Behind the Scenes: HMNS Birthday Planning

by Karen Whitley

People always tell me that I have the best job and that I must love it. My response each time? “Absolutely!”

Planning and hosting birthday parties at such an awesome venue as the Houston Museum of Natural Science, it doesn’t get much better than that. Of course, people think all we do all day is party, and while there’s definitely some celebrating going on, a lot more happens behind the scenes to make sure each and every party runs smoothly. It’s not all cake and presents.

Dinosuar centerpiece (Bollingmo Party)

Each year, the HMNS is host to hundreds of birthday parties. In 2015 alone we hosted more than 520 parties. That’s an average of 10 parties per week! We have even hosted up to 20 parties in one weekend! Phew, that’s exhausting just to think about. As exciting as parties are, though, it all begins in the office.

Every week we field dozens of phone calls and emails from parents interested in hosting a party with us. From parents requesting date availability and more information about our parties, to parents who are already booked and want to discuss their party, we are happy to talk to you and assist in any way we can. I have once even measured every single counter, table, wall angle, and even the freezer space for a parent.

Bunch of Balloons

Once a parent is ready to book, we try to keep the process as smooth as possible for them while we deal with the various paperwork. Who wouldn’t love a little less paperwork? After a parent is sent the confirmation email, they are all set to go. We will even send a reminder email closer to the date. Yes, parents have forgotten that they have their child’s birthday coming up, but no worries, we’ve got you covered! If you’re looking to add one of the entertainment options we have, we will facilitate the whole thing for you as well. My desk is a mess so yours can stay clean. That’s the story I’m sticking with.

Booking a party is just the beginning. Since every party comes complete with tablecloths and a craft, we have to make sure we have enough supplies on hand. That involves a word most adults wish to avoid — inventory! Did you know that for our dig pit craft where kids get to dig up small plaster dinosaur teeth, we make those teeth in house? Each and every tooth is made by one of our party coordinators during the week. We can use up to 200 teeth each weekend!

Dig pit

So how many supplies does it take to run more than 500 parties a year? Here’s just a few numbers:

  1. 10,000 coloring pages. We used to print these in house too, but yay for outsourcing!
  2. Over 4,000 signs pointing guests the way to their party room. Yes, they do exist!
  3. 3,000 tablecloths. If you lay the tablecloths end to end, we use approximately 26,000 feet! That’s almost five miles, or 88 football field lengths for the football fanatics. Me, I prefer baseball. Go ‘Stros!
  4. Over 2,500 Ziploc bags, popsicle sticks, and plastic cups. Add a little glue, paint, and borax and what do you get? Slime!
  5. 1,700 plaster dinosaur teeth. Emphasis on plaster.
  6. 860 butterflies released into the Butterfly Center rainforest.
  7. 800 Pounds of sand. Did I mention the arm work-outs we get?

Birthday Card

When the day of the party arrives, we make sure we get here early. I once remember what is was like to sleep in on a Saturday. Fond memories. The signs go up, the tables are set, the crafts are prepared, and then we wait for the call from arriving parents. Once we get the call, the party coordinator will take a cart to the garage to pick them up. I think we can all agree that we enjoy the cooler months. We load up the parent’s supplies on the cart and take them to the room. Let me say to all the parents, you sure know how to pack an ice chest to *cough* maximum capacity.

After that comes the easy part. Two hours of a coordinator running the party, keeping the attention of about 20 children, giving a dinosaur tour that three-year-olds can understand, wrangling all the children and their parents through our exhibit halls and making sure we have no wanderers, and even getting to practice knife-cutting skills on uniquely shaped cakes.

Mary Tour

Do you know how many shapes a cake can come in? My personal favorite was the giant pyramid where all the kids wanted the flavor on the bottom of the pyramid. Who knew we would learn about structural engineering as well. Once the party ends and we help escort the party parents back to their car, we generally have about 15 minutes to clean and reset the room to do it all over again!

Shery Zachariah 4

In all actuality, hosting birthday parties can be a lot of work on our end, but we wouldn’t change a thing. The joy we get in being able to be a part of a child’s special day, it really is priceless. We have even had the chance to watch some children grow up in the museum, as they come back each year to have their party with us. Seeing a child light up as we walk though 100-million-year-old dinosaur fossils, a living rainforest, ancient mummies, and more… that’s what makes this job so amazing. Well, that and the cake.

Editor’s Note: Karen is Birthday Party Manager for the HMNS Marketing department.

13 Freaky finds at HMNS

Tentacles, bodies and skeletons, oh my! No matter how beautiful or how vital to the history of natural science and life on Earth, some things are just a little freaky. Check out this short list of our top 13 strange, weird and scary artifacts housed in the permanent halls of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

13. Stone hands

creep04

Sculptor Harold van Pelt carved this hand from a solid block of a special mineral. The sculpture is an exact replica of his wife’s hand.

12. Stone skull

creep13

Pelt also carved this, a life-sized replica of the human skull, identical to the real thing inside and out. That includes the brain case. The jaw is removable from the skull.

11. Cambrian sea creaturescreep09

They’re soft and squirmy and have strange, meat-eating mouthparts. These guys aren’t around anymore, but you can get up close and personal to these models based on fossils discovered in Cambrian rock layers. Watch a CG video of them swimming in action alongside trilobites and orthoceras in the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

10. Fossilized sea scorpion pincerscreep06

Sea scorpions didn’t always get this big. But when they did, their claws were brutal! Sea scorpions were the apex predator in the Cambrian seas, with a poisonous stinger and these toothy pincers. These in our collection measure about six inches long. Imagine getting pinched by those puppies!

9. A shark that could swallow an elephantcreep07

Megalodon, the largest shark to have ever existed, could swallow platybelodon, a mastodon ancestor, in a single bite. Good thing they’re extinct, or whole ships might go missing.

8. Stuffed bird specimensCreep02

Our preserved specimens of extinct, rare and modern life can be a fascinating walk through taxonomy and the diversity of life on earth. But they’re still treated skins stuffed with cotton. In these specimens, cotton holds the eyes permanently open.

7. Feeding lion

creep03

The glass eyes of this preserved lion seem to challenge all who pass. And the severed leg lets us know he means business. What can you say? Life’s hard on the savannah. Keep it real.

6. Floating model orthocerascreep05

This prehistoric mollusk was an ancestor of the modern squid and octopus. In Cambrian rock, their numerous conical shells make this one of the most successful species of the era. And this model, looming overhead, calls to mind that Lovecraftian god of the apocalypse, Cthulhu. (Click the link for Google images if you’re not cool enough to be familiar…)

5. Wall of skullscreep08Nearing the end of the fossil record we find a who’s who of hominids. Homo erectus, australopithecines and Neanderthals included. But it’s pretty disconcerting to stroll around the corner and be confronted by a skull collection of human ancestors staring you in the face.

4. The mummy of General What’s-His-Name

creep11

Better than hominid ancestors are those famously well-preserved Egyptian mummies that draw crowds from around the world. This one was a man said to have been a general of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Thutmose III, dating back to 1450 BC. Now that’s an old corpse.

3. The mummy of Neshkhons

creep12

I find it more creepy that we know who this body actually was for some reason. Don’t you? This is the mummy of the noble lady Neskhons, who lived during the 21st Dynasty of Egypt, between 1070 and 945 BC. Like many mummies, she was discovered with her most important organs preserved in canopic jars, not including the brain, of course. To ancient Egyptians, the brain was some worthless head-goop.

2. Disembodied head

creep10

This mummified head was discovered with a gold-leaf mask, its eyes painted on the outside looking up to the heavens in a symbol of reverence for the gods. The head dates back to between 200 BC and 100 AD.

1. The Aztec god of human sacrifice

creep01In pre-Columbian Mexico, the Aztec empire stretched for thousands of miles with modern-day Mexico City at its heart. Millions were sacrificed to the god Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (pronounced tlah-wheeze-call-pan-teh-coot-lee) at the top of the Templo Mayor, the great temple in the middle of the city. Sacrifices were beheaded at the top of a tall flight of steps, and the skulls rolled hundreds of feet down to the city floor. The Aztecs believed the sacrifices kept their food and water plentiful, but the scare tactics also made them the most powerful empire of their time.

Come see the freakshow before Halloween, or come in costume to Spirits and Skeletons Halloween night!

#ChillsAtHMNS

Get dirty doing real paleontology during Fossil Wash Day in Sugar Land

If you want to be a paleontologist, you’ve got to get your hands dirty… and sometimes wet.

Now you can learn just what it takes to get down to the nitty-gritty of separating fossils from soil and get a little messy yourself! Just come to the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land for Fossil Wash Day this Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. You’ll be able to help our staff and other volunteers spray down samples dug from our very own exclusive fossil site near Seymour, Texas, the home of the famous fin-backed prehistoric reptile Dimetrodon. While you’re washing, you can chat with our experts about your favorite dinosaurs. Who knows? You may be the first to lay hands on a bone that hasn’t seen the sunlight in hundreds of millions of years.

wash1

Fossil Wash Day is a community gathering perfect for dinosaur fans and families interested in real science.

Fossil Wash Day is a four-year tradition at HMNS Sugar Land, the perfect location for splashing around and playing with mud. The “big back yard” has a nearby water source and is perfect for the process. Large clumps of Baylor County clay will be placed in five-gallon buckets of water with a bit of hydrogen peroxide to help deflocculate, or break up, the sample. Then the clay will be taken from the buckets of water and plopped onto a screen which will catch small fossil fragments.

wash2

Searching for fossils is a job for both children and adults, and is a big help to our museum paleontologists.

“We’re looking for the things we missed. The things we didn’t know were there,” said David Temple, Associate Curator of Paleontology, who usually hosts the event. A scheduled visit to a fossil site in Germany will prevent him from joining the fun.

wash3

HMNS Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple teaches two children how to bag fossils at Fossil Wash Day. While Temple usually appears at the event, he will be out of the country this year.

“Once we run the samples through the screens, we empty the screens out and find bits of bone and things, and we catalog the bits,” Temple said. “It’s citizen science. A way for the public to get involved. It’s a chance to do real science and you’ll never know what you’ll find. And you do find things.”

wash6

At Fossil Wash Day, small bones such as this phalange discovered by a volunteer help the Houston Museum of Natural Science collect data about Permian-era reptiles and amphibians.

Most finds from these samples contain fossilized teeth from prehistoric sharks, Dimetrodon and others. Fossils discovered at the event go into our collection, where they are valued for the information they share about the distant past. From teeth, depending on the details on the fossil, paleontologists can tell how Permian-era creatures fed and fought with one another. Broken Dimetrodon teeth, for example, show that the animal chewed its food instead of swallowing it whole.

“If you’ve got shed teeth, you can tell something fed there, even if you don’t find bones there,” Temple said. “As opposed to finding a socketed tooth where the carcass has rotted. Sometimes we find crushed bone. From these fossils, we learn what they’re chewing on and how the teeth wear.”

wash5

The clay matrix from Seymour, Texas is transported in clumps back to Houston. In the clumps, you never know what you’ll find.

If you’ve got fossils at home, bring those along, too, and have them identified. With the paleontologists and volunteers working alongside the public, it’s a great opportunity to spark up a one-on-one Q&A. There will be more volunteers inside the museum preparing Eocene-era fossils from another dig site near Bryan-College Station. Plus, you’ll get a look at other specimens in our fossil touch carts.

wash4

Rinsing red mud from a screen.

“Fossil Wash Day is a super hands-on kind of thing. You get filthy,” Temple said. “Wear something you don’t mind getting wet.”

Among fossils: How very old things remind us of our youth

The earth is 4.54 billion years old. That’s a big number to wrap your head around. Spending time among very old things helps, but even then it’s easy to forget that not only the fossils themselves are ancient; so is the rock they came out of, the planet circling a sun that has been around a long time.

Since my childhood, dinosaurs have arrested my imagination like nothing else in science, and what better place to witness the majesty of these ancient animals than the Houston Museum of Natural Science, displaying some of the oldest things on Earth? When I walk through the Morian Hall of Paleontology, I see the bones of creatures that lived millions of years ago, preserved naturally by the processes of geology, like mummies, but embalmed by mud, pressure, and minerals. These aren’t bones, really. They’re rocks, no different from petrified wood or the crystals in the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals. They were once creatures of flesh and bone, but the organic molecules and chemicals that made up their bodies, if they didn’t decay, were replaced atom by atom while the rest of life on Earth developed.

Triceratops

Lane, the most complete fossil specimen of Triceratops in the world. 65 million years old.

Mine is a problem of scope, I think. It’s a strange feeling to understand that Lane the Triceratops, the most complete specimen of this dinosaur, was under our feet during the fall of the Roman Empire, was still buried in the time of King Tutanhkamen, and remained undiscovered while Shakespeare wrote his sonnets. This animal died, and life went on as it always does. Its life among presumably millions of others like it was common. Undistinguished. But that specimen is no longer a Triceratops; it’s a skeleton made of rock. Not even a skeleton, but an impression of it. A three-dimensional photograph dug out of the album that is the many-layered dirt of our planet. This animal has become a symbol of history. Now that is rare.

Icthyosaur

Icthyosaurus mother. At least 146 million years old.

It’s remarkable, this action of preservation that the Earth is capable of. And it’s remarkable that we have developed the science to identify and understand these stones. We had to consider both the life cycle of rock and the taxonomy of life before we could begin to speculate what these samples could mean. But really, so what? They’re just rocks.

It’s the feeling of humility they deliver that makes them fascinating. It’s like walking through modern Rome after living in developing Houston, surrounded by buildings a thousand years old that stood before the United States was even imagined. We’ve been walking around these seven continents for millenia, in the dark about what was under our feet until the birth of paleontology in 1666, when Nicholas Steno identified “tongue stones,” known then only as triangular rocks, as fossilized shark teeth. Dinosaurs were around whether we knew they existed or not. They are as old as the rock we walk on.

Icthyosaur Baby

Impressions of Icthyosaurus pups in the rib cage of this rare specimen suggest this animal died in childbirth.

Now consider this. In 2011, biologists identified 20,000 new species, a large number of them beetles, and most of them invertabrates. That was in a single year. Now take that diversity and multiply it by the age of the Earth. I’m not going to do the math, but that’s the number of species paleontologists have yet to discover. That’s the amount of life we potentially have yet to search for in the rock.

After early hominids, fossils of the first humans date back 1.8 million years, along with mammoths, mastodons, and saber-toothed cats that appear in the rock alongside them. Triceratops lived in the late Cretaceous, discovered in rock at least 65 million years old. Icthyosaurus swam the oceans and gave birth to her young between 245 and 146 million years ago, in the Jurassic and the Triassic. (Their era lasted 100 million years. Again, we’ve been around for 1.8.) Trilobites in our collection have been preserved for between 540 and 360 million years, and the stromatolites, layered rocks formed by ancient bacteria, date back to 3.4 billion years. Not million. Billion. They appeared in the Archaeozoic Eon, about a billion years after Earth solidified out of molten space-rock.

Trilobite

One of the best preserved and most intricate trilobites in the world. At least 360 million years old.

What will the occupants of this planet find after the next million years? We’ve been around for a while, but not nearly as long as these fossils. What will paleontologists of the future, if they still exist, find in another 65 million years? 146? 540? 3.4 billion? The Earth will still be here by then; humanity is another story. Will we still cling to the crags in a different form, the maps unrecognizeable to the once-dominant species of 2015 CE, if they could see them? Will we have preserved our history as well as the rocks have preserved the dinosaurs?

Stromatolites

Stromatolite formed by layers of ancient bacteria preserved in rock. At least 3.4 billion years old.

In another 3.4 billion years, the sun will be nearing the end of its life, having expanded into a red giant and swallowed Mercury and Venus. According to many estimations, by the time the sun is 7.59 billion years old, it will engulf the Earth. We are living in our planet’s middle age. It took half the Earth’s life for humanity to arise and build its cities. For the United States to claim its sovereignty.

Lucy

Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, the most complete skeleton of this hominid in the world. 3.18 million years old.

The Earth is old, dude! We never pay this age any mind until we identify something to date it against. Here we have Triceratops, say, a creature that lived in the time when this rock was young, just a pile of sediment on the floor of the ocean or a river. Paleontologists owe a lot to the power of speculation and theory. We may never know for sure what life was like in the era of these ancient creatures. But if we have anything in common with the dinosaurs, ancient mollusks and archaebacteria, it’s that we all grew on this same rock.

In a way, we’re just as old as they are. Our bodies are made up of the same elements that have always been here in some form or another, buried under the crust in a molten mantle, or exposed to the light of the sun that has fueled life on Earth for as far back as the imagination will stretch. As Carl Sagan said, “We are all made of star stuff.”