Wanda Hall: Being Natural

The first things all visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural Science see are an 8,000-pound amethyst geode from Uruguay in the lobby and the smiling face of Wanda Hall. And she wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Security guard Wanda Hall can be found in the lobby between the parking garage and the gift shop, greeting guests with her wide smile. Hall became the front line security guard in July 2014.

Hall has been with HMNS for three years, joining the security staff in 2012 right after the opening of the Dan L. Duncan Family Wing. She began by patrolling the brand new Morian Hall of Paleontology, the special exhibition Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition during its time with us, and the Hall of Ancient Egypt, before moving to her current post at the parking garage lobby July 15, 2014.

Hall relishes her job and the opportunity to speak with every guest that visits the museum. Even during our interview, she occasionally paused to greet parents and children entering for Xplorations summer camp.

“[If] you smile at people, they’re going to smile back,” Hall said. “You can’t help but smile at people.”

Hall grew up in Smithville, TX, about 45 miles southeast of Austin on State Highway 71. At the age of 22, she followed in her brother’s footsteps and traded in the town of 3,927 people for Houston, a city of 2.2 million.

Before finding her way to the museum, Hall spent 29 years working as a social worker for the State of Texas, helping seniors and disabled citizens with Medicaid eligibility. She spent eight years retired, enjoying working out and tending her garden, which includes a lemon tree and a pineapple plant.

This love of nature and plants has made the Cockrell Butterfly Center Hall’s favorite place in the museum. She used to spend her breaks in there, roaming around among the flora and floating butterflies—that is, until she learned of the two green tree pythons living in the conservatory next to the handicap entrance.

“I like the butterflies, the plants, everything. But I’m still afraid,” Hall said. “I haven’t been in there in a while. They said, ‘didn’t you see the snakes behind the glass?’ Ever since they told me that, I haven’t been back in there!”

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Hall sits at her typical post, located right next to the gift shop steps. Even while posing for photos, she continued to greet and assist visitors to the Museum!

Ophidiophobia aside, Hall really enjoys working at the Museum. A true people person, her infectious smile and laughter are great for welcoming visitors to HMNS. She loves interacting with the patrons, and they frequently reciprocate.

“Last year around camp time, this little girl came up to me and said, ‘When I come around the corner, there’s something about you. You’ll smile at me. You make my day.’ That was so sweet,” Hall said.

“I meet a lot of people,” Hall continued. “A lot of people want to sit and talk as they come through. They’ll be gone a few minutes and then they’ll come back and talk. People can be glad to see me, and I’ll be glad to see them. I like working in the front. I don’t think I want to come back inside!”

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is open seven days a week, and Hall will be there to greet visitors Monday through Friday. For those planning to visit on August 14, be sure to wish her a happy birthday!

Educator How-to: Make an Anubis mask!

Anubis is the Greek name for the “jackal-headed” god associated with death and the rituals of mummification in Ancient Egypt. Anubis’ color is black, symbolizing rebirth, which parallels the belief that the deceased is, in fact, reborn in the afterlife.

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Ancient Egyptian cartonnage Anubis mask.

Over time, Anubis played several roles in funerary rituals, from protector of the grave to head embalmer, and advocated for the deceased in the Weighing of the Heart ceremony. A mask, like the one pictured below, was worn by the priest performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony and other funeral rituals.

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Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.

Interestingly, recent genetic research suggests the Egyptian jackal, long thought to be the inspiration for the god Anubis, may not be a jackal at all, but rather an African wolf and a member of the gray wolf family. However, at present, the animal is considered of unresolved taxonomical identity and is presently classified as a golden jackal, despite genetic evidence that suggests otherwise.

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The Egyptian jackal, or perhaps the African wolf.

With the directions below, you can make your own Anubis mask! First, print out these Anubis Templates for the mask and ears and gather the following supplies:

  • Cardstock
  • Cardboard (you can recycle a cereal box for this purpose)
  • Crayons
  • Glue
  • Hole punch
  • Scissors
  • Stapler
  • Elastic string

Cut out the face and ears from the template. Trace the ears onto a piece of cardstock and cut them out carefully. Color the face of Anubis any way you like, using your crayons. When finished, glue the face to the cardboard and cut it out using a pair of sharp scissors. Then use glue or a stapler to attach the ears to the top of the mask. Use the hole punch to make a hole on each side of the mask at its widest point. Finally, tie the ends of a length of elastic string to each of these holes so the mask fits snugly over your face. Now you can legitimately perform the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony yourself!

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Use these designs above for inspiration or invent your own. You learn more about Anubis and other Egyptian gods at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.

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Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.

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As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.

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Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.

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Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.

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This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.

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These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.

Egyptian Nefertiti replica ends in a bust: ‘Ugly’ statue brews social media storm

A mini controversy has just broken out in social media about a rather ugly new rendering of the famous Nefertiti bust. The original bust, currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of the most iconic pieces of Egyptian art, recognized as easily as King Tut’s gold mask. It was not a surprise, therefore, that Egyptian authorities recently decided to erect a larger-than-life replica of the same bust at the entrance to the city of Samalut, to honor her memory.

This effort ended in – pardon the pun – a bust in its own right. The image, which only bears a very superficial resemblance to the original, has caused a storm in Egyptian social media, attracting worldwide attention. While the original bust is very well known, the story of its discovery is perhaps less well known. Nefertiti’s bust was discovered in the ruined workshop of the sculptor Thutmose on December 6, 1912 by a German archaeological team.

Bust being handed over to German archaeologist

Presentation of the Nefertiti bust shortly after discovery in 1912. (Left to right: Hermann Ranke, Paul Hollander and Mohammed es-Senussi)

Although the bust is uninscribed, Ludwig Borchardt, the dig director, immediately realized who was represented: the tall blue crown with uraeus serpent must belong to the queen. “No use describing it, you have to see it” he wrote.

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Handwritten note by Ludwig Borchardt on the discovery of the bust. Aside from a quick sketch, it contains the remark “No use describing it, you have to see it.”

The Egyptian government gave the bust, and other finds, to the German expedition at the end of the season, according to a custom of the time, known as “partage.” It was not until ten years later, after World War I, that the bust was put on display in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The reaction was immediate: Nefertiti became an icon and the Egyptian government demanded her return, claiming that she had been allowed to leave the country by subterfuge. The matter remains unresolved to this day, and Nefertiti has survived two world wars in Berlin.

Nefertiti was the principal wife of the New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1350 – 1335 BC). Akhenaten tried to revolutionize Egypt, outlawing the worship of a host of gods, headed by Amun, the king of the gods. In their place he proposed the worship of the Aten, the sun-disc that gave life to the world. He moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a virgin site 250 miles to the north. This new capital he called Akhetaten (“horizon of the sun disc”), the modern site of Tell el-Amarna. Akhenaten’s changes did not find favor, and after his death the site was abandoned by his successor – the more familiar Tutankhamun – as the capital moved back to Thebes. Amun had restored the status quo.

A new religion required a new artistic style to express itself. Set against earlier Egyptian objects, Amarna art can appear more naturalistic, softer and more intimate. Images of Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and their six daughters were the icons of this new creed, and Amarna was filled with sculptor’s workshops producing decoration for the city. The bust of Nefertiti, with its unusual shape, was probably a model used to define and standardize images of the queen.

The latest update on the “controversy” tells us that the Samalut bust is to be replaced with a statue of a peace dove. So all is well that ends well.

The original bust continues to attract huge throngs of tourists in Berlin. A museum quality replica of the same bust, manufactured by highly talented artists at the Neues Museum, has been on display in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science since 2013. She looks forward to seeing you there.

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Her Majesty awaits your visit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.