Archie Spends ‘A Day in the Life’ of a Museum Volunteer

By Jennifer Gerbode, HMNS Volunteer Coordinator

Hi everyone, it’s Archie the Wandering T. rex! I recently had some downtime in-between travels, so I decided to go on a small adventure of my own right here at home. The museum is always a busy and popular place! Between all the tours, the cool members events, and special exhibits, we need a lot of hands to make sure everything goes smoothly. Thankfully, we have a great group of people that do just that!

HMNS volunteers give their time to the museum and share their love of science and learning with the public. Anyone can be a volunteer, provided you are at least 18 years old and can commit to 40 volunteer hours per year. The volunteers tell me this is really easy to do; a couple hours every other week will do it.

Vol Office Door

Since it is summer, the Volunteer Office might seem quiet, but that doesn’t mean volunteers aren’t busy! Year-round, volunteers give guided tours to visitors of all ages in the permanent and special exhibit halls—and even take museum-related presentations out into the community via the Docents-to-Go program. During the school year, they also help with the HISD 4th grade program and the Early Investigations program geared for Kindergarten – 3rd grade.

Before Tour of HoA

I got to hear a few quick talking points about Hall of Americas before a tour began.

Once any morning tours and activities are over, it’s time for a quick lunch break! I sat down with some of the volunteers as they poured over exhibit halls notes and shared anecdotes about their time on the floor (Don’t worry! Some of these stories will be shared in a future blog, so stay tuned!)

After lunch, I decided to tag along as one of the volunteers grabbed a special key and went to open up a touch cart. As the name implies, touch carts are filled with touchable items that pertain to the exhibit where the cart is located. Most of the exhibits have at least one touch cart, while a few popular halls have more —The Morian Hall of Paleontology has six! To work a touch cart, volunteers don’t have to be an expert on the entire hall; they only need to know a few key facts about one or two intriguing items in the cart.

We ended up talking about mummification in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at a cart the volunteers lovingly call “Himself.” They call it Himself because, according to Royal Decree, the King was always referred to as ‘Himself.’ Since the cart is in the shape of an anthropoid (or human-shaped) coffin with both hands crossed in front (the sign of a king), the name is most appropriate.

Fun at Himself

Uh… shabtis? A little help?

After we spent some time at the “Himself” touch cart, my volunteer friend suggested I check out one of the demonstration stations scattered through the exhibits. These volunteer-run stations show science in action and allow for a little more hands-on approach. For mad scientists, the Chemistry demo area is the perfect place to talk about reactions (while playing with fire). For those with a passion for sparkly gems and their creation, the Rock Star gem polishing station is situated right inside Fabergé: From a Snowflake to an Iceberg. What better place to demonstrate what a facet or a cabochon is?

Rock Star Station

While it’s not an everyday event, volunteers also help prepare and run the craft tables at the many member events throughout the year. I was able to hang out with Ben, a frequent volunteer at craft events, as we showed off a few crafts being prepared from upcoming and past special events.

Archie and Ben

Before I knew it, I had spent the whole day with the volunteers! Not all volunteers spend a full day at the museum—and no one participates in, or knows, everything. Volunteers get to pick and choose what to do based on their schedule and interests. The one thing that all volunteers share though is a passion for learning, and a desire to share knowledge with others.

Interested in becoming a volunteer at HMNS? Check out the Volunteer page on the HMNS website for more information opportunities at HMNS’ three locations, requirements, and application instructions. Interviews will open for new applicants beginning July 18, with the first school-year orientations scheduled for late August.

Until my next exotic adventure… see you in the halls!

Shadow Archie

Tibetan Buddhists use human remains to create ritual artifacts

by Kathleen Terris

Located in the heart of the Asian continent between China and India, Tibet is a region with a complicated political history that has been a part of the People’s Republic of China since 1951. Religion, specifically Tibetan Buddhism, is extremely important to everyday Tibetan life and is derived from the ancient Tibetan religion Bön and Sanskrit Buddhism from Northern India. Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly popular in the west due to Tibetan emigration.

Rituals and ritual artifacts are important in Tibetan Buddhism, with the artifacts believed to hold tantric powers that determine how successful the ritual will be. Several of these ritual artifacts are made using human bone; these artifacts include the damaru, the kangling, and the kapala. The damaru is a two-headed, hand-held drum that is made from two skulls, a male and a female, which represent the male and female elements of life. These elements are further represented through the male and female mantras that are inscribed on the inside of the corresponding skullcap. This ritual instrument is held in the right hand and is often paired with a bell (ghanta) to create a musical offering to the deities at the center of the ritual.

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A traditional Tibetan damaru. Beasley-Hwang collection.

The kangling is a trumpet traditionally made from a human femur (kangling literally translates to “bone flute”).  Said to have a haunting sound, the kangling is typically used in rituals to summon spirits in order to help relieve their worldly sufferings.

Monk with Damaru Thighbone

A damaru and kangling used together in ritual.

A kapala, or skull cup, is used to hold offerings of herbs and flowers that are mixed with various liquids; this mixture is symbolic of aspects of the body and mind.  The skull cup is supported by a triangular base with a skull decorating each corner; these skulls represent the three vices (greed, hate, and ignorance).  The kapala is topped off with a crown-shaped lid that represents the enlightened body.

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An intricately decorated kangling. Beasley-Hwang Collection.

These instruments are used in chöd ritual, a practice that combines Buddhist meditation and an ancient shamanic ritual native to Tibet and is primarily found in Tibetan Buddhism and Bön. The goal of this practice is to get rid of the Ego, which starts with disconnecting from the body and material objects.

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A Tibetan kapala, complete with separate triangular base and crown-shaped lid. Beasley-Hwang collection.

While these artifacts are traditionally made from human bone, they may also be made from wood. When made from bone, the selection is very important to how much power the artifact has and the success of the rituals it is used in; it is believed that the karmic force of the deceased remains in these skeletal artifacts and is transferred to those who use them in ritual. For example, the bones of an individual who died violently are believed to hold the greatest power while those of someone who died a peaceful death have almost no power; the bones of a respected teacher are also thought to be powerful in ritual use. While it can seem almost morbid to use skeletal remains as ritual objects, these are often seen as the most powerful cultural objects. This is evident in the amount of decoration and symbolism included in the artifacts described here.

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Terris worked with Houston Museum of Natural Science Curator of Anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout and recently joined the collections department as a part-time member.

If you’re looking for more bones, visit the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the Morian Hall of Paleontology. #ChillsAtHMNS

100 Years – 100 Objects: Giant Longhorn Beetle

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

The name says it all:  the Titans were a race of giants in Greek mythology, while giganteus is Latin for giant.  This monster from the rainforests of the Amazon basin in South America is the largest beetle in the world, at least in terms of overall size (the African Goliath beetle, a scarab, is heavier).  The giant longhorn is a member of the Cerambycidae or long-horned beetle family, which includes over 20,000 species worldwide.  The family’s common name describes the very long antennae characteristic of most cerambycids – in some species over twice as long as the body.  Male cerambycids typically have longer antennae than females of the same species.  Shown here are a male (wings spread, longer antennae relative to body size) and female (larger, with somewhat shorter antennae). 

Learn more about beetles and their relatives in a visit to the Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center – a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Element III

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

This modern piece of art was made by Tammy Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico). It represents a step-fret motif which we can find in Pre-Columbian cultures dating back more than a millennium. It shows up in Pre-Columbian architecture in Mesoamerica as well as pottery and textiles from South America. This Tammy Garcia piece embodies a link between the past and the present, with the former continuing to be an inspiration for today.

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the
photo gallery on hmns.org.