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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Lions and zebra and black rhino, oh my! Join HMNS on an African safari next November

There are some things you just can’t see in your own backyard, or even at the Museum — so our entertaining and informative curators David Temple and Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout are bringing a group to Tanzania in November 2013.

The unique eco-system of the Ngorongoro Crater, the vast savannahs of the Serengeti, the forest and grassland near the shores of Lake Manyara, and the renowned anthropological and geological sites at Olduvai Gorge are must-see wonders of east Africa included in this HMNS-exclusive trip.

Herds running across road.HR.RM

This two-week trip includes safaris to superb areas for seeing giraffe, zebra, elephant, hippo, tree-climbing and black-maned lion, black rhino, wildebeest, impala, flamingo, warthog, baboon, and many other species of African wildlife. All are guaranteed a window seat for wildlife viewing in a 4×4 with photo roof. You will also visit the site where the roots of modern man were unearthed by Mary Leakey and a Maasai village.

Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, HMNS curator of anthropology, curated the human evolution section of the new Hall of Paleontology along with numerous special exhibitions, including Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. He has a special interest in this trip as Africa is the cradle of humanity. Tanzania’s Rift Valley has yielded important early human fossils, landmarks in the evolution of mankind. “We are all descendants of these early Africans. Visiting Tanzania will be a return home for all of us,” Dr. Tuerenhout says.

Maasai Men Jumping 6.HR.RM

David Temple, HMNS associate curator of paleontology, curated the Museum’s new Morian Hall of Paleontology and possesses a wide knowledge base of the evolution of mammals and modern African wildlife. “Tanzania is a perfect destination to learn of the great creatures of the past and witness the great creatures of the present,” he adds. Temple also holds a special interest African history, culture and economic development.

Lioness & cubs in Crater.HR.RM

Space is very limited. For complete itinerary, pricing and registration, click here and mark your calendar for our informational session March 19.

Le Monde des Aztèques [The World of the Aztecs]

This blog entry is different from any of the ones I have ever written before.

It contains a book review and commentary on the current state of book reviews in the US. 

A while back, I was asked by a friend and former museum colleague to review a French-language book on the Aztecs. I agreed, read the book, wrote the review and then started looking for a place that would accept it. And that is where things went awfully awry. Between my reading and reviewing of the book and the day I am writing this, about two years have passed. Granted, I have not been pursuing this project on a daily basis, but I have been pretty persistent about finding an outlet for this review. As I have not been successful, I am posting it onto the museum’s blog. This is a first; I hope to follow up with more such reviews.

Drama angle
Aztec calendar stone
Creative Commons License photo credit: gorriti

I am not the only one who has noticed this “book review crisis.” As it happens, Dr. Michael Smith, an archaeologist working on Aztec sites, professor at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a prolific author has made the same observation. He has blogged on this topic on several occasions, like here, here, here and here.

You get the picture. There is a problem out there in the world of publishing. So, here it goes. You will get the book review first, followed by details on the book itself.

Le Monde des Aztèques is a collaborative volume.

Danièle Dehouve is affiliated with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the Université de Paris VIII. She has written several books on Mexico, most recently, Offrandes et sacrifices en Mésoamérique. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer is also affiliated with the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. She specializes in central Mexican writing systems and has authored Xipe Totec, Notre Seigneur l’ écorche, étude glyphique d’un dieu aztèque.

Each of the authors wrote about half of the volume. Danièle Dehouve contributed six chapters, dealing with the history of the Aztecs, the city and its king, the calendar, the day count, the concepts of time and space in Mesoamerica and bloody rituals. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer penned chapters on the Aztec pantheon, worldviews, man in the world, pictographic manuscripts and the writing system.

An introductory chapter sets the stage, defining the concept of Mesoamerica and outlining the physical and cultural geography of this region. The authors link past to present when they mention that out of the hundreds of indigenous languages that existed before Contact, there are more than fifty that have survived until today. In a nod to research conducted in South American rock shelters, human presence in the Americas is set to 33,000 BC, a date that most specialists in the field still find hard to accept.

The chapter on Aztec history addresses topics such as the origins of the Aztecs, how to read Aztec documents, the empire at the time of contact. Information related to the excavations at the Templo Mayor includes discoveries made up to the year 2006.  In the chapter on the city and the king, Dehouve teases apart the fabric of Aztec society. Starting with the office of the ruler, the author covers nobility, warriors, judges, priests, traders and artisans and farmers.

Quetzalcoatl
Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Jami Dwyer

Three chapters deal with the calendar and the perception of space and time all contain common threads: our fragmentary understanding of these aspects of Aztec society is due in large part to the fragmentary nature of our sources.  The author does provide an easy to follow discourse on what could be a difficult matter to comprehend. The author also very effectively uses illustrations to help clarify her points, for example on p. 119, where the tonalpohualli calendar is discussed. One detail slipped though the cracks however, on p. 96, where the location of the Maya site of Copan is incorrectly listed as Guatemala; that site is just across the border in Honduras.

In her final chapter, dealing with bloody rituals, Dehouve argues that one ought to approach this subject from the Aztec point of view. This reviewer believes that references to the scholarly work by Eric Taladoire and Ted Leyenaar with regard to the Mesoamerican ballgame would have made this section more complete.

Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer starts off her section with a discussion of Aztec deities.

The chapter has three parts, with detailed discussions of what we know about these gods. Illustrations from colonial-period documents are used with great effectiveness.  The following chapter deals with the creation of the world. Again, the use of illustrations allows the reader to follow the story in two complementary formats. For example, the author reviews the first page of the codex Fejervary-Mayer in multiple segments; each of these steps is accompanied by an image of the codex highlighting the very topic discussed in that portions. In the chapter on the creation of humans, Vie-Wohrer points out that there are many versions of the creation story and that some of them are contradictory.

In the final two chapters, Vie-Wohrer covers materials very familiar to her: pictographic manuscripts and writing systems. Those who are interested in these topics will find the references to the holdings at the Fonds Mexicain at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France very interesting. We can all agree with the sentiment expressed by the author regarding the tragic loss of so many prehispanic documents during the conquest and early colonial days.

This is a lavishly illustrated book on Aztec culture. Although there are many more topics on the Aztec world one could write about, I found the chapters well-written and well-illustrated. The bibliography presented at the end of the book presents a good starting point for those interested in things Aztec. One final remark, because the volume is written by two very qualified French researchers, one gets insights that occasionally differ from those offered by North American counterparts (be they Mexican or American). In order to appreciate these contributions, a working knowledge of French is a must. Sadly, this reviewer has noticed that all too often, this is missing among North American researchers.

Publication details:
DANIELE DEHOUVE, ANNE-MARIE VIE-WOHRER. 2008. Le Monde des Aztèques. Rineuve, Paris. 336 pp., ISBN-978-2-914214-51-3.
Book reviewed by Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of anthropology, Houston Museum of Natural Science.
One can find more information on this book here and here. Just like the volume, these reviews are written en français.

Zut alors.

August Flickr Photo of the Month: Terra Cotta Warriors!

Houston Cougars

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS – as well as the areas surrounding the Museum in Hermann Park. When we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we highlight one of these photos here on the blog.

This month, we’re featuring a photo from Arie Moghaddam, known as Houston Cougars on Flickr, who is a regular attendee of the Museum’s Flickr meetups. This photo is from the meetup we held in our Summer 2009 exhibition, Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor.

Why would we feature an image that’s celebrating it’s 2nd birthday? First: we’re thinking a lot about the Terra Cotta Warriors lately – since we’ve just announced a new exhibit featuring these wonders of the world!

Warriors, Tombs and Temples opens April 1, 2012!

The upcoming exhibit  includes 200 incredibly preserved ancient works of art featuring newly-discovered artifacts unearthed from imperial, royal and elite tombs and from beneath Buddhist monasteries in and around the capital cities of three great dynasties – as well as four of the famous life-size Terra Cotta Warriors!

And, second: it’s a great image with a unique perspective on the original exhibit. Arie shared a few words about what inspired it:

As for what inspired me to take the picture (aside from you being nice enough to invite us), of all the pictures I took I think this one best captures the essence of the exhibit since it combines the statue, cross bow, and armor in a logical order which any emperor would be pleased to have in his necropolis.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Terra Cotta Warriors was a temporary exhibit, and photography was restricted outside of special Flickr meetup opportunities. Follow our posts in the HMNS Flickr pool for announcements about upcoming events.