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.

removing-old-adhesive-from-textile
 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!

proper-support-for-headdress
 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:

http://www.conservation-us.org/
http://www.io.com/~tam/Resources/conservator.html
http://www.winterthurstore.org/the-winterthur-guide-to-caring-for-your-collection.html

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

100 Years – 100 Objects: Falcate Orangetip

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.

falcate-orangetip-original-detailA local species, this attractive little butterfly only flies for a few weeks in early spring, when the foodplant for its caterpillars (weeds in the mustard family) are abundant. Once the caterpillars pupate they remain in the chrysalis stage until the following spring.

This photo shows what is called “a series” – in insect collection terms, this means a number of individuals of the same species.

Series, especially when they include individuals from different areas and/or collected over a period of time, can provide scientists with important information about the range of variation in a species (in color, size, etc.) as well as its distribution in time and space.

falcate-orangetip-6x5

Learn more about butterflies and their relatives in a visit to the new 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: 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.