About Guest Contributor

From distinguished lecturers to scientific scholars to visiting curators to volunteers to leaders in their respective fields, we often invite guest authors to contribute content to our blog. You'll find a wealth of information written by these fascinating individuals as we seek to expand your level of knowledge with every post.

Distinguished Lecture: Quilting history with Pam Holland’s replica of the Bayeux Tapestry

Editor’s Note: The Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered textile 230 feet long, visually recounts the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066. Professional quilter Pam Holland of Australia has nearly completed a full-scale quilted replica of the Bayeux Tapestry. In the process of her work and research, she has become one of the leading experts on the original piece, which is on display in Normandy, France. The replica quilted panel on display in the HMNS Magna Carta exhibition is an example of Holland’s work. This blog post is written by Holland.

Last year, I was approached by the Houston Museum of Natural Science to display a sample piece of my “Bayeux Tapestry – To Quilt” project in their upcoming Magna Carta exhibition. I was thrilled, as you can imagine, while a little taken aback at the same time. However, during the Houston Quilt Festival, we met and I agreed they could have it for the duration of the exhibition.

I made the arrangement thinking I wouldn’t get to Houston to see it on display, but an opportunity came my way and I found myself in Houston this past March, only a short while after Magna Carta had opened! Blessings. And my, what an experience it was to see the exhibit.

The entrance to the exhibition is imposing and continues through several distinct spaces. The first room covers really interesting information about the day-to-day lives of people who lived in Medieval England.

Of course, I was drawn to the section with products used to dye fabric and thread. There was so much information I could barely take it all in. I’ve been studying these subjects for years, and here it was, all in one place: dyeing, weaving, daily chores and tasks. I was amazed.

I walked down a corridor and into the next room.

It was beautiful; it looked forever like a cathedral. The light was low. Facsimiles of stained glass windows and the sounds of Gregorian chanting adding to the ambiance.

And there, in the center, was my quilt. I almost burst. I just thought it would be pinned to the wall. Never did I imagine my piece would have its own beautiful display.

Bayeux Magna

The more I looked at it, the more I thought, “It’s fitting.” I have a small inkling now of how the entire quilt will look on display — all 263 feet of it.

My spirit soared. I’m so thrilled. I was absolutely delighted to play a small part in this collection.

Serendipitously, I am making my way back to Houston on Tuesday, July 22, and will give a lecture at HMNS on the Bayeux Tapestry in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre at 6:30 p.m. I couldn’t be more excited!

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
The Bayeux Tapestry: The Story-Telling Textile of the Norman Conquest
Pam Holland, Author and Artist
Tuesday, July 22, 6:30 p.m.
Sponsored by the Favrot Fund
The Museum’s Magna Carta programs are sponsored by the British Council.
Click here for advance tickets.

The Magna Carta exhibit is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science until August 17, 2014. Click here for tickets and information.

See below for details of Pam Holland’s quilted replica of the Bayeux Tapestry:

Here’s to the docents who dress! Costumes give volunteers an added educational edge

Editor’s note: Today’s post was written by Monica L. McHam, a volunteer docent here at the Museum.

“Wow, I didn’t recognize you with clothes on!”

I stopped short and spun around to see my friend and fellow docent, Carl Driever, standing there with an impish grin plastered across his face. Carl continued, “I only meant that I’m used to seeing you in costume, rather than in regular clothes.” With that, Carl whistled his way down the hall.

Docents Who Dress 1

Costumed docent Monica McHam welcomes Museum patrons to Magna Carta.

I thought about that conversation later and realized I do spend a lot of my time at HMNS in costume. Although costuming is not required (or even typical) for docents at our Museum, there is a group of docents that regularly dress for special exhibits such as Civil War, Titanic, and currently, Magna Carta.

Making a costume can take a lot of energy and a lot of time — and it can be pricey. On the other hand, the cost of buying an outfit could equal the GDP of a small developing country! So docents who dress tend to be handy — and have sewing skills. Depending on the time of the year and the exhibit in question, wearing a costume can leave you unbearably hot or miserably cold. Add in make-up, corsets, heels, and wigs, and I wondered, “Why do we dress?” I decided to find out by talking to some of my friends who also “dress for success.”

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Costumed Magna Carta docent Gillian Callen.

 

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Costumed Magna Carta docent Eileen Hatcher.

 

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Costumed Magna Carta docents Nancy Fischer and Kris Mills

I asked docent Kris Mills about dressing, and she had some very insightful comments.

She emphatically agreed that most costumes are hot; in fact, that is what she likes least about dressing. So, what does she like about dressing?

“I think it makes us approachable. We are less ‘teacherish,’ and perhaps less intimidating.” Then she confided that children “terrify” her (because she’s a bit shy)! And a costume is like a mask. “It helps get their attention and sometimes even their interest, but anonymously! Then we can have some fun.”

Nancy Fischer is a docent currently dressing in Magna Carta as the wife of a wealthy merchant. Like Kris, Nancy says dressing is a starting point for conversation. “Sometimes I’ll explain what character I am and then talk about the sumptuary laws and complain that I can’t wear certain colors or materials.” Nancy notes that this conversation often leads to a discussion of medieval life.

During tours of the Hall of Ancient Egypt, I am occasionally asked why I am wearing a shift when the women in the carvings are often bare “up there.” Like Kris and Nancy, I find this is a great introduction to a discussion of Egyptian art and the clothing of everyday Egyptians. I will admit, though, that the first time I was asked this question, by a third-grade boy, I wasn’t nearly as sanguine!

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Monica McHam “dressed for success” in the Hall of Ancient Egypt — without being “bare up there!”.

So we dress to inspire our patrons, with an added benefit of occasionally convincing other docents to jump on the bandwagon. Take Eileen Hatcher as an example: she decided to dress when she saw other docents “dedicated to costuming” and recognized that it was a fun and interesting way to interact with the public. She currently dresses as a poor peasant in Magna Carta — but elicits rich responses from Museum patrons!

Although docents who dress enjoy it and believe their efforts are worthwhile, occasionally patrons react in unexpected ways.

Kris relates the following story. “The first time I was in Titanic, I had laced myself too tightly into the corset and could not sit down the entire morning. Since I was representing the only woman who climbed out of a lifeboat back onto the Titanic, one kid said, ‘Well, you were pretty stupid, weren’t you?’

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First-class passengers for Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in 2012. Museum docent Pat Hazlett.

 

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First-class passenger for Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in 2012. Museum docent Kris Mills.

In addition to dealing with corsets, sometimes there is a “wardrobe malfunction” (albeit not of the Janet Jackson variety). Nancy says that the most embarrassing moment was when her headscarf slipped off in the middle of a Magna Carta tour. Knowing Nancy, I have a wonderful image of her holding her scarf with one hand, wrapping the other end of the scarf around her head with her other hand, and continuing her discussion of the relative merits of the English long bow versus the crossbow — without skipping a beat!

Docent Kathryn Fairbanks is often seen in Magna Carta near the Crusader knight, who sports a chain maille hauberk. Kathryn demonstrates the fine art of making chain maille to Museum patrons. While she does so, she dresses in a long black dress and swirling cape.

She says, “While wearing a costume is definitely one of my favorite parts of volunteering, it does have its drawbacks. One of my main problems is getting all the long, swirly cloak/dress/sleeves caught in the wheels of my rolling kit. It’s a minor problem to fix, but annoying when I have to stop every few minutes to retrieve my hemline.”

Like many other docents who dress, I find dressing fun — and I take every opportunity to do so. In recent years, my costumes have included a scribe’s wife for the Hall of Ancient Egypt, a coal stoker for Titanic, and an archaeologist for Lascaux Caves. Kris has dressed as a Civil War-era farm woman, a Renaissance noblewoman, and a first-class matron for Titanic, just to name a few. For Civil War, docent Pat Hazlett dressed as a genteel lady in purple satin with her grandmother’s cameo. For Titanic, Pat morphed into a first-class passenger who could have been the model for a fashion plate from a 1912 Ladies’ Home Journal. (Trivia alert: Ladies’ Home Journal was the first million-circulation magazine in America.)  

Discovering the Civil War with, from left to right, Monica McHam, museum staffer Rich Hutting, Kris Mills, and Pat Hazlett.

Discovering the Civil War. L to R: Monica McHam, Museum staffer Rich Hutting, Kris Mills, and Pat Hazlett.

Docents who dress agree that dressing helps them bring the exhibit to life and provides patrons with a more meaningful exhibition experience. But dressing is not just about patron interaction. Occasionally, there are personal experiences that can leave a talkative docent, well, speechless.

For example, if you dress as a gorgeous boyar noblewoman while driving to the Museum, you can expect to receive many strange looks from fellow Houston drivers. If driving while dressed as a gorgeous boyar noblewoman is not your cuppa tea, like Kris, that means you have to schlep the costume to the Museum, find a colleague to help you get into the many layers of satin and lace, tie all the ties, ensure the pearls hang just so, find someone to help you take it all off, and then, finally, schlep it all back home again.

Oh yes — somewhere in the midst of all the wardrobe details, you manage to give a tour in costume!

If, on the other hand, you are comfortable driving while dressed, you might get more than just looks. One night, driving home from an evening tour and still dressed as a Renaissance nun, I stopped at a fast food drive-through for late-night fortification. The cashier asked me, in all seriousness, to bless her! Now that was a big gulp! I simply told her that I was certain she was already blessed, took my drink, and hightailed it to the safety of my home.

Monica McHam as a Florentine Renaissance nun for Gems of the Medici—the costume that elicited the strange reaction at the local drive-through!

Monica McHam as a Florentine Renaissance nun for Gems of the Medici — the costume that elicited the strange reaction at the local drive-through.

Everyone at our Museum appreciates the many contributions of our more than 300 active docents. Our docents enhance the experience of Museum patrons by enhancing their fun, enriching their educational understanding, and providing a multifaceted appreciation of our permanent and special exhibits.

However, there is a special group of docents that go just one step further to enliven the experience of Museum patrons: docents who dress! Be sure to look for costumed docents on your next Museum visit — and be sure to offer them thanks for their creative efforts above and beyond the call of duty.

                               

The tie that binds: Why the United Kingdom, United States & Magna Carta matter to each other

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Andrew Millar, British Consul General in Houston, Texas.

Andrew Millar - PhotoI spend a lot of time in this job talking about the core values that the UK and the U.S.A. share.  These values underpin the closeness of our bilateral relationship and provide the foundation for what President Obama called “one of the greatest alliances the world has ever known.” 

Our relationship with Texas is especially close. We appointed my first predecessor in 1842, accredited to the newly formed Republic of Texas. That seems like a long time ago, but that span of time is dwarfed by the recently arrived copy of the Magna Carta dating from 1217. There is a real sense of vertigo when looking at this small piece of vellum: both because of its age (nearly 800 years) and its significance in defining those core values that bind our nations together. 

When King John signed the document in 1215, no monarch had ever before ceded absolute power to the rule of law. The Magna Carta is the first legal document to protect the rights of citizens and limit the power of the monarchy — the end of the tyranny of Kings etched on to a piece of sheepskin. 

Of course, it took many years for its values to become entrenched and some Kings were less bound by it than others, but it remains the stuff of legends. Even today, every British child knows the story of bad King John, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood. It was the punitive taxes imposed by King John and enforced by his Sheriffs that drove the Barons into rebellion and forced a weak King to sign away his absolute power.  We have not had a King named John since.

The Magna Carta has been universally recognized as a key milestone in the global history of democratic governance, and its impact extends well beyond the UK’s borders. The Magna Carta’s message of liberty and human rights has served as a foundation for the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the European Union Charter of Human Rights, and it has also inspired the constitutions of countries all over the world — including the United States Constitution.  

When America’s founders first drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they looked to English law and the Magna Carta as a template for guaranteeing freedom and justice in the new nation. Many basic legal concepts that are held dear by Americans today, such as the right to a free trial, can be originally traced back to the Magna Carta.

Today the UK also proudly maintains a tradition of promoting civil liberties and the rule of law throughout the world. In its recently released Human Rights and Democracy Report, the British government has outlined its goals to continue working with the U.S. and others to end discrimination, censorship, and other undemocratic practices internationally. This reflects a strong worldwide commitment to upholding the values that were enshrined in British law nearly 800 years ago.

I hope that readers living in Texas or close enough to visit the Museum of Natural Science in Houston will go and reflect on this magnificent piece of history.

 
About Andrew Millar, British Consul General in Houston
Andrew Millar has served as the British Consul General in Houston since August 2011. He joined the Civil Service in 1994 working as a regulatory economist within the Office of Gas Supply and joined the FCO in 1996, as a regional economist for the Americas and Caribbean. In 1998, was promoted to cover the Asia regional economy portfolio.

Andrew was posted as First Secretary to Pretoria (2000-05). On return to London, he took over as Team-Leader for Energy Security in the Climate Change and Energy Group within the FCO. He also served as UK representative on the non-member country committee in the International Energy Agency and was a member of the G8 Energy Experts Group in the run up to the St Petersburg Summit.

He moved into Human Resources in 2007, as Team Leader – Training and Development, before being pulled back into energy security. He was appointed lead within the FCO on preparations for the London Energy Meeting in December 2008.

Andrew started work in the Health Physics department at Torness Nuclear Power Station in 1983. He left in 1990 and obtained a Degree and Master in Economics from the University of East Anglia. Andrew is married with two children.

 

Don’t believe the crocodile tears: Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson & the truth about animal empathy

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you from Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, bestselling author of nine books on the emotional lives of animals.

It is pretty common to hear the expression “crocodile tears” in reference to somebody who does not feel remorse — rather, using them as a false or insincere display of emotion. They feel, as the phrase suggests, nothing for their victim.

The phrase began in Shakespearean times, with one prominent example given in Act IV of Othello:

“O devil, devil!
If that the Earth could teem with woman’s tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.
Out of my sight!”

I bring this up because of an intriguing problem. Suppose you were asked to describe the “nature” of the crocodile. Do they feel empathy? Do they feel emotional stress or pain? How do they relate with others in their species? Most would describe them as solitary predators. But what is this image based upon: documentaries where we only see their vicious feeding frenzies?

Have you ever given thought to what these creatures might be like when they aren’t on the hunt and are among their own kind?

The image of “crocodile tears” comes from the belief that the crocodile is so remorseless an animal that for him to weep over a victim is pure hypocrisy. It is a nice conceit. Of course, while all 23 members of the crocodile family (including alligators, caimans, muggers, and gharials) have tear glands, they are only used for physiological reasons. For example, they’re used to moistening their eyes when they are on dry land — not for emotional reasons.

Crocodiles do not, in fact weep over their victims. They don’t weep at all for emotional reasons. However, as far as we know, no animals aside from Homo sapiens weep from sadness, remorse or grief.

But that’s not to say other animals cannot feel sadness, remorse or grief — only that they don’t express these feelings by weeping tears any more than we express happiness by purring or wagging a tail.

Crocodiles are very vocal animals. Their social lives begins before hatching with communications occurring from egg to egg. Moreover, hatchlings have a distinct distress call, which not only brings the mother to help, but also other crocodiles in the vicinity. The adults, therefore, want to protect the babies — any babies.

Sounds to me like empathy. Empathy in a crocodile? Try saying that to the cast of Swamp People.

What we know, for sure, is that we only know tiny fraction of what there is to know. This is true, of course, of many animals, but takes on particular importance in an animal which looms so large in our imaginations.

If you’d like to hear more about challenging our perceptions on the emotional state of animals be sure to stop by on Sat., Mar. 13 for our distinguished lecture series featuring author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson!

Beasts - Book CoverHMNS Distinguished Lecture
Beasts: The Origins of Good and Evil
Jeffrey Moussaiff Masson, Ph.D.
Thursday, March 13, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets $18, HMNS Members $12
Houston Museum of Natural Science, Wortham Giant Screen Theatre
Delve deep into the unexplored territory of animal emotions in an illuminating account of the relationship between humans, animals and our perception of violence. Explore human emotions through animal behavior—the way dogs love, cats practice independence, and elephants grieve for their dead—and examine the difference between the unchecked aggression and the predatory behavior that separates humans from animals. Following the lecture Dr. Jeffry Moussaiff Masson will be signing copies of his new book Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil.

Jeffery MasonAbout the Speaker:
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is the bestselling author of nine books on the emotional life of animals. His book Dogs Never Lie About Love, has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. Jeff lives with his family in Auckland, New Zealand. His newest book is Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil, where Masson looks at why humans have killed 200 million of their own kind in the 20th century alone, while orcas have killed not a single orca in the wild! He will be at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Mar. 13 for a lecture and book signing.

For advance tickets, call 713-639-4629 or click here.