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.


Being Natural: Kevin Henderson

Kevin Henderson stumbled onto exhibits design by accident and couldn’t be happier about it.

Coming out of the University of Houston’s Architecture program, Henderson was called in to help with an exhibition. He always liked sketching and the Arts, and while he was interested in product and industrial design, UH didn’t have a program in that at the time. After graduation, he rediscovered the Houston Museum of Natural Science.


The fast turnaround of exhibit projects appealed to Henderson straight away.

“There is an almost immediate sense of gratification when you draw something or design something [as an exhibits designer]. It becomes a reality a lot faster than with architecture!” Henderson said. “You get the rewards so much more quickly. Sometimes I feel bad about that.”

Henderson spent two years at HMNS as a junior designer, helping out with the design of the Hall of Paleontology when it was in Glassell Hall as well as the Welch Chemistry Hall, two versions ago. From there, he moved on to a private company where he was responsible for design and construction of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, one of the highlights of his career.

In fall 1999, Henderson returned to HMNS for good. 16 years later, he’s worked on exhibits from the world-famous Lucy’s Legacy in 2008 to La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas today.


As Henderson puts it, there are three types of special exhibitions: the kind that comes with artifacts and display cases laid out; the kind that comes with only artifacts; and the kind that is assembled and organized by the museum. It’s up to the HMNS design team to figure out how to lay out the last two.

When designing an exhibit, Henderson has to consider aesthetics such as lighting and sound as well as how to best display an artifact for its educational value. One of his favorite examples of this is a display case in the Hall of Ancient Egypt featuring the Coffin of Neskhons. This ornate sarcophagus is located at the very end of the second long hallway in the hall, and the dark walls and spotlight placement make it light up like a beacon.


“I have to find a delicate way to allow the public to get up close to these delicate, priceless things,” Henderson said. “I find it a cool challenge to engage the visitor so that they’ll want to come see this artifact. Once they are there, I have to figure out how to let them see it without damaging it. Each exhibit has its unique challenges and that’s probably the main reason I enjoy doing what I do. It’s never the same; each project is different. These are fun puzzles to solve.”

Part of these puzzles is understanding the human mind, and Henderson has to employ psychological tactics as well when laying out the exhibit.

“I have to direct the visitor traffic flow through an exhibit. I don’t like to be heavy-handed in a gallery layout or to constrict or confine people down a set, rigid pathway,” Henderson said. “In many shows, there’s a chronological timeline to the story, so it isn’t helpful when the gallery is open. The visitor will roam freely and get lost. I need to subtly guide visitors through an exhibit so that unbeknownst to them, they’re following a story.”

La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas, open from Dec. 11 through early September, is an example of a special exhibit that was organized by HMNS, and Henderson played the leading role in designing the product on display on the museum’s third floor.


“We had a bit more environmental aspects in there with the different sections. You don’t want to overwhelm the objects, so you want to do just enough to hint at the feel of that area or era or culture, but the priority is the display of the objects,” Henderson said.

“There’s a reverence and respect for the original tilma and any image with the Virgin on it, so in designing that show, there had to be major consideration to treat the objects with even more reverence and respect,” Henderson added. “You notice that lighting is done in a certain way, the framing is appropriate, the music, everything contributes to a nice, soft, peaceful, quiet, meditative, respectful space.”

In the end, Henderson loves his job. He enjoys handling artifacts, working with other organizations and putting together a finished product. Most of all, he loves seeing the public’s reaction to his work.

“You walk around and see the kids running through, hearing them say, “Wow, this is so cool!” makes everything worthwhile. You feel like you’re contributing to something, opening some kids’ minds to some other topics,” Henderson said. “That’s one of my favorite things.”

Oh, just another day in the life of exhibits: Installation in pictures (with inanimate commentary)

Done any home improvement projects lately? Us, too! This Monday we installed two new nautical creatures in the new Hall of Paleontology, and we documented one of the installs for you fine people.


DSC_0002Know what he is? He’s a ginormous Eurypterid, otherwise known as a sea scorpion. We don’t know about y’all, but we’re pretty glad these thingers are extinct. I mean, he’s a whopper (and he looks angry):


Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple was on-hand for the install. Here he is giving Eury a pep-talk. We imagine he’s saying something like “No, your chelicerae don’t look big in this sling.”

DSC_0017You’ve got to have velvet hands to be a handy-man at HMNS. Eury, meanwhile, is #overit.


Up, up and away!

DSC_0029Buckle up, Eury. You’re about to go for a ride.

DSC_0041“Do you even know what you’re doing?”

DSC_0071And finally, we’re finished!


Come meet Eury for yourself at the new Hall of Paleontology. We’re open late today (Tuesday) — ’til 8 p.m.!

HMNS at Sugar Land: Transforming a prison into a museum

Picture 47
The building HMNS at Sugar Land
will occupy was built in 1939.

After the past six months, I’ve gained even more respect for our exhibits team at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I’ve been fortunate enough to see first-hand exactly what it takes to develop a museum, formerly an old prison building built in 1939.

Like you, I usually see the exhibit when it is finished. And I have to admit, I never realized what challenging tasks the design and construction are. I thought it was like decorating your home or office. Okay, maybe not that simple, but a matter of knowing where you’re going to put things, and maybe knock out a wall or two—pa rum pum pum pum—you’re done.

This photo was taken just a few months
before exhibit construction started

After going back and forth for a while now to visit the new museum in Sugar Land and seeing it in various stages of development, I’ve learned that designing a museum is more than dotting I’s and crossing T’s. Because of the lengthy process, my colleague Erin and I thought we could show you better than we could tell you, which is why we have been recording the entire process.

As a precursor to the opening, we thought we would show you an excerpt from the special video we are still currently producing. In this segment, you’ll meet Rodney Gentry, a senior designer for the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Gentry tells us what he thought about the historical building when he first laid eyes on it, as well as some of the obstacles the team faced when the museum was in its initial planning phase of development. Plus, you’ll see some past photographs of the prison back in its heyday and some photos of what it looked like when we first took a look at the space. Keep in mind, it was filmed at the beginning of this week, so the space is still transforming every day in preparation for the opening next Saturday.

It’s an experience I’ll never forget and one I hope you’ll always remember after you view the complete documentary. Stay tuned for our release date.

Until then, click here to watch a part of the video. Also, here is the history of the Central State Prison Farm, now the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land.