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.”

Docents Who Dress 4

Costumed Magna Carta docent Gillian Callen.

 

Docents Who Dress 3

Costumed Magna Carta docent Eileen Hatcher.

 

Docents Who Dress 2

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!

Docents Who Dress 5

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?’

Docents Who Dress 7

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

 

Docents Who Dress 6

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.

                               

Doing better: We heard you out, now we’ll fill you in

Hall_of_Ancient_EgyptRecently, we were featured in a Houston Press article, “10 Things the Houston Museum of Natural Science Could Do Better.” While we welcome both positive and negative feedback from our guests — from pithy tweets to local press — we now realize that we’ve been a bit remiss in filling you in on our master plan. So we thought we’d take this opportunity to share our plans with you. It may help clear up a few concerns and put some happenings here at the Museum into a “big picture” context.

You may have heard of (or visited!) the new Morian Hall of Paleontology. Or perhaps you’ve wandered the cavernous galleries inside our new Hall of Ancient Egypt. You may not realize it, but you’re visiting brand new permanent exhibition halls located in the new Dan L Duncan Family Wing that opened last summer. This expansion more than doubled the size of the Museum’s public exhibition space.

Now that the new wing is open, we are focusing the majority of our energy and resources into completely renovating and upgrading the preexisting, older permanent exhibition halls and displays.

In fact, we’ll be unveiling our newly revamped Welch Chemistry Hall in the fall of 2013. In 2014 and 2015, our Evelyn and Herbert Frensley Hall of African Wildlife and Graham Family Presentation of Ecology and Conservation Biomes and Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife will follow. Our vision is to enlarge, renovate, remodel, and refresh every permanent exhibit hall in the Museum within the next five to seven years.

We hope this explains why some seemingly small changes — while definitely important! — have taken a bit of a backseat to these gigantic renovations. As an institution, we are dedicating investments in time, energy and money to maintaining the Houston Museum of Natural Science as a world class collection of artifacts and exhibitions. Doing so will enrich the lives of our current patrons as well as future generations of nature and science lovers.

Of course, we know you’ve got questions for us. And as your hometown museum, we have answers for you. You’re always invited to send your suggestions, ideas, hopes, and dreams to us. We’re listening. Feel free to send an email to webeditor at hmns dot org if you’ve got something on your mind. We can’t guarantee immediate action on the particular request, but we can guarantee a real, live human being will respond.

Thank you so much for being the most important part of our community. We look forward to being your source for the latest and greatest in the scientific world for years to come!

X-treme astronomy: Go behind-the-scenes of The X-Planets on April 18

In this day and age, it seems like everyone is trying to add some excitement to their lives. Now that we no longer have animals trying to hunt us and have enough infrastructure that one bad harvest won’t wipe us out, we’re looking for something to spend our excess energy on. People have taken to jumping off bridges with giant rubber bands, getting charged by bulls and jumping out of the way, or even eating fugu every chance they can.

Some of us less adventurous (and less crazy) folks have other ideas about how to heighten the adrenaline we get out of our hobbies. One of the more superficial ways to do this is to just add the word “extreme” (or, if we are hardcore enough, we might leave out the e and be “x-treme”).  It started out with extreme sports. Then it went to x-treme makeovers and weight loss.  And now, it has passed on to x-treme couponing. I expect x-treme snail fighting will be coming along some time soon.

While we could put the x-treme in front of astronomy to make it even more exciting, astronomy beat us to it with an “X” of its own: Extrasolar planets (called exoplanets or x-planets for short).

X-Planets: Now Playing at the Burke Baker Planetarium

An x-planet is a planet outside our sun system. Once thought to be purely fiction, there are over 860 such identified planets (and by the time you read this, the number will have gone up). The first definitive finding of an x-planet was in April of 1992 in orbit of PSR B1257+12. (Unfortunately there are a lot of stars out there without names and only unwieldy catalog numbers.) The first multiple planetary system was found in 1999, in the Upsilon Andromedae star system — only 44 light years away.

But the search is still on for other habitable planets. Alpha Centauri has a planet the right size, but far too hot. OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb (try pronouncing it, it’s a fun series of sounds) is larger than our planet, but too cold to support life. We have yet to find one that’s just right.  When we do, it will still be a long drive to check and see if we have some neighbors.

Until then, the best way to experience what an “alien world” might be like is the X-Planet show in the HMNS Burke Baker Planetarium. And what better way to experience it than after-hours with the creators of the show, Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes?

Explore exoplanets at the Burke Baker PlanetariumWhat: Behind-the-Scenes Tour of The X-Planets
When: Thursday, April 18 at 6 p.m.
Who: Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes
How Much: $18

Since its launch in 2009, NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Telescope has uncovered 2,740 new extra-solar planets, also known as exoplanets or X-planets. Now scientists are working to identify gases in the exoplanets’ atmospheres that can support life. It is just a matter of time before an “alien Earth ” is found. Join Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes of the Museum’s astronomy department for a behind-the-scenes look at the science behind X-Planets, the making of the film The X-Planets and a viewing of the film in the Burke Baker Planetarium. To purchase tickets and read more about the film, click here.

Ecoteen Myria Perez earns Girl Scouts’ highest honor — and a congrats from the Mayor — for collaboration with HMNS

Editor’s note: Museum volunteer and Ecoteen Myria Perez was recognized by Mayor Annise Parker on Friday after earning the Girl Scouts’ highest honor for her work with HMNS. Perez collaborated with the HMNS paleontology department to construct a Permian-period touch cart using specimens that she helped uncover at our dig site in Seymour, Texas. We caught up with Myria to talk a bit about her project and what it means to get the mayoral stamp of approval.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria with the Mayor

HMNS: You were an Ecoteen and have logged some 1,000 volunteer hours at the Museum. When did you start volunteering at HMNS and what’s been your favorite project or memory?

Myria Perez: I started volunteering at HMNS in the fall of 2008 when I was 12 years old. During that time, the Leonardo Dinosaur Mummy CSI exhibit was up on display. During my visit to the Museum for Leonardo’s exhibit, I found out about Dino Days and Breakfast with Dr. Bakker and immediately saved the date. When November came around I was able to meet paleontologist Dr. Robert Bakker. There I was, wearing my over-sized Leonardo Dinosaur Mummy shirt with a pen and drawing in my hand for him to sign.

Volunteering was brought up during our conversation. “The minimum age is 14; how old are you?” And of course, I responded, “12.” Dr. Bakker looked at me and repeated the question. “12,” I chirped once more, until I realized I had repeated my mistake. The third time, “The minimum age is 14; how old are you?” I was 14 now! The first thing I learned from paleontologist Dr. Bakker was to lie about my age; I was good to go!

My favorite memory was helping my mentor [associate curator of paleontology] David Temple with the new hall of paleontology during the summer of 2011 by preparing, painting, and packing up specimens such as the Megalodon jaw, Triceratops skull, and Edmontosaurus bones. An unforgettable memory was a trip to Seymour, Texas for a paleo excavation in the Permian red beds. The drive is around eight hours, so my mom and I arrived in the town of Seymour around midnight. My mom decided to stop and stay at the Sagamar Inn, the one and only inn in Seymour. The rest of the crew was staying at their normal place.

My mom and I checked in and got ready for bed. About an hour passed since I had drifted to sleep when I woke up to foul words from my mother’s mouth. She was half-awake, jumping up and down, throwing her hands around with a disgusted look on her face. Her bed sheets were stripped away and little black and red bugs scurried, fearful of the lamp light.

This was the horrific bed bug encounter. From nymphs to adults, each part of life cycle stages were present. They were in my sheets, as well. At 1 a.m. we notified the people in charge; they denied the bed bugs and offered us another room — the room next door. Of course, we called poor David Temple and relocated under the darkness of the premature morning to the old tractor factory to join the rest of the crew.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria in the field

HMNS: What got you interested in paleontology? Is it something you’d pursue as a career path?

Myria Perez: I caught fossil fever back when I was 2 years old, and still to this day have yet to find a cure for it. I never played with Barbie dolls. Instead, I spent my time analyzing dinosaur bones (garden rocks in my backyard) and conducting prehistoric battles with plastic dinosaurs. Every year, my mom would take me to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see ancient life. I could say I just grew up with a passion for paleontology.

My ultimate goal is to achieve my doctorate of vertebrate paleontology. I want to study the paleobiology of ancient life.

HMNS: How many hours did you spend on the touch cart? Can you tell us a bit about the process?

Myria Perez: I spent a total of 129.5 hours on the Permian touch cart. This included the planning, presentation of the cart to the museum guild, the Seymour trip to collect fossils with the paleo crew, specimen molding and casting (as well as painting), creation of the manual, docent/volunteer training on the cart, and touch cart presentations to museum visitors.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria poses with her touch cart in the new Morian Hall of Paleontology

The Permian touch cart was a great opportunity to combine Girl Scouts, paleontology, and earth science education. The timing could not have been better with the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new hall of paleontology that opened the summer of 2012. The Permian time period (around 287 million years ago) and the critters that inhabited the earth at that time were and are still being excavated and studied by the paleontology crew at HMNS. This was the perfect opportunity to show museum visitors the entire process of fossil display. In the touch cart, I was able to include items such as excavation site pictures, tools used in the field, and a “fossil hunt” for visitors to spot the fossils as if they were looking for them in the field, ultimately achieving the goal of “bringing the field to you.”

HMNS: What does it mean to you to be receiving the Girl Scout Gold Award, and to receive personal commendation from Mayor Parker?

Myria Perez: The Girl Scout Gold Award is the highest award to be earned in Girl Scouts (it is the equivalent of the Boy Scout’s Eagle Award). The project must be sustainable and address a community issue. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this project because I was always learning about not only myself, but also about how to work with all kinds of people, how to write a manual, and important paleo skills such as molding and casting specimens. This project has been a wonderful experience and opportunity for me to meet and work with new people and promote earth science education.

To be able to share the HMNS paleo crew’s discoveries in Seymour with Mayor Parker was an honor! It made it very exciting to share a few fossils with her, as she also exhibited great interest in ancient relics. She enjoyed a coprolite (fossilized poop) from a Permian shark called a Xenacanth as well a skull from the boomerang headed amphibian, Diplocaulus.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Mayor Parker examines a coprolite