our recently opened Texas! exhibit.

If there is any thread to my occasional posts as a HMNS registrar, it is that the connection between an object and a viewer influences the viewer in some way.  As someone whose professional life consists largely of dealing with objects, I am not unfamiliar with the concept.  My collections and exhibits colleagues and I are always keenly aware of the care and respect employed when handling museum objects.  So sometimes we can temporarily lose sight of an object’s scientific/ historical/ aesthetic/ educational value when we’re trying to ensure that its mount is supportive, the lighting levels aren’t harmful, the proper temp and humidity of a gallery/case environment is steadily maintained; in short that nothing goes wrong.  However, being Texas born and bred, I found it difficult not to get caught up in the emotional wow! factor of the items in this exhibit.

Audrey Jones Beck’s Mardi Gras Dress

I’ll readily admit that I inwardly groaned when I saw all the documents that needed condition reports at the start of the exhibit installation. Paper documents are delicate and fragile so we mostly viewed them through mylar sleeves, but even that method still needs an abundance of caution. It wasn’t a job we could zip through. And once again I marveled at the miracles a conservator can perform to mitigate the damages of time.

But over and over I found myself drawn into the words on the page, especially when they were handwritten and signed. In the letter quoted above, Sam Houston goes on to delineate his cabinet members. As I read the names my decidedly low-brow reaction was: well, geez, that’s half the streets downtown. Somehow I never knew that Rusk was the Secretary of War. While perusing the pages of the minutes of the Convention of Texas Independence, I started making connections with my travels throughout the state. The list of attendees is basically a roll call of the counties in this state. Sometimes the words would just sing and I had to take a moment.

Here’s a brief quote from page 24 of the minutes that I particularly like:

“…that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty or the capacity for self-government.”

Also in the minutes, directly following the declaration of independence, is the appointment of a committee charged with immediately getting the declaration to a printer for wide distribution. Communication is important no matter what era a revolution takes place but the distance between the printer’s broadsides of 1836 and the revolutionary tweets of 2011 is amazing, isn’t it? Not to mention the difference between putting quill to paper and tapping thumbs to glass screens. Which reminds me of something else I noticed through this long (fifty-four plus pages) document, the handwriting was remarkably clear and beautiful to start, towards the end the poor secretary’s hand was beginning to sag. It was a long convention.

Other documents provoked equally strong but completely opposite reactions. As one colleague pointed out, “We’re all creeped out by the slavery stuff.” Documents are made on paper but it’s the actual words that matter. So, yes, it’s pieces of paper from the Harris County tax office but those dry and orderly tax receipts for humans beings considered personal property right here in our now very diverse cosmopolitan city will always retain a repulsive taint. That’s why it’s important to include them in this exhibit.

Davy Crockett’s Violin

But enough already about documents! Let’s go on to random ‘wish we’d snapped a photo’ installation moments.

The faces when folks first saw the turkey dress, a combo of wow! and how the heck are we going to display that thing? Beth and Mike struggling with the San Jacinto Mardi Gras dress, dress waist too tiny, mannequin hips and shoulders too wide, Mike taking a hammer to the nude mannequin in an attempt to narrow said mannequin, suggestions made that our skinniest staff member just stand in the exhibit wearing the dress, sanity returns, new mannequin ordered. (Audrey Jones Beck truly was ‘a mere slip of a girl’ when she wore that thing.)

Rodney ‘age-ing’ the canvas of the Santa Anna tent prop in his backyard. Looking inside the proper right sound hole on Davy Crockett’s violin and seeing penciled “FRANKLIN CO./Feb.14, 1819,” then realizing that the date the violin was being examined was February 14, 2011.

Small things can humanize historical figures. Santa Anna was definitely a cruel harsh man but his fawn paperweight is unexpectedly goofy and charming. The small wood heart whittled by Sam Houston is a tender link to the monumental figure across the street from the museum’s doors.

Beth happened across a list of clothing in Anna Chase’s journal who may have been a spy but according to that wardrobe inventory was also something of a clothes horse. Trying not to hum “Old Man River” (Lift that bale!). The cotton bale is the traditional five hundred pounds, no mount needed. Most disappointing moment for yours truly during the exhibit installation was learning that due to curatorial decision the way cool children’s cap guns from the 1940s and 50s were cut from the exhibit. Man, they had Texas Rangers emblems on ‘em and really worked and everything! Dang.

So that’s a few behind the scenes moments from the Texas exhibit.  Many people worked tirelessly on this exhibit and the gracious lenders were very generous with their treasures.  It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

But one last thing… On that letter from Sam Houston to Edward Hall which started off this post, in the viewer’s upper left corner an unknown hand exuberantly wrote “Save this!”  Whoever scribbled that was absolutely right and I like to think it was an early forebear of a museum collections worker.

Letter from Sam Houston to Edward Hall with the phrase “Save This.”

Don’t miss these famous objects and more that make up our Texas! exhibition, now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Shaking Hands Now

Sometimes it’s the small things.  I’ve previously written about the power of objects that captivate us.  Objects can make us curious to know more about the world and on occasion turn us into collectors.  Objects can also evoke memories, giving perspective and context to history.

It’s that last ability I’d like to discuss here.  The museum has a small collection of space memorabilia, mostly flight crew publicity photos, plaques, newspaper articles and other documents.  Recently an embroidered souvenir space flight patch entered the collection; probably not of high monetary value, it could have easily been sold in a gift shop at NASA or here at the museum.  Except that this patch was for the Apollo 17–Soyuz 19 mission.  Now unless you’re an ardent fan of NASA history or, ahem, a certain age, that last sentence is very likely meaningless to you.  My reaction however was “Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in years!”  Instantly history telescoped.

Context

For those of you either too young or a bit foggy on history, the Apollo-Soyuz mission took place July 15 – 24, 1975.  I’ll leave it to the HMNS Astronomy staff to determine the scientific significance of the flight but politically and historically it was a really big dang deal.  It was the last Apollo program flight and the first joint mission of two different nations in outer space.  Having won the race to be first on the moon six years earlier (1969), the last Apollo spacecraft docked with the Soyuz spacecraft of the USSR, the Americans’ lunar landing rival.  The 1970s were a time of détente, but the Cold War between the USA and the USSR was still raging. The fact that these two countries were able to pull off this joint venture is amazing.  And politics aside, the science and technology to be worked out between the two space agencies was no easy task.  Not to mention the language difficulties.

Our fair city was a big part of the mission. The Soviet cosmonauts, Alexey A. Leonov and Valery N. Kubasov, trained at JSC several times.  In turn, the Apollo astronauts, Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, and Donald (Deke) K. Slayton, trained in Moscow and were the first Americans to visit the Russian launch pad.  It was decided that each crew would learn the language of the other and speak to their counterparts in their newly acquired tongue.  Thus during the mission, the cosmonauts spoke in English to the astronauts who spoke to the cosmonauts in Russian.  Neither language is easy to learn, they don’t even share a common alphabet.  Just imagine that, along with all the pressures of a space flight and representing the best of your home country, you’re doing it all in a language that isn’t your native tongue.  When the two spacecrafts docked on July 17, the cosmonauts responded with “Soyuz and Apollo are shaking hands now.”  After the hatch between the two spacecrafts opened the crews physically shook hands in a moment transmitted live to earth and seen by a world-wide audience. For a good overview of the entire mission read this.

The Apollo-Soyuz mission wasn’t the only news event in 1975.  A few other things from that same year…Saigon fell to the communists, Franco died in Spain, oil rose to over $13 a barrel, a gallon of gas was about 44¢, Motorola took out its first patent for a mobile phone, a couple of guys named their start-up company Microsoft, some guy from New Jersey named Bruce released a vinyl record album called Born to Run, and NBC let a bunch of unknown comedians fill up dead air time in a show with the unimaginative title of Saturday Night Live.

Perspective

So, zooming thirty-five years forward through the telescope of history, what perspective does this simple patch bring?  Well, Americans and Russians have been working side by side in space for years now.  The USSR dissolved, the Cold War ended (the recent spy swap not withstanding!), and no one gets too excited about the multiple nationalities working together on the International Space Station.  We can see crystal clear NASA shuttle films in 3-D in the IMAX theatre right here at HMNS, no need to gather around a boxy television watching grainy images.  However, sad to say, as we note the 35th anniversary of the last Apollo flight we’re nearing the end of the space shuttle flights that replaced it.  Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, Microsoft, the Boss, and SNL are still influencing American culture, but there seems to be uncertainty about the future of NASA and manned space flights.  Our little souvenir space flight patch represents a distinct moment in both the history of NASA and the history of the country at large.  Small and ordinary it might be, but it allows us to reflect on what’s been and to wonder what’s next.