Behind the Scenes: Retablos Fit for an Icon

When you walk into the museum store, you may notice the elaborate display wall at the entrance. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look with our Creative Merchandising Director on how it all comes together.

This season’s display is a tribute to Mexican arts and culture and features a life-sized retablo complete with a Catrina figurine. My inspiration were the detailed nichos, or retablos, that are such a central part of Latin American folk art. These retablos are usually under 12 or 18 inches in height but I wanted to create a seven-foot-tall reproduction. 

Starting with a metal wedding arch I found at the local party supply, I wired a support cage along the back and sides of the arch. Foam core cut to size was wired onto the side to create the retablo doors. Then the real work began: covering the structure with a few hundred giant paper flowers!


Each of these flowers was made by hand, and I gave countless lessons to curious patrons on how to make them. Here’s what you do:

Take five sheets of tissue paper. Starting from the short side, accordion pleat into three to four-inch folds down the length of the tissue. Fold the pleated paper in half and twist a pipe cleaner around the center to hold the folds in place. Cut each end of the folded paper in a rounded shape to create your petals. Open up the folds and very gently, starting from the top sheet, pull each sheet of tissue toward the center pipe cleaner.

flower pile

The flowers were tied onto the arch, inside and out, and paper roses hot-glued to the doors. Next, I had to create our Catrina.


La Catrina is a popular figure on El Día de los Muertos. Originally a turn-of-the-century political cartoon by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, La Catrina was popularized by artist Diego Rivera. Rivera’s famous mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central prominently features La Catrina between Posada, a young Rivera, and Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo. The mural is a visual commentary on the history of Mexico with La Catrina representing that all are equal in the face of death.

Using an old mannequin from our Exhibits department, I spray-painted it bright red and then painted on a traditional calavera face.



 I wanted our Catrina to reference artist and cultural icon Frida Kahlo and acknowledge her contributions to La Catrina’s popularity as well as Kahlo’s dedication to Mexican heritage. A rose headdress and Oaxacan blouse, similar to the huipil Kahlo was known for wearing, were added along with a white petticoat that resembles the Tehuana skirts she favored.


The final piece of clothing is a very special item. This ornate, heavy overskirt belongs to a local los matachines dancer. With roots in both Medieval Europe and Native American dance, los matachines dance on important feast days with Dec. 12, the feast day of La Virgen de Guadalupe, being one of the most important. Our dancer was not able to perform this holiday and generously loaned us her costume.

los matachines

Finishing up the display wall involved climbing up 20 feet to hang more flower pompoms from the ceiling and adding folk art pieces to the wall.



Our six-foot-tall papier maché skeleton guards the jewelry and retablos in the wall cases.



Though a challenging project, this display is one of my favorites. Thank you to everyone who stopped by to ask questions while I was working out there. I enjoyed getting the chance to talk about our beautiful and moving exhibit on the Virgin. And it’s the proceeds from the museum store that make it possible for the Houston Museum of Natural Science to develop these exhibits, so we are always grateful for your support and patronage.


The Art of the Skull: Museum Store highlights the beauty of the human skeleton

One of the most photographed pieces in the museum’s collections is the “jaw dropping” crystal quartz skull in the exhibit Gemstone Carvings: Masterworks by Harold Van Pelt.  The hollow, life-sized skull with articulated jaw, was carved from a single block of rare izoklakeite quartz.


Harold van Pelt’s quartz skull.

Our fascination with human skulls spans cultures and eras. From the Neolithic plaster-covered skulls of Jericho, the ornate Buddhist kapala skull cups, European vanitas morality paintings, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos festivals, and all the way up to modern works of art from people like Damien Hirst, the skull represents our views about mortality and humanity.


Vanitas Still Life. 1648, Jan Jansz. Treck.


Click photo to open ShopHMNS Instagram.

The European Enlightenment period led to an interest in natural history, anatomy, and archaeology, and gentlemen’s cabinets of curiosities often included a collection of skulls, both animal and human. While these early wunderkammer were more about collecting the unusual and “wonderful” rather than scholarly study, they were the precursor to our modern natural history museums.


Click photo to see product in the Museum Store.


Click photo to open ShopHMNS Instagram.

Here in the Museum Store, we’re still fascinated with collecting skull art and imagery. One of our favorite items is the intricately beaded skull necklaces from local artist team Brassthread. Inspired by Huichol beadwork and Dia de los Muertos folk art, the tiny handmade skull is painstakingly set with miniscule beads in an intricate pattern.


While not an original Van Pelt carving, this labradorite skull was hand carved in Madagascar from a solid block of labradorite, and flashes light and rich colors from different angles.



Reminiscent of momento mori and Victorian headstone carvings, f. is for frank’s cast pewter skull ring is the work of Texas sculptors Shoshannah Frank and Casey Melton.


Our newest artist is Ashley Lyons of New Orlean’s Porter Lyons. Her Voodoo collection pays homage to the history and customs behind the religion that was so much a part of New Orleans Creole culture. Her Baron Samedi earrings reference the loa who is the spirit of both death and resurrection.


There is beauty and art in science, as shown by x-ray artist Hugh Turvey. Turvey uses industrial x-rays to photograph not just skeletons, but also the “bones” of everyday objects. Designer Michael Revil Madjus also captures the beauty of the human skull with his x-ray pillow.


We love to see the natural world transformed into art, so even if skulls and skeletons aren’t your thing, we have intriguing items from a wide range of artists and designers, both in store and online at And 100% of store proceeds benefits the museum and its educational programming. #ChillsAtHMNS

Skulls, Horseshoes, Parrots and Robots: Fall Teacher Tuesdays offer awesome classroom ideas

It’s officially fall, and I’d like to say the weather is cooling down and the leaves are turning bright and beautiful colors, but we live in Houston. So… no.

Instead, I can tell you that we’ve been hard at work this summer developing fun, fast and hands-on activities for this year’s ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesdays. For adults only, Teacher Tuesdays offer fun and interactive professional development opportunities for ideas to kick your lessons up a notch. We’re pretty excited about the line-up this fall, and we’re dying to give you a sneak peak of what to expect.


Our first ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesday has us focusing on one of our favorite topics: Day of the Dead! With all-new crafts, this workshop is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Check out the photo above for a hint at the items we’ll be making in class. For those of you who have been to a Day of the Dead workshop before, you’ll be pleased to know that the sparkle box is back!


In October, you can join us for an in depth look at the rock cycle with James Washington, Lead Concierge here at HMNS. James, who leads tours for the museum, has his very own collection of specimens he’s willing to share with the world. Anyone who has participated in what I refer to as “The James Washington Experience” leaves with a much better understanding of how all sciences are connected.


You also have the opportunity to visit the new Hamman Hall of Coastal Ecology on Oct. 27 to discover the critters in and around the ocean. You’ll even get the chance to get up close and personal with a horseshoe crab. (Fun fact: horseshoe crabs keep you healthy in ways you probably don’t even know about but will learn in this mind-blowing workshop.)


For November, pop down to the rainforest as you learn about the Amazon in the Out of the Amazon workshop. As part of the workshop, you will be treated to a rainforest wildlife presentation as well as a tour of the new exhibit Out of the Amazon. Dover and Frankie, our resident green-cheeked conures, might even make an appearance and will within minutes have entire room full of adults trained to do tricks.teacher7Join us in December for a viewing of Robots 3D in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre. HMNS’s own Kathleen Havens wrote the curriculum for this National Geographic feature, so you know it’ll be hands-on, fun and engaging for students while covering STEM objectives and careers. If you’d like to discover some reasonable engineering challenges you can do at school for your elementary and middle school students that don’t require a $3000 grant, this workshop is for you!


And that just takes us through December! The spring semester is just as exciting, covering everything from blood splatter to brain-based learning. Check out our complete schedule, and we’ll see you at HMNS!

Educator How-To: Make your own Dia de los Muertos altar out of Altoids tins

If you have been following along, you might have noted that Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — is a favorite holiday for the Youth Education staffers.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico on Nov. 2. It is a time when Mexican families spend time at the cemetery, visiting the graves of their relatives, cleaning and perhaps painting the headstones, arranging flowers, especially flowers of the dead (marigolds) and lighting candles.

It is also the time when Mexican families construct special home altars dedicated to the spirits of their deceased loved ones. The altars range from simple to the very elaborate and are usually filled with objects that provided pleasure to the departed person in life, including favorite food and drink. Altars dedicated to the spirits of deceased children often include toys, candy and other sweets.


The altars usually contain objects with significant meaning. These objects can be either the actual thing or a representation.These objects include, but aren’t limited to:

Pictures of the deceased and/or representations of saints: These are used as a focus for the shrine and may help determine the direction of the rest of the altar.  For example, Frida Kahlo is a popular topic for altars.  An altar to her may be very different than one for a personal relative.

Marigolds: The flower cempazúchil, also known as the marigold, is the flower of the dead. Its yellow orange color can be seen from far away; therefore the flowers are the first beacon the dead will see.  A trail of flowers leads the dead home where the altar is awaiting their arrival.

Copal: Copal is aromatic tree resin burned in Mesoamerica as incense.  Several different tree resins bear the name copal. Copal is burned on the altar so that the dead might recognize the aroma of their home and feel welcome.

Pan de Muerto and other foods: These are offered to the spirit of the dead to help sustain them in the afterlife.

Candles: The candles on an altar represent fire, one of the four essential altar elements.  Candles are included in the altar to purify and to provide light to the dead to help them find their way home. One candle is included on the altar for each deceased that is being remembered.

Skulls and skeletons: Sugar skulls are a traditional folk art from southern Mexico used to celebrate Day of the Dead. Mounds of colorful sugar skulls are sold by Indian vendors in open air village markets during the week preceding the holiday. Sugar skulls are colorfully decorated with icing, pieces of bright foil, colored sugars and usually bear the name of the deceased loved one being honored. The calaca is a model of a skeleton that can be found doing any number of things that the dead may have enjoyed in life, from riding a bike to dancing. The calaca reminds us that death is not something to fear. The calaca also shows us that no soul likes to be remembered sadly. Papier-mâché skeletons and skulls are used to add flair, beauty and a festive air to the Day of the Dead.  Mexican folk artists spend all year crafting this very special type of art.

Since it is unlikely that you will be able to take your students to the graveyard of a famous scientist or celebrity to construct an altar in their honor, we are proposing that you bring the altars to your classroom! This small and potentially free classroom activity involves research, informative writing, creative thinking and a little bit of arts and crafts for good measure. Enjoy!

Altoids tin or other similar tin
Quick dry craft glue
A nail or other scratching device
Tissue paper
Pens, pencils, markers etc.
Any other found objects you choose – it can be anything you want to give students access to or anything they can bring in.



1. The project can contain either purely artistic merit or it can have a writing component to add higher level thinking and make it multidisciplinary and applicable to any class. This project is written to include the composition portion, but feel free to eliminate it if you choose.

2. Explain the purpose of an altar for Dia de los Muertos as well as the traditional elements of an altar to your class.

3. To begin, have students research an historical figure or relative of their choice. The figure must be deceased. You may want to set some limits of the choices (must have died at least 50 years ago, must be from a specific country, must be a writer/scientist, can’t be an actor or musician, etc.).

4. Once the students have selected a figure and you have approved of the choice, you will want to provide a rubric, format or objective for the students. Depending on the grade level, you may want to structure the composition around a particular TEKS writing objective or prompt. For example:

  • > 3rd graders need to communicate with a variety of audiences and learn the basics of research.
  • > 4th and 5th graders need to persuade and inform in their writing.
  • > 6th graders need to write about their own experiences and write persuasively.
  • > 7th graders need to write about their own experiences and write persuasively.
  • > 8th graders need to write a personal essay and write persuasively.

So in any of these examples, you could have students make a case for a particular historical figure or family member. The choice of writing composition will be left to you.

5. Now you will need to provide students with their tin. You can either order them from a number of various sources for about $0.30 each or you can have students collect or provide Altoids tins. These will be free to you! The advantage to the tins as opposed to a larger classroom altar is the storage requirements and the cost.

6. Review the Day of the Dead altar and its components again. Explain to your students that they will be making a complete altar for their figure. They must include all of the elements of the traditional altar. Due to the space restrictions, however, they must get creative!  For older students, you will need to talk about symbolism and encourage them to incorporate this into their altars while still fitting the figure in question. For example, a student picks Thomas Edison. Rather than a candle, the student might opt for a magazine cutout of a light bulb to represent both light and illumination AND one of Edison’s inventions; or students could add overly large ears to their skulls to show that Edison was largely deaf.

7. Let students have access to anything and everything consumable that might work into their altar. You may want them to collect items to bring in and share. Even very unconventional items will be great as part of the challenge is creativity.  It will be up to you to decide whether to let students work on their tins in class or at home, but it may be a good idea to let them at least discuss ideas in small groups so they can help each other develop ideas. This will be particularly effective after researching the figure because they will have more information to provide to their classmates about their figure (like the invention of the light bulb and deafness for Thomas Edison).

8. As the students are working on their altars, have them make a note of how they incorporated each of the altar elements in a meaningful way. This should be turned in as part of the altar. See the example included below.

9. Once the students’ tins are complete, have them create a little class art gallery or museum so that all of students can see the creativity of the other students. You may want to create a survey for the students to fill out regarding the altars to make sure that they are taking their time and absorbing the information provided.  Some example questions might include:

  • > Which altar is your favorite? Why?
  • > List three interesting or surprising facts you learned. Each fact must come from a different altar.
  • > Name one symbol from one altar that you might have represented differently. How would you have done it?


10. Additionally, you might want to display altars in the library or display cases, have students present their findings to the class using PowerPoint, have students translate their symbol information into Spanish, etc.

As an example, I have included pictures of my tin altar and an explanation of my components:

Example Explanation of Altar Symbols

Explanation of Altar Symbols

Pictures: I chose this particular portrait of Charles Darwin because it was one of the last made during his lifetime. Additionally, it is a painting rather than photograph. Most of the images available of Darwin as an adult are photographs and I like to think, with all of the scientific and technological change that occurred during his time, that the last image of his was created using very traditional methods.

Marigolds/Candles: The origin of the word “marigold” is probably a reference for the Virgin Mary or possible refers to its original name in old Saxon which meant “it turns with the Sun.” So the image of marigolds does triple duty: it refers to a saint, it represents grave flowers, and it represents light.

Copal: I left traditional copal as part of my altar because Darwin originally joined the HMS Beagle crew as a geologist. Copal, like amber, are both considered fossils and are important clues in determining the flora and fauna of a particular area of time in the fossil record.

Pan de Muerto and other foods: I have included a picture of hardtack rather than pan de muerto. Both are bread-based but the hardtack was a common food substance on ships as it kept for a long time in the holds.

Skulls and skeletons: The skeleton I included is of a frog because one of the many contributions Darwin made to science was in identifying a species of frog, named “Darwin’s frog”, as part of his travels on the HMS Beagle.