Behind the Scenes: Retablos Fit for an Icon

When you walk into the museum store, you may notice the elaborate display wall at the entrance. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look with our Creative Merchandising Director on how it all comes together.

This season’s display is a tribute to Mexican arts and culture and features a life-sized retablo complete with a Catrina figurine. My inspiration were the detailed nichos, or retablos, that are such a central part of Latin American folk art. These retablos are usually under 12 or 18 inches in height but I wanted to create a seven-foot-tall reproduction. 

Starting with a metal wedding arch I found at the local party supply, I wired a support cage along the back and sides of the arch. Foam core cut to size was wired onto the side to create the retablo doors. Then the real work began: covering the structure with a few hundred giant paper flowers!


Each of these flowers was made by hand, and I gave countless lessons to curious patrons on how to make them. Here’s what you do:

Take five sheets of tissue paper. Starting from the short side, accordion pleat into three to four-inch folds down the length of the tissue. Fold the pleated paper in half and twist a pipe cleaner around the center to hold the folds in place. Cut each end of the folded paper in a rounded shape to create your petals. Open up the folds and very gently, starting from the top sheet, pull each sheet of tissue toward the center pipe cleaner.

flower pile

The flowers were tied onto the arch, inside and out, and paper roses hot-glued to the doors. Next, I had to create our Catrina.


La Catrina is a popular figure on El Día de los Muertos. Originally a turn-of-the-century political cartoon by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, La Catrina was popularized by artist Diego Rivera. Rivera’s famous mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central prominently features La Catrina between Posada, a young Rivera, and Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo. The mural is a visual commentary on the history of Mexico with La Catrina representing that all are equal in the face of death.

Using an old mannequin from our Exhibits department, I spray-painted it bright red and then painted on a traditional calavera face.



 I wanted our Catrina to reference artist and cultural icon Frida Kahlo and acknowledge her contributions to La Catrina’s popularity as well as Kahlo’s dedication to Mexican heritage. A rose headdress and Oaxacan blouse, similar to the huipil Kahlo was known for wearing, were added along with a white petticoat that resembles the Tehuana skirts she favored.


The final piece of clothing is a very special item. This ornate, heavy overskirt belongs to a local los matachines dancer. With roots in both Medieval Europe and Native American dance, los matachines dance on important feast days with Dec. 12, the feast day of La Virgen de Guadalupe, being one of the most important. Our dancer was not able to perform this holiday and generously loaned us her costume.

los matachines

Finishing up the display wall involved climbing up 20 feet to hang more flower pompoms from the ceiling and adding folk art pieces to the wall.



Our six-foot-tall papier maché skeleton guards the jewelry and retablos in the wall cases.



Though a challenging project, this display is one of my favorites. Thank you to everyone who stopped by to ask questions while I was working out there. I enjoyed getting the chance to talk about our beautiful and moving exhibit on the Virgin. And it’s the proceeds from the museum store that make it possible for the Houston Museum of Natural Science to develop these exhibits, so we are always grateful for your support and patronage.


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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 5/16-5/22

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Charlie Bartley (age 8): 

block party 22

Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty.

Behind-the-Scenes – Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Tuesday, May 17
6:00 p.m.
Featuring 100 awe-inspiring images, from fascinating animal behavior to breathtaking wild landscapes,Wildlife Photographer of the Year harnesses the power of photography to promote the discovery, understanding and responsible enjoyment of the natural world. Tour this visually stunning exhibition with HMNS master docents.

Class – Beginning Taxidermy – Birds
Saturday, May 21
9:00 a.m.
Under the instruction of licensed taxidermist Mickey Alice Kwapis, you will transform a small bird o into a beautiful taxidermy piece over the course of a couple of hours, as well as learning the fundamentals of ethical taxidermy. In this class, each student will prepare their own bird that they can take home.

Class – Beginning Taxidermy – Rabbits
Saturday, May 21
2:00 p.m.
Under the instruction of licensed taxidermist Mickey Alice Kwapis, you will transform a rabbit into a beautiful taxidermy piece over the course of a couple of hours, as well as learning the fundamentals of ethical taxidermy. In this class, each student will prepare their own rabbit that they can take home.

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On Land and Water: the Southern Ocean and the Importance of Correct Names

As a representative of the Early Millennials, I can say with confidence most of us grew up with four oceans in our geographic vocabulary — the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans. Granted, to impress our teachers (and by impress, I mean annoy), some of us may have raised our hands to announce our awareness of the dual identities of the first two in this list, divided into the north and south Atlantic and the north and south Pacific.

“Miss, the north and south portions rotate in different directions, so they have to be different oceans,” we’d say.

“I see,” Ms. Miss would reply, suppressing the instinct to roll her eyes. “Is that what your science teacher’s been telling you?”

Well, here’s a new one on our youngest group of graduates now entering the work force, a piece of information the upcoming generation of students will no doubt annoy us with — there aren’t four oceans, nor even six counting the subdivisions of the Atlantic and Pacific. There are seven!


National Geographic map from 1922 showing the “Antarctic (Southern) Ocean.”

I was disappointed to discover recently that the Southern Ocean has been a thing for 16 years, officially, and even as early as the 1920s on some maps. While we were fretting over the Y2K bug, the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) was working to re-imagine the landscape of our planet according to the most current science. Because the waters surrounding Antarctica rotate independently of any other ocean current, the area below the 60th parallel was known to be an independent ecosystem, but didn’t yet have its own name. In light of this information, the IHO, comprising 68 countries with saltwater shorelines, requested of its members a recommendation on how to handle this wrinkle in natural science. Of the 68, 27 nations responded with preference for a fifth ocean, and Argentina alone wrote to say it was unnecessary. Out of those 28 responses, 18 advocated for the naming of the new ocean as the Southern Ocean, while the rest preferred the Antarctic Ocean.


A general delineation of the Antarctic Convergence, sometimes used by scientists as the demarcation of the Southern Ocean.

As a result of less than 42 percent of responses from IHO’s membership, the organization published the third edition of Limits of Oceans and Seas (S-23) in the year 2000, entering the new “Southern Ocean” into the annals of history. I’m guessing their decision-making process doesn’t work on a majority-rules system.

Fifteen years later, perhaps as a result of this continued debate, the Southern Ocean still has yet to enter into common parlance, evidenced by brief interviews with my younger brother and three of the youngest employees in the Houston Museum of Natural Science Marketing Department. None of them knew what the heck I was talking about. You’d think information 15 years old would’ve at least made it into the minds of those younger than 23. Even the fact that some countries, though not all, recognize a fifth ocean ought to be enough to make it into public school curricula. But alas, this information has flown under the radar for so long, this 31-year-old professional internet researcher has beaten his younger contemporaries to the punch. And like the IHO member-countries who abstained from their recommendations, I’m uncertain whether I should be proud of this personal discovery. In any case, there is a new ocean, and its name is the Southern.


More details The Pacific Ocean as example of terminology concerning seas: the area inside the black line includes the seas included in the Pacific Ocean prior to 2002 and the darker blue areas are its informal current borders, following the recreation of the Southern Ocean and the reinclusion of marginal seas.

Perhaps the reason for this “secret” of Earth’s modern hydrography lies in the hesitation of many nations to even care about it. After all, the great waters of our planet are in a sense one big ocean flowing between the continents, and the demarcation of oceans seems more a semantic debate between map-makers than a pressing scientific issue. But I’m totally for it — I believe in the Southern Ocean!

As a species, we name things to better understand our world and enter into discussions about it. Science, though not perfect, strives to be exacting. We seek answers and work to classify the things we know into categories that make the most sense because, simply put, it makes things easier to understand. From my word-nerd perspective, the people who care about language work toward accuracy. By nature, language can never be as exact as science, but concision helps scientists create precise explanations. I mean, come on; how much simpler is it to say, “The Southern Ocean is home to the planet’s largest ocean current” than it is to fumble around with something like, “The waters surrounding Antarctica rotating separately from the other three oceans bordering it creates the planet’s largest ocean current”?


The “seven seas,” at one time or another.

New names for old things also place our society in historical context, and as humanity’s understanding of the world develops, so does our perspective. Remember the phrase “sailing the seven seas”? To the Ancient Greeks, who knew only Europe, Persia and North Africa, the extent of their hydrographical purview was limited to the Mediterranean, Black, Red, Adriatic, Aegean, and Caspian seas. They threw in the Persian Gulf because they didn’t know any better. To Medieval Europeans, the phrase referred to the Baltic, North, Mediterranean, Arabian, Black and Red seas and included the Atlantic for the same reason. In the time of colonialist expansion to North America, sailors saw the oceans as great seas, lending credence to the idea that the world shrinks as knowledge grows. These mariners considered the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic Ocean, the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific all seas, as well as the Caribbean and its eldest relative, the Mediterranean.

Now, in 2016, in an age of scientific and lingual precision, we invoke the phrase in the times we wish to wax poetic, when no other phrase will do, but with the advent of the Southern Ocean, it’s no less accurate. The seas of our millennium include two Atlantics, two Pacifics, one each of Arctic and Indian, and now the Southern. I’ll move we call these The Magnificent Seven.


“The Tall One”: Denali, formerly Mt. McKinley, formerly Denali.

The waters of our world aren’t the only thing changing names. Last September, near the centennial of the national park system, President Obama visited Denali National Park in Alaska, home to the tallest peak in North America. Reaching a whopping 20,237 feet into the sky, the mountain was formerly known as Mt. McKinley. During the visit, Obama announced the United States would officially recognize the mountain’s ancient title of Denali and scrap the name of the 1896 presidential candidate William McKinley (who, incidentally, lost the race). The name “Denali” is a derivation of “the tall one” in Koyukon, one of 11 Athabascan languages traditionally spoken in Alaska.

The return of the mountain to its former name observes the viability of the Athabascan naming system, which links places to one another to help orient travelers more effectively. For example, the names of several tributaries of the same main river will all share similar roots. The re-naming also comes as a sign of respect to the peoples who for thousands of years have called Denali by the same name in spite of its federal designation less than a century old.

You see how important a name can be. So the next time a kid corrects you, instead of rolling your eyes, rein in your pride and smile. Then ask the kid this: “Okay, smarty-pants. Now tell me why it has that name.”

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Educator How-To: Cross-curricular Education Gets Cheesy

As educators, we all want students to understand the world holistically, but we still tend to teach each subject independent from all other subjects. Food is an effective way to capture the attention of students and provide a useful tool for creating a more global and cross-curricular learning environment. This global approach to learning has been shown to produce deeper understanding of the concepts being taught.

Making cheese, which seems on its face to be a fun break or a supplemental activity, can be used to discover important concepts and ideas that span an entire range of subjects.  These subjects include, but are not limited to, chemistry, history, and geography. Hands-on learning activities help to create interest and to create better retention of learned material.cheese meme

In that spirit, try one of my favorite activities. I use this activity at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to make learning and discovery memorable. It is a culminating activity for my Iron Age lab. It’s simple, affordable, and the kids love it! Why not give it a try?

A Little Bite of Cheesy History

Milk has been a major source of nutrition from the earliest of times. Milk is full of protein, fat, calcium and other important vitamins and minerals. It just so happens that it’s also full of water and sugars, which have no real nutritional value and cause the milk to spoil quickly without refrigeration. With the invention of cheese, man found an ingenious way to prolong the shelf-life of milk.

Because bacteria love a moist and nutrient-rich environment, milk spoils easily. In antiquity, there was no refrigeration, so unless it was cold outside, fresh milk could not be saved from day to day. No one knows how, but our ancestors figured out the trick to preserving milk. They discovered that calves have a substance called rennet in their stomachs that separates the milk solids and fats from the water in the milk they suckle from their mothers. We know that animal stomachs were used to transport and hold liquid, so it’s possible the milk turning to curds and whey was a fortuitous accidental discovery.


Goat stomach still used to make cheese in Sardinia. Photo by Ivano Atzori.

The first cheesemakers found that if they added some rennet to fresh milk, it would soon separate into two separate parts. We call these two parts the curds (where the good stuff is) and whey (mostly made up of water and some sugars). They learned that they could extract even more moisture from the curds if they cut them up and added salt to them, which also had the benefit of adding flavor to the cheese. Heating and pressing were also used to expel additional liquid from the curds. If left to age, molds and bacteria colonized the cheese, making it even more tasty! Thus was born an easy-to-make, non-perishable, transportable food for everyone!

Tasty Science: Make Your Own Ricotta!

Let’s get started! Here’s what you need:

  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
  • Measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • Pots
  • Hot plates (or a stove)
  • Mixing spoons
  • Large bowls
  • Sieves
  • Cheesecloth
  • Water
  • Paper towels

First, set a large sieve over a deep bowl. Dampen two layers of cheesecloth with water and line the sieve with the cheesecloth. Next, pour the milk and cream into a pot and stir in the salt.

Bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then, turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar. Allow the mixture to stand for one minute until it curdles. It will separate into thick parts (the curds) and milky parts (the whey).

Pour the mixture of curds and whey into the cheesecloth-lined sieve and allow it to drain into the bowl at room temperature for 20 to 25 minutes, occasionally discarding the liquid that collects in the bowl. The longer you let the mixture drain, the thicker the ricotta.

Transfer the ricotta to a bowl, discarding the cheesecloth and any remaining whey. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The ricotta will keep refrigerated for four to five days.

This is a basic but tasty cheese and anyone can be successful in making it. If you decide to incorporate this activity into your classroom, please share your “cheesy” pictures with HMNS on Facebook or Instagram under the hashtag #HMNS. 

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