HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.

IMG_3721

Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.

IMG_3751

As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.

IMG_3702

Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.

IMG_3733

Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.

IMG_3744

This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.

IMG_3760

These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.

IMG_3754

The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.

Egyptian Nefertiti replica ends in a bust: ‘Ugly’ statue brews social media storm

A mini controversy has just broken out in social media about a rather ugly new rendering of the famous Nefertiti bust. The original bust, currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of the most iconic pieces of Egyptian art, recognized as easily as King Tut’s gold mask. It was not a surprise, therefore, that Egyptian authorities recently decided to erect a larger-than-life replica of the same bust at the entrance to the city of Samalut, to honor her memory.

This effort ended in – pardon the pun – a bust in its own right. The image, which only bears a very superficial resemblance to the original, has caused a storm in Egyptian social media, attracting worldwide attention. While the original bust is very well known, the story of its discovery is perhaps less well known. Nefertiti’s bust was discovered in the ruined workshop of the sculptor Thutmose on December 6, 1912 by a German archaeological team.

Bust being handed over to German archaeologist

Presentation of the Nefertiti bust shortly after discovery in 1912. (Left to right: Hermann Ranke, Paul Hollander and Mohammed es-Senussi)

Although the bust is uninscribed, Ludwig Borchardt, the dig director, immediately realized who was represented: the tall blue crown with uraeus serpent must belong to the queen. “No use describing it, you have to see it” he wrote.

Writing

Handwritten note by Ludwig Borchardt on the discovery of the bust. Aside from a quick sketch, it contains the remark “No use describing it, you have to see it.”

The Egyptian government gave the bust, and other finds, to the German expedition at the end of the season, according to a custom of the time, known as “partage.” It was not until ten years later, after World War I, that the bust was put on display in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The reaction was immediate: Nefertiti became an icon and the Egyptian government demanded her return, claiming that she had been allowed to leave the country by subterfuge. The matter remains unresolved to this day, and Nefertiti has survived two world wars in Berlin.

Nefertiti was the principal wife of the New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1350 – 1335 BC). Akhenaten tried to revolutionize Egypt, outlawing the worship of a host of gods, headed by Amun, the king of the gods. In their place he proposed the worship of the Aten, the sun-disc that gave life to the world. He moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a virgin site 250 miles to the north. This new capital he called Akhetaten (“horizon of the sun disc”), the modern site of Tell el-Amarna. Akhenaten’s changes did not find favor, and after his death the site was abandoned by his successor – the more familiar Tutankhamun – as the capital moved back to Thebes. Amun had restored the status quo.

A new religion required a new artistic style to express itself. Set against earlier Egyptian objects, Amarna art can appear more naturalistic, softer and more intimate. Images of Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and their six daughters were the icons of this new creed, and Amarna was filled with sculptor’s workshops producing decoration for the city. The bust of Nefertiti, with its unusual shape, was probably a model used to define and standardize images of the queen.

The latest update on the “controversy” tells us that the Samalut bust is to be replaced with a statue of a peace dove. So all is well that ends well.

The original bust continues to attract huge throngs of tourists in Berlin. A museum quality replica of the same bust, manufactured by highly talented artists at the Neues Museum, has been on display in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science since 2013. She looks forward to seeing you there.

DSC05484

Her Majesty awaits your visit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

News from the trenches: Diggers make significant discoveries at Sanxingdui

Archaeology is a profession that requires patience, persistence, and luck. In fact, a great deal of luck seems to be a prerequisite to make a great discovery; some of these involve kids and dogs. We are fortunate to know about the Lascaux caves because of a boy and his dog. A similar scenario led to the discovery of a new hominid fossil, Australopithecus sediba, near the Malapa cave in South Africa. The famous Chinese terra cotta warriors were found by farmers digging a well. The first artifacts at Sanxingdui were discovered by a farmer, as well.

Fairly recently, some eighty-five years after the initial discovery of the site, interesting new finds at Sanxingdui have been announced.

Sanxingdui

According to recent reports, archaeologists discovered a portion of the northern wall at Sanxingdui. The northern part of the wall would have run along the Jian River, according to this site map. (Image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Archaeologists have discovered what may be a section of the north wall at Sanxingdui. In addition, three tombs were found. A well preserved human skeleton was uncovered in one of these. It was dated to the Neolithic, well before the Sanxingdui site was occupied. As far as we know, human remains dating back to the actual Sanxingdui – Jinsha timeframe have only been discovered at Jinsha.

chinese vice premier

Vice Premier Liu Yongdan, who visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science on June 21 2015. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of State from United States)

The complete lack of known written sources at Sanxingdui and Jinsha continues to hamper our understanding of this amazing and sophisticated culture. In her recent visit to the exhibit China’s Lost Civilization: The Mysteries of Sanxingdui at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Vice Premier Mme. Liu Yongdan said this was indeed the biggest obstacle to our appreciation of the culture. She expressed hope that ongoing research would eventually uncover such information, a development which would bring Sanxingdui out of the shadows of prehistory and into the light of history. Discoveries like these can only strengthen China’s submission of the site as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sith take over HMNS Samurai exhibit during Jedi tour

 

Ever wonder where George Lucas got his ideas for the futuristic costumes in Star Wars? Darth Vader’s intimidating helmet seems the stuff of a sci-fi nightmare, and a hot, glowing light saber seems like a swordfighter’s dream. These costumes remain some of the most iconic in film history, but they were based in reality.

1

An intimidating Darth Nihilus threatens guests with his light saber in the Samurai exhibit.

Lucas was a fan of Japanese samurai culture, and it shows through his costumes and the code of the jedi, those warrior-monks who trust in the Force and give their lives to the service of those they are sworn to protect. The jedi use ancient weapons even by the standards of the Star Wars universe, and train from childhood to master the secrets of the Force.

The samurai of feudal Japan held a similar attitude. The word itself means “service,” and while samurai could hold no possessions, their communities and the royalty they protected made sure their needs were met while they trained in the disciplines of combat and self-control. It was disgraceful to live as a samurai without a master, and taking their own lives at the end of their service was common.

2

George Lucas modeled his Storm Trooper helmets in part from samurai warrior garb.

Lucas credited mythologist Joseph Campbell for influencing the structure of the Star Wars movies, explaining that in the West, mythology had begun to disappear with the downfall of the Western, and he wanted his work to “set standards” in the fashion of old myths. Couple this with a fascination with the famous film by Akira Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai, and Lucas had the makings of his space opera franchise. Though Kurosawa was a Japanese filmmaker, themes in the movie carried many of the same values audiences saw in the western: loyalty, trust, ingenuity, power, and faith in the underdog to name a few.

8

Boba Fett also owes his look to the samurai.

Science fiction was the trending tale of the late 1970s. Interest in space and adventure ran high, and Lucas saw an opportunity to marry his love of mythos, Japanese culture, and the sci-fi genre into the highest-grossing film of all time until Titanic hit the big screen in 1997.

With the opening of the Samurai: The Way of the Warrior temporary exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, docent Kris Mills, a student of costume history, saw an opportunity to demonstrate the link between Lucas and traditional Japanese clothing. Mills hosted the first Jedi-Samurai Tour Thursday night, a multimedia presentation featuring photography, Lucas’s costumes, and a demonstration of katana and light saber techniques. Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai was screened in the exhibit as well. Comparing the western art with the eastern culture side-by-side offers a deeper appreciation of Star Wars and samurai culture alike.

9

The cast of characters who visited the exhibit for the Jedi-Samurai tour Thursday night.

“[Star Wars] was traditional Japanese clothing and values translated into science fiction,” Mills said. “George Lucas wanted to give his generation Buck Rogers, but he’d been reading Joseph Campbell, so he was influenced by the Asian saga.”

In the slide show, it becomes apparent that Lucas used samurai masks as models for Darth Maul’s face paint and other Sith helmets, samurai kabuto and Han Dynasty hair styles for Queen Amidala and other royalty, and the Japanese obi or robe for the jedi’s distinctive monk-like appearance. (One wonders whether Lucas didn’t use Asian terminology to name his characters Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi as well.) Adam Barnes, modeling the jedi costume, introduced these themes before guiding the guests into the exhibit.

3

The bear-like Ewoks of planet Endor seem similar in many ways to samurai archer.

“The idea of imperialism and a grand empire versus a small band of samurai-like rebels is also very Japanese,” Barnes explained.

Models appeared in an Imperial Storm Trooper outfit, Boba Fett’s armor, the costume and face mask of Darth Nihilus, a Sith lord from the video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and in a Chewbacca outfit. With the models standing beside samurai helmets and armor, it’s easy to make connections. Of course, it’s also a blast just to hang out with Star Wars characters and see cool samurai gear, not to mention a great photo op!

5

Come to see the jedi and Sith, or come to see the intricate samurai armor. The armor itself is a must-see.

Take the Jedi – Samurai Tour July 16 or August 20 from 6 to 9:30 p.m., or check out Samurai: The Way of the Warrior before the exhibit makes like a ninja and vanishes September 13. For more information about this and other presentations, visit HMNS online.