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!

Arch

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.

Flowers

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.

mannequin

HeadCloseup

 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.

FullMannequin

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.

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Wall

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

skeletonSmithGrey

AlexisBittar

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.

 

Did Dinosaurs Invent Flowers? (with a big assist from flies and beetles)

There was a Veggie-saur revolution at the start of the Cretaceous Period — did it cause flowers to appear?

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Brief History of Land Plants and Critters Who Ate Them

In today’s world, on dry land, flowering plants — aka angiosperms — are the Number 1   Ruling Class of vegetation. In the tropical rain forests, where plant species are the most diverse, just about all the trees are flowering plants. And so are most of the shrubs and vines and low-growing herbs, plus all the grasses too. The non-flowering plants with seeds, the gymnosperms, do include some famous species. The needle-leaved conifer trees, like pines and cedars and noble redwoods of California, win fame as
the tallest gymnosperms. And best-looking too. In addition, gymnosperms can boast of cycads, with their super-stiff palm-style leaves, and the ginkos, whose graceful leaves ornament many a college street. (But don’t step on the fruit — its stink is so bad that many a town has banished the female trees, leaving only the odor-free males to line the sidewalks). 

But compared to the angiosperms, the gymnos are secondary players who do very well only in odd habitats, like dry, sandy soil or frigidly cold northern forests. 

Don’t think it’s always been that way. If you time-traveled back to the Jurassic, you’d see no angiosperms at all. Nada. Nyet. Neither trees nor shrubs nor grass. Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus looked out on a dull green landscape without any brightly colored flowers. Jurassic woodlands had magnificent groves of conifers mingled with some stately tall cycads and a surprising array of ginkos. But no plants with flowers. We get the very first
fossil hints of flowering plants early in the Cretaceous: some pollen grains, some leaves, even some flower parts, most very small. Then, as we go later and later in the Cretaceous sediments, we see the angiosperms proliferating in variety and expanding in numbers. By the late Late Cretaceous, the great herbivorous dinos like Ankylosaurus and Triceratops cavorted among a kaleidoscope of brilliant spring flowers.

What released the evolutionary potential of the angios?

Bugs must take a lot of the credit. Most gymnosperms reproduce pinestyle — they rely on the wind to spread pollen from tree to tree. Early angiosperms could spread their pollen by hitchhiking on bug backs and bug snouts. Flowers are devices to seduce insects with the promise of yummy free meals. The aroma of flowers brings in flying critters who enjoy the repast and then fly away, carrying a load of pollen to fertilize the next 2 plant. So, bug pollinators are especially important to plants which have their populations in patches, spread far and wide. 

Speaking of patchiness, when angiosperms first appeared they were NOT tall, stately trees. Nope. The Ur-Angiosperms were aggressive opportunists, scraggly little botanical carpet-baggers. If there were a movie of the first angiosperm he’d be played by Danny DiVito. These devious plants waited until disaster struck and they moved into disturbed
neighborhoods, places where the native gymnosperm vegetation had been washed away by storms or blasted by wind, or buried in layers of mud. The invading angios had just the right adaptive equipment to exploit blighted habitats. Their seeds spread easily and sprouted fast. The young sprouts grew like weeds — well, in fact, they were weeds, weedy bushes and other plants of low stature. So the angios could fill holes blasted into the
botanical architecture completely and quickly.

For the Early Cretaceous angios, it was an unsettled life. In each disturbed patch, eventually, the slower-growing gymnosperm plants might re-invade and work their way back into the land taken over by the flowering plants. But that was ok. New disaster areas always opened up somewhere else and the angios would do their thing again. Of course, every time, the bug connection was a big help in letting the angios reproduce and share genes all over the new patches of habitat. But wait……….there’s another animal-plant connection that was working to help the early flowering plants. Not tweensy bug-oids but gargantuan plant-eaters.

If you are reading these lines and are a game ranger from one of the great African parks you’d be yelling “You forgot over-grazing! Over-browsing! Elephants, rhinos, Cape Buffalo!

Hippos!!!!!! 

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How to overgraze an Early Cretaceous Woodland and Open Patches for Angiosperms.

You see, for clearing out vegetation, big herbivores can be far worse than floods and storms. A herd of multiton pachyderms can function as grazers, eating all the grass and other low-growing greenery, and as browsers, picking out the fruit and branches and leaves of shrubs and saplings. And then, when they’re done, really big, elephant-sized plant-eaters knock down the trees and eat the plant parts on tree tops. Before they were badly poached, white rhinos and black rhinos did a job on many local African habitats, assisted by huge herds of Cape Buffalo. When elephant populations exploded in Amboseli Park, the lush forest was transformed into a dry forest which was transformed into a blighted woodland with denuded soil.

In the American West, unscrupulous absentee owners sometimes cram far too many cows into an area where luxuriant bushes line the creeks and edges of ponds. Soon all the underbrush is gone and so is the grass.

A plague of beefy herbivores, herefords or buffalo, opens the way for unwanted weeds — in my native Texas, mesquite, cedar, and prickly pear. With over-grazing and over-browsing in mind, we should check out the veggie-saurs of the Jurassic and Cretaceous. And when we do, we see an extraordinary re-structuring of giant vegetarians.

The Jurassic might be called the “Giraffa-zoic” because, on average, the big plant-eaters were tall to very tall to unbelievably tall. Long-necked brontosaurians like Brachiosaurus could reach up twenty five feet or more into the tree tops. Their distant cousins, the Diplodocus clan, not only had long necks but also had immensely strong and heavy rumps and thighs so they could rear up and choose among the most tasty branches and leaves in the tree tops. These long-necks reached the body weight of a half dozen
bull elephants — 50 tons or more.

In the same Jurassic habitats, stegosaurs fed in and around the long-necked herds. Though they had necks of only modest length, the stegos could rear up, so their browsing could sample plants at fifteen feet above the ground. 

All these high-browsers could search low-growing plants as well. That way the feeding pressure on the plant community was spread over an extraordinarily wide vertical range, from zero to forty feet. Specialized ground feeders were rare and not very big in Jurassic times. Some armorplated dinos, the ankylosaurians, carried their heads low all the time but rarely exceeded a ton in weight. Camptosaurs, primitive relatives of duck-bill dinos, were roughly pony-size in body build. The campto necks were permanently down-flexed for concentrated feeding close to the ground surface.

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Early Cretaceous Iguanodont Sampling the New Angiosperm Salad Bar.

This array of high-feeding vegetarian tactics had evolved early in the Period and lasted right through to the very end of the Jurassic Period, about 140 million years ago. Then it happened — Vegetarian Revolution. As the Cretaceous began, stegosaurs died out most places. In their place came new waves of armored ankylosaurians, all feeding low, close to the ground. These new armored veggie-saurs rapidly achieved body sizes in the elephant range. Long-necked brontosaurians persisted but lost some diversity. The camptosaur-kin evolved into the famous “Thumb Spike Clan”, the iguanodonts. These chaps had first fingers modified into sharp, stout stabbing weapons (probably for fighting among themselves as much as repelling would-be predators). The iguanodonts had necks curved down so the head was quite low.

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The Shift from Many High Feeders in the Jurassic to Many Low Feeders in the Cretaceous.

To summarize: In the Jurassic, plants were subjected to herbivore attacks spread from zero feet above the ground to twenty, thirty or forty feet. Once the Cretaceous began, the feeding became concentrated in lower and lower levels.

For low vegetation, it got worse as the Cretaceous world matured. More and more massive herbivores entered the low-feeding zones. Horned dinosaurs and duckbills had low head posture and must have done most of their feeding within a yard or two above the soil.

See the connection to angiosperm origins? The intensified pressure inflicted by vegetarianism upon gymosperms produced many more spots devastated by over-grazing and over-browsing. Therefore, the veggiesaurrevolution probably opened the opportunities for early flowering plants to expand and take over many more acres of landscape. With the collaboration of pollinating bugs.

If you are a fan of flowers — and who isn’t? –you must doff your hat to those Cretaceous maxi-herbivores, the low-level dinosaurian behemoths. These veggie-saurs disturbed wide swathes of woodland and forest, splendid opportunities for the first waves of flowering-plant evolution. 

 

Flower power: Explore the fragrant orchid at the Orchid Show & Sale on April 20-21

Editor’s note: Today’s blog comes to us from John Stubbing of the Houston Orchid Society.

Have you ever thought of growing your own orchid corsage? There are plenty of reasons to take up growing these exotic and beautiful plants as a hobby. Not only do many species have large and colorful flowers, but many orchids are also fragrant!

For example, many of the large-flowered Cattleya types (the ones typically used in corsages) have wonderful, sweet fragrances that can fill a house — so romantic. Unfortunately, the blooms lose their fragrance when cut, so the recipient of a corsage doesn’t experience the full joy of these flowers.

Some 80 years ago, in the middle half of the 20th century, these corsage flowers were cut mostly from species orchids. Collectors harvested entire orchid plants from the wild in the rainforests of Central and South America, where Cattleyas are native, and shipped them to the United States and Europe.

Cattleya percivalianaCattleya percivaliana normally blooms in December or January, so is called the Christmas Orchid

There, commercial growers would cultivate the plants until they flowered. Once the flowers were cut and sent to the florist, the plants would be discarded.

Starting in the 1930s, growers began to experiment with “man-made” hybrid orchids to use in the cut flower trade. Not only were they able to create unusual flower shapes and colors, growers also learned to regulate the flowering time of both species and hybrids to match florists’ needs.

For example, a large crop of flowers in perfect condition for sale a week after Mother’s Day or Easter would be a disaster for the grower. Manipulating the orchids’ bloom time gave growers the ability to provide cut flowers to the florist trade for all the major holidays throughout the year.

Cattleya lawrenceanaCattleya lawrenceana blooms in spring

Cattleya intermedia alba

Cattleya intermedia alba blooms March through May

For over nearly two centuries, growers have hybridized Cattleya species with other orchid genera to increase the number of flowers and widen the color range. Now we have Cattleya-type flowers ranging from blue to yellow to green to red, in addition to the traditional whites, pinks and lavenders. Many of these complex hybrids bloom several times per year, whereas most of the original large flowered corsage types bloom only once a year.

Many Cattleya orchids, whether species or hybrids, can be grown outdoors in medium-bright sun in Houston, when temperatures are above 40 degrees.  At lower temperatures, they need to be moved inside. They also can be grown indoors year-round in bright windows or under bright lights. Depending on the species make-up, the large-flowered Cattleya types will usually bloom the same month each year. The plants can be moved into the house to enjoy the flowers and then returned outside for better growth.

You can obtain additional care instructions at the Houston Orchid Society meetings held monthly at the Houston Garden Center. Also, written care sheets are available on the American Orchid Society page here.

Several of the Cattleya varieties pictured above, along with many other types of orchid, will be on exhibit and available for purchase at the Houston Orchid Society’s Annual Show and Sale. This lavish event will take place April 20 and 21 in the Grand Hall at the Museum of Natural Science.  Admission is free (except for the orchids you take home with you!)

Cattleya Nancy Off ‘Linwood’Cattleya Nancy Off ‘Linwood’ AM/AOS, with 6-inch flowers, usually blooms in the spring.

Flickr Photo of the Month: Summertime! [May 2011]

Flowers - HMNS Demonstration Butterfly Garden
Flowers – HMNS Demonstration Butterfly Garden
by Michael A Sanderson.
View Large.
Posted here with permission.

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS – as well as the areas surrounding the Museum in Hermann Park. When we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we share one of these photos here on the blog.

Even those who visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center frequently may be unaware that our staff and volunteers maintain a living butterfly garden just outside the Center’s doors. While the indoor rainforest is home to unusual species from exotic locales from Malaysia to Costa Rica, the outdoors butterfly garden is a great spot to check out local Houston species – and learn a little bit about attracting them to your own garden.

I loved this photo of flowers in the Museum’s demonstration butterfly garden by Michael Sanderson, who generously shared it in our Flickr pool and also agreed to let us share it with you. Here are his thoughts on the image:

I love the demonstration butterfly garden at HMNS. It’s kind of out of the way of the main people traffic and at the time of year this photo was taken, many of the other flowers in the area were suffering from the heat and drought. This little area was an oasis in the shade.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.