Discreet Hoarding: The Mystery of the Disappearing Horses and Cabinets of Curiosity

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool museophile (no, I did not just make that word up). I love to look at collections of amazing specimens and artifacts. Turns out I also love to hoard things — oh, I mean collect items of great interest and importance. I like to believe my propensity to collect is an adaptive instinct that has been exponentially amplified over millions of years of selective evolution. This impulse to collect benefited my ancestors because they were driven to collect and accumulate scarce objects that could be used when times were tough. I’ll admit, if this is the case, my compulsion may have become somewhat maladaptive, though extremely satisfying.

I have different strategies and reasons for my collections. Some based on possessing as many objects as possible related to a specific subject and others amassed as a result of a shared relaxing activity, such as collecting “sea glass.” Still others evolved in an effort to collect and hold onto memories in a tangible way.


Since we’re opening the Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit today at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I have spent the week recalling the various collections I have assembled over the years. Some I’ve hung onto, others have been dismantled and distributed to others through garage sales, gifts, and donations to Goodwill. My first collecting experience centered on tiny plastic horses. I can’t recall where any of them came from or where most of them went (I still have one; more on this later), but I do remember how much joy arranging and rearranging them on my windowsill brought me as a child.


The next memory is of my marble collection. Collecting marbles of all sorts became an absolute obsession and my friends and I spent hours negotiating trades, which could get quite heated. My collection was kept in a homemade blue drawstring bag and I took it everywhere. The final disposition of this collection is a mystery to me, one which still bothers me when I have occasion to think about it.


As a child who attended elementary school in the 1980s, I had the obligatory sticker collection. Stickers stuck carefully to the slick pages of a photo album, repurposed to house a growing collection. The most prized members of the collection were the puffy stickers with googly eyes and the scratch-and-sniff stickers carefully peeled from homework assignments that were well done. Strategic trades were made at the bus stop and trading with boys was to be avoided at all costs because their collections were not well-curated.


Around this same time I began collecting “sea glass” with my mom, grandmother, and great aunt along the shores of Maine. This was a time-honored tradition that they felt compelled to pass down to me. There really is nothing like it. The feeling of finding a rare piece of blue cobalt glass is truly indescribable, it might as well have been gold. A full jar sits proudly on my bathroom counter and I still get pleasure from gazing at the colorful shards with the well-worn edges and remembering the cool summer mornings combing the shores of Maine with my mom, my grandmother (now deceased) and great-aunt Mimi.


Later, gargoyles were the object of my desire. I spotted my first gargoyle strategically placed in my brother’s garden, hiding beneath the fern fronds. When I saw it, I was hooked on these dark and macabre figures who were inexplicably cute while still being scary. I was beyond excited when I found my first one at a price I could afford. The collection slowly grew over the next 10 years. Now, pieces of this once-prized collection reside in many different places and serve a variety purposes, such as props for the Medieval Madness camp and guardians for a very special friend of mine, perched high atop a kitchen cabinet keeping a watchful eye. One sits atop my prized collection of “sea glass,” ensuring it stays safe.


I then turned my attention to collecting items associated with death and funerary rituals, a proclivity my mother objects to, asking, “Why can’t you find something more uplifting to be interested in?” The objects range from those related to El Día de los Muertos to replicas and art related to mummification in ancient Egypt, the most prized piece being a full-size replica of an ancient Egyptian mummiform coffin made to hold CD’s.


Last but not least, is the antique printer’s drawer hanging on my bedroom wall. It is full of tiny priceless items that spark memories from many different stages of my life. Some pieces are more interesting than others, like the replica medieval dice engraved with skulls and the only small plastic horse to survive the mysterious disappearance of my first childhood collection. It also has some of my most precious childhood memories, like my first house key and the name tag from the collar of my first dog.


Home Cabinets Social Media Contest

Have a collection of your own? We want to see it! Post images in the comments section on Facebook or on Instagram under #HMNS. Include what excites you and why you collect certain items. HMNS Marketing will put entries to a vote, and the owner of the most impressive cabinet will win four tickets to the permanent exhibit halls, which includes entry into our new Cabinet of Curiosities. We’ll also feature images of the winning cabient across our social media platforms. HMNS is accepting entries until May 20. Winner will be announced the first week of June.

Chiddingstone Castle curator Maria Esain lays out her all-time favorite objects

Editor’s Note: Today’s blog post comes to us from Chiddingstone Castle curator Maria Esain. Chiddingstone, located in Edenbridge, Kent in the United Kingdom, loaned significant artifacts to HMNS’ Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Many visitors to Chiddingstone ask me the same question: what is your favorite object? I find it the most difficult question to answer, and I can’t choose just one. I tend to like objects that bring plenty of historical information about the people behind them. Particularly in the case of archaeological objects, such as the Ancient Egyptian ones on loan to HMNS.

The selection below is a good example of this. I believe each artifact is an incredible source of information; some with the bonus of being breathtakingly beautiful.

Ibis figure in alabaster and bronze.  Late Period 661-332 BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

The Ibis was a sacred animal in Ancient Egypt, associated with the god Thoth, who was responsible for writing, mathematics and time. I find it quite impressive that more than 3,000 years ago the Egyptians were such a developed society. They became aware of the importance of recording things and developed hieroglyphics. Other objects demonstrate that their knowledge of mathematics was also incredibly developed.

Monkey khol pot in basalt. Middle Kingdom, ca 2,000BC – 1,750BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

Another characteristic about Ancient Egyptians that astonishes me is how conscious they were about their personal grooming. This is visible in the many different shaped kohl containers in our collection. Both men and women wore eye make-up for several reasons, including to protect their eyes from the sun’s glare. Wearing make-up also had magical purposes. Animal-shaped containers are recurrent, the most common animals featured being monkeys.

Painted pottery vessel. Predynastic Period, ca 4,500BC – 3,000BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

This vessel is full of information. As all pre-dynastic objects, it is an invitation to reflect on the length of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. I always explain to our visitors standing in front of our timeline of Ancient Egypt that Cleopatra was as unfamiliar with the Great Pyramids as we are with her.

Shabti of Tamit. Painted wood. New Kingdom. 1550-1086 BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

The work on this figure is so delicate and intricate, even the eyebrows are carved. This object became very mouldy back in 2008 when the castle had to close for two years, and the Egyptian collection was left with no environmental control. Luckily it was conserved and brought back to all its splendor. Shabtis were funerary figures placed by hundreds inside tombs so that they could undertake agricultural works on behalf of the dead.

Visit our permanent Hall of Ancient Egypt and pick your own favorite artifacts!

Building a Texas-Sized Exhibition

“…a wise and prudent administration in the commencement of her national existence will be universally expected; improving upon the difficult and delicate task of settling in complete and successful operation a political body based upon principles so hazardously asserted and so gloriously maintained.”

Sam Houston’s signature

The above quote could easily be attributed to any number of government entities that have arisen since 1776.  In fact, I wager that it’s applicable to many political upheavals we’re following in 2011.  At least, that what struck me as I recently read this historical document.  The phrase that was deliberately omitted from the quote is this, “For Texas.”  It comes from a letter President Sam Houston wrote to Edward Hall on November 3, 1836 from the town of Columbia.  You can see this letter yourself in our recently opened Texas! exhibit.

If there is any thread to my occasional posts as a HMNS registrar, it is that the connection between an object and a viewer influences the viewer in some way.  As someone whose professional life consists largely of dealing with objects, I am not unfamiliar with the concept.  My collections and exhibits colleagues and I are always keenly aware of the care and respect employed when handling museum objects.  So sometimes we can temporarily lose sight of an object’s scientific/ historical/ aesthetic/ educational value when we’re trying to ensure that its mount is supportive, the lighting levels aren’t harmful, the proper temp and humidity of a gallery/case environment is steadily maintained; in short that nothing goes wrong.  However, being Texas born and bred, I found it difficult not to get caught up in the emotional wow! factor of the items in this exhibit.

Audrey Jones Beck’s Mardi Gras Dress

I’ll readily admit that I inwardly groaned when I saw all the documents that needed condition reports at the start of the exhibit installation. Paper documents are delicate and fragile so we mostly viewed them through mylar sleeves, but even that method still needs an abundance of caution. It wasn’t a job we could zip through. And once again I marveled at the miracles a conservator can perform to mitigate the damages of time.

But over and over I found myself drawn into the words on the page, especially when they were handwritten and signed. In the letter quoted above, Sam Houston goes on to delineate his cabinet members. As I read the names my decidedly low-brow reaction was: well, geez, that’s half the streets downtown. Somehow I never knew that Rusk was the Secretary of War. While perusing the pages of the minutes of the Convention of Texas Independence, I started making connections with my travels throughout the state. The list of attendees is basically a roll call of the counties in this state. Sometimes the words would just sing and I had to take a moment.

Here’s a brief quote from page 24 of the minutes that I particularly like:

“…that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty or the capacity for self-government.”

Also in the minutes, directly following the declaration of independence, is the appointment of a committee charged with immediately getting the declaration to a printer for wide distribution. Communication is important no matter what era a revolution takes place but the distance between the printer’s broadsides of 1836 and the revolutionary tweets of 2011 is amazing, isn’t it? Not to mention the difference between putting quill to paper and tapping thumbs to glass screens. Which reminds me of something else I noticed through this long (fifty-four plus pages) document, the handwriting was remarkably clear and beautiful to start, towards the end the poor secretary’s hand was beginning to sag. It was a long convention.

Other documents provoked equally strong but completely opposite reactions. As one colleague pointed out, “We’re all creeped out by the slavery stuff.” Documents are made on paper but it’s the actual words that matter. So, yes, it’s pieces of paper from the Harris County tax office but those dry and orderly tax receipts for humans beings considered personal property right here in our now very diverse cosmopolitan city will always retain a repulsive taint. That’s why it’s important to include them in this exhibit.

Davy Crockett’s Violin

But enough already about documents! Let’s go on to random ‘wish we’d snapped a photo’ installation moments.

The faces when folks first saw the turkey dress, a combo of wow! and how the heck are we going to display that thing? Beth and Mike struggling with the San Jacinto Mardi Gras dress, dress waist too tiny, mannequin hips and shoulders too wide, Mike taking a hammer to the nude mannequin in an attempt to narrow said mannequin, suggestions made that our skinniest staff member just stand in the exhibit wearing the dress, sanity returns, new mannequin ordered. (Audrey Jones Beck truly was ‘a mere slip of a girl’ when she wore that thing.)

Rodney ‘age-ing’ the canvas of the Santa Anna tent prop in his backyard. Looking inside the proper right sound hole on Davy Crockett’s violin and seeing penciled “FRANKLIN CO./Feb.14, 1819,” then realizing that the date the violin was being examined was February 14, 2011.

Small things can humanize historical figures. Santa Anna was definitely a cruel harsh man but his fawn paperweight is unexpectedly goofy and charming. The small wood heart whittled by Sam Houston is a tender link to the monumental figure across the street from the museum’s doors.

Beth happened across a list of clothing in Anna Chase’s journal who may have been a spy but according to that wardrobe inventory was also something of a clothes horse. Trying not to hum “Old Man River” (Lift that bale!). The cotton bale is the traditional five hundred pounds, no mount needed. Most disappointing moment for yours truly during the exhibit installation was learning that due to curatorial decision the way cool children’s cap guns from the 1940s and 50s were cut from the exhibit. Man, they had Texas Rangers emblems on ‘em and really worked and everything! Dang.

So that’s a few behind the scenes moments from the Texas exhibit.  Many people worked tirelessly on this exhibit and the gracious lenders were very generous with their treasures.  It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

But one last thing… On that letter from Sam Houston to Edward Hall which started off this post, in the viewer’s upper left corner an unknown hand exuberantly wrote “Save this!”  Whoever scribbled that was absolutely right and I like to think it was an early forebear of a museum collections worker.

Letter from Sam Houston to Edward Hall with the phrase “Save This.”

Don’t miss these famous objects and more that make up our Texas! exhibition, now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You weren’t the only one who found eggs this Easter!

You weren’t the only one who found eggs this Easter. The Houston Museum of Natural Science added over 20 new artifacts to our Faberge exhibition this past weekend – jeweled cigarette cases, brooches, carved bowls, a pendant, a pair of cuff links, and a new Faberge egg.

This cigarette case, crafted in four colors of gold, was a gift from the Tsarina Maria Alexandrovich to the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlona and the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich on the occasion of their golden anniversary (25 years).

The design of this particular piece includes a neat trick. The center medallion of the Gold Anniversary case includes diamonds set in the form of the Roman numerals XXV (25). When viewed from the other direction, the diamonds appear to be an entwined M and V (for Maria and Vladimir).

Diamonds spell out Roman numerals XXV Diamonds make an intertwined M and V

Don’t miss your chance to see Faberge: Imperial Jeweler to the Tsars – including these brand new objects on display – at HMNS through July 25, 2010. Get a preview in this interview in the exhibit, with our President and Curator of Gems and Minerals, Joel A. Bartsch:

Can’t see the video? Click here to view it.