Museum Collections: Cooler than it Sounds!

Oftentimes we find ourselves in social situations with people we’ve never met before. You may be in a doctor’s office, a school open house, or even at a social event in our Museum. While mingling with new people the same conversations invariably come up, with the subject matter being almost as predictable as your favorite pet greeting you at the door. The question we’ve all both asked and answered that amuses me the most is, “So, what do you do for a living?” Personally I’m okay with that question because saying that I work for the Houston Museum of Natural Science often results in responses like, “My children love that place!” or, “We’ve been members for years!”

Those are the typical responses I get when I omit the department I work for. How could the response be any different based on the department that I belong to? Well, I work in Museum Collections, and while for many that brings up mental images of stacks of old fossils and fragments of pottery, for some people it makes them envision a completely different form of “collections” work. Don’t get me wrong, as a struggling college student that was prone to creatively juggling bill due dates I can see where their mind processed the second word and completely missed the first. I help add to their consternation by providing my title of Inventory Manager, which I believe lends a mental image of tracking office chairs and Swingline staplers.


Not office chairs and swingline staplers

It really isn’t like that at all — and now comes the fun part of letting you peek behind the curtain of what it is to do what I do. Our Museum has a huge collection of artifacts, fossils, animals, shells, and minerals. Our collection is so large that as you walk the halls of the Museum you’re seeing no more than 10% of what we actually own. Keeping track of that many items is a full time job. Actually, it’s four full time jobs.

Meet Emmalee, Kathleen, and Max; all three are Inventory Technicians for the HMNS Collections Department. Their task and mine is to create a record of each item’s location and to tie that location to the item’s file. When you’re dealing with numbers of items that border on the millions that might seem like an impossible task. Thankfully technology impacts all things, including the museum world. Here at the Museum we have software that allows us to document an item’s location down to the very shelf that item rests on.



Anyone familiar with our Museum and has visited recently can probably guess that just knowing an object’s storage or display location wouldn’t be enough. Objects in storage or on display don’t typically stay in those locations and many of our pieces are rotated in and out based on current exhibitions at the Museum. Keeping track of an artifact or specimen once a curator has decided that it should be displayed or stored is our second responsibility.

So yes, my team and I work in a collections department but it might not be the department you first envision or the job you first thought we did. We work in a department that strives to preserve knowledge for future generations — and tracking dinosaurs really is in our job description.


HMNS Xplorations Interns Share Wisdom (and Laughs)

All of us in the Youth Education Programs department at the Houston Museum of Natural Science started as volunteers, part-time, or interns. We all came from different backgrounds, departments and experiences. The thing we have in common (other than we each bring our own flavor of nerd to the department) is that we all got hooked. We have a joke that the museum sucks people in. There’s something addicting about this unique and totally weird workplace where asking things like “Did someone move the tiger I put in the freezer?” elicits a response of “Wait, which tiger and which freezer?” Each year, we bring in a new cohort and give them a chance to get sucked into the wonderful world of HMNS. It takes a village to operate our Xplorations summer camps, and our interns are an integral part of our team. This summer, we’re highlighting our entourage of interns. Each group is responsible for a different aspect of our summer programs. Read below for their interesting take on what it’s like to work during the busiest 11 weeks of the year for Youth Education Programs!

Xplorations Interns

Collections Crew

Our collections interns are responsible for making sure all of the camp classes have the supplies they need. In other words, they’re in charge of the “stuff.” Education Collections is kind of like the Room of Requirement from the Harry Potter series. If someone comes in and starts a sentence with “Do you have…,” the response is almost always going to be “Yes.” Live leeches? Got ’em. Sheep brains? Yep. Cut out of a life-sized T. rex footprint? Of course. Chenille worms? Always. Spectrum tubes? Absolutely. Anatomically correct dinosaurs? You betcha.

Sara Hayes, Before Camp Coordinator, Texas A&M

What is one thing that you now find totally reasonable that was unthinkable before? Mummifying potatoes. The kids in Mummies and Mysteries do this to learn about the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification.

When people ask about your summer, what do you immediately think of?

Making a Jell-O brain for kids to eat as part of the Weird Science camp.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve overhead at camp? I once heard a camper say, “My favorite part of camp is digesting eyeballs.” They meant to say that their favorite part of camp is dissecting eyeballs.

Olivia Close, After Camp Coordinator, University of Dallas

What new and unusual vocabulary have you discovered this summer? Axolotl and atlatl. We have a pair of axolotls, a type of amphibian, as part of our live animal collection. The campers in Archeology 101 practice using atlatls, a spear-throwing tool, while they learn about ancient civilizations.

What’s the most unusual use of an everyday item you’ve seen this summer? Recycling items like old CDs and egg cartons are used to make lungs, cars, robots, rockets and so much more!

Allison Walker, Xplorations Resource Coordinator, University of Texas at Austin

What’s your favorite fun story you tell your friends and family? I tell them about the time I was casually asked to carry two real human skulls down the hall to the Crime Scene Investigators camp.   

What is one thing that you now find totally reasonable that was unthinkable before? Keeping bags and bags of butterfly wings in the freezer.

Jayme Schlimper, Camp Assistant Coordinator, University of Houston

What work story has created the greatest look of horror on your family and friend’s faces? I forgot that I placed a bag of sheep brains on top of a box and went to grab them later…To my surprise, I got a handful of sheep brains.

What’s your favorite fun fact you tell to impress your friends? I love asking them about T. rex arms! “Want to know why they’re so tiny?” Immediate intrigue.


Animal Wranglers

Our animal care interns are responsible for taking care of our extensive live animal collection during the summer. They do rounds with our Get Set to be a Vet camp as campers learn what it takes to care for different types of animals from amphibians to reptiles to mammals. They also do live animal presentations for many of our camps as campers learn about animal adaptations. It involves a lot of snuggling scaly critters and all of the smells. All of them.

Kelsey Williams, Animal Care Intern, Hendrix College

What new and unusual vocabulary have you discovered this summer? Nebulize. We had to learn how to nebulize one of the snakes. A nebulizer is used to administer medicine in the form of a mist, so it can be inhaled into the lungs.

What’s your favorite animal you’ve worked with this summer? Leu the leucistic rat snake, because he will hang out around your waist like a snake belt.

Holly Hansel, Animal Care Intern, University of Texas

What after-work story has created the greatest look of horror on your family and friend’s faces? My job encourages me to handle alligators, tarantulas and snakes. And I love it.

What is one thing that you now find totally reasonable that was unthinkable before? I accept the fact that animals can and will poop on me. Additionally, I can use an animal’s poop as a learning accessory during class presentations.

Lizzy George, Animal Care Intern, Ohio State University

When people ask how your summer’s going, what do you immediately think of? I think about how fun it is to chill with and take care of the almost 75 animals we have here at the museum.

What is one thing that you now find totally reasonable that was unthinkable before? Letting a tarantula crawl on me.


Health Squad

Our healthcare interns have the lofty and important task of ensuring each camper has a health form on file. They’re also responsible for managing medications and making sure any health concerns are passed along to our teachers.

Aida Iriarte, Healthcare Intern, Purdue University

What’s the funniest thing you’ve overhead at camp? A teacher came in with a camper and said, “We’re looking for a pink dinosaur…”

What’s your favorite story that you tell to impress your friends? I love telling them about the one time a camper told me I reminded her of Beyoncé.

Cristian Cruz, Healthcare Intern, University of Texas at Austin

What’s the funniest thing you’ve overhead at camp? Someone came into our office and said, “The sign on the door says the kids are at macaroni?” This was in reference to a trip our Backstage Pass class takes to our offsite storage facility, called Marconi. 

What new and unusual vocabulary have you discovered this summer? Using the word “snake” as an insult as in “You’re a snake.” We had a camper who regularly used this as an insult.

If you’re interested in becoming a part of our summer camp team, keep an eye out for job postings on the careers page on the HMNS web site. Xplorations positions are typically posted in December for the following summer.

Quirky Museum History: Planetarium Jewelry

In an earlier post I mentioned that I’d be adding in some of the quirkier bits of the museum’s past to the HMNS Centennial celebration. Here’s one that just came my way.

dome jewelry 002While enjoying lunch recently with Laurel Ladwig, a former Burke Baker Planetarium Manager, and her mother Katrina Ladwig, a long time supporter of the HMNS Guild, Laurel handed me a plastic bag full of jumbled brown squares. “Know what these are?” she asked. Ever the lightening fast wit that I am, I responded “Huh? No?” Most of the squares had old-fashioned screw-type ear clips fastened to them so obviously this brown jumble was some sort of jewelry but why was Laurel handing it to me?

“Think 60s,” she hinted, thoroughly relishing my confoundment. Oh, yeah, that cleared it right up. With no further elucidation forthcoming from Laurel I gave in and asked what the heck these things were.

“Tiles!” she announced (satisfied with having stumped me). “Extra tiles from the original exterior dome of the planetarium.”

No kidding! Boy, this is a new one on me. We’ve got newspaper clippings, correspondence, photos, blueprints, plaques, you name it, in the museum’s historical archives. Jewelry fashioned from original building materials? Nope, this is a first.

dome jewelry 004Laurel and Katrina don’t have a lot of background on the jewelry but they shared what they knew. Apparently after the planetarium was finished in 1964, there were a number of small square tiles meant for the dome’s exterior left over. Laurel’s grandfather (Katrina’s father) Wallace C. Thompson, a HMNS Board member at that time, had been instrumental in establishing the planetarium and her grandmother, Eloise Reid Thompson, decided to commemorate the opening of the planetarium by making jewelry out of the unused dome tiles. (You might remember an earlier post about Mrs. Thompson who was a wild flower artist. Many of her paintings are in the HMNS collection.) The tiles became earrings, bracelets, and cuff links. No one seems to know if Mrs. Thompson was the only one who did this or if there were others. Perhaps it was some sort of HMNS Guild project.

The tiles appear to be authentic; there are still plenty of us who remember when the planetarium dome had a coppery sheen to it. The old-fashioned screw ear clips fit that era and the glue has yellowed enough to be forty five years old. It’d be great to have these funky little artifacts validated; so if you can add any information or, better yet, have any similar pieces please let me know. They sure would be a fun addition to the historical archives during the museum’s centennial celebration.

Conservators – Collections’ Heroes

There are many posts on this blog about the HMNS collections, especially those objects that are being highlighted by the curators for the centennial.  Acquiring objects – whether by donation, exchange or purchase – is part of the mission for most museums.  But mere acquisition of artifacts isn’t the only purpose of collections; a museum must also conserve and care for the objects already in their possession.

The mission statements of an overwhelming majority of museums in this country include something along the lines of educating and informing the public about science, history, art or whatever field that particular museum specializes.  Museum collections aid that mission through exhibition, research or a combination of both.  Acquiring a bunch of stuff then letting it fall into a state of irreversible disrepair is neither practical nor ethical.  Museums must take care of their collections for the greater good of the public.

It’s a harder job than one might casually think. Objects must be exhibited and stored in the proper climate (both temperature and humidity) and kept secure from theft, vandalism and other harm.  That’s why museum facility managers spend countless hours fussing over HVACs and alarms.  Yet, despite all best efforts, sometimes stuff just happens. There’s a myriad of scenarios but to the rescue comes the museum collections hero or heroine, the conservator.

 A conservator removes adhesive from textiles

Conservators are flat out some of the smartest, nicest, calmest people you’ll ever meet.  To paraphrase Will Rogers, ‘I’ve never yet met one I didn’t like.’  So who are these folks?  Well, to start with they’re highly educated, trained and skilled.  After all, they work with irreplaceable, highly-valued objects; you won’t find crazy glue, scotch tape or duct tape among their work tools.  They have a deep background in organic chemistry so they can understand the nature of the object, the damage done and the proper treatment.  Conservators know and/or can puzzle out the chemical and mechanical reactions of an object to a treatment such as adhesive, paint, or physical support.  In addition to what they already know, they’re constantly updating their knowledge of the chemical make-up of the latest paint, adhesives, inks, paper, etc.  The science of object conservation is amazing!

 Our conservator works on building
a proper support for a headdress

Professional conservators also adhere to strict ethical codes.  Like medical doctors they believe in ‘first, do no harm.’  Any treatment that a conservator employs must be the possible best for the object at present and (with any luck) into the future.  Most conservation work is deliberately designed to be obvious and reversible.  Sounds counter-intuitive at first but here’s the logic. 

Object conservation is continuously improving, so that the treatment today is currently the best. But we know that the future will bring even better technology and tools.  Should an object need more work in the future that conservator must be able to see where and how past treatment was done in order to remove it and apply better methods.  Staying in the present, current museum collections staff must be able to see where an object has been repaired and might still be vulnerable so as not to further damage the piece. 

Now, I hasten to add that this doesn’t necessarily mean that conservation work will be so glaringly obvious as to detract from the object.  Good conservation treatments are quite often hardly noticeable at all to the untrained eye so that an object can be exhibited.  The conservation work shows just enough so that museum staff can see how to handle the object properly.  There are also many times when damage can be completely removed leaving the object in even better condition than its previous state.

All this hardly scratches the surface of our collections’ heroes: the conservators.  If you want to know more or if you have an artifact or specimen that needs some conservation check, out these websites and books:

Also check out Caring for Your Family Treasures: Heritage Preservation: A Concise Guide to Caring for Your Cherished Belongings by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long