From MI6: Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to see Magna Carta before it leaves Houston

Editor’s Note: This document has been intercepted from MI6. We have taken it upon ourselves to charge you with 007’s mission (he’s on summer vacation).

Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to visit the famed 800-year-old document now on display at HMNS. This special document (Magna Carta) is on borrowed time… and is soon leaving Houston forever (August 17), after which it returns to its original home at Hereford Cathedral.

The Magna Carta serves as the basis for Common Law as we know it. Besides creating limited royal authority for the first time in history, this document has provided inspiration to millions, including the founding fathers of the United States of America. 

Your task is to gain admittance to the exhibit, explore life in the Middle Ages and then finally, gaze reverently on this rare piece of history. Once your mission is complete, feel free to check out the rest of the museum (we’ve got some pretty neat stuff here).

As 007’s replacement, you must maintain a very low profile for this mission. First go to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and pre-order a ticket for the exhibit (they’ll never see that coming). 

After entering the exhibition, you’ll first pass through a medieval village. At the kiosk, there is an interactive station where you’ll be assigned a medieval profession — you’ll need this to blend in. 

Proceed through the village in your new guise to the area filled with medieval weaponry, including a jousting spear, suit of armor and swords. Take note that should you be intercepted by the enemy, they will be using these against you, so observe the mechanics of them well. 

Proceed into the next chamber. A family tree will greet you here. Take time to peruse the historical players who were instrumental in the creation of the Magna Carta — be on the lookout for King John.

Next you’ll find a quilted tapestry (this doesn’t have much to do with your mission, but it’s still awesome.

Get back on track. The final portion of your quest is nigh. At the rear of the illuminated chamber lies the Magna Carta and a copy of the King’s Writ… observe and marvel for as long as you need to. Remember this special moment, because after August 17 this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the Magna Carta in Houston will be gone for good.

This message will now self destruct.

 

Here’s to the docents who dress! Costumes give volunteers an added educational edge

Editor’s note: Today’s post was written by Monica L. McHam, a volunteer docent here at the Museum.

“Wow, I didn’t recognize you with clothes on!”

I stopped short and spun around to see my friend and fellow docent, Carl Driever, standing there with an impish grin plastered across his face. Carl continued, “I only meant that I’m used to seeing you in costume, rather than in regular clothes.” With that, Carl whistled his way down the hall.

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Costumed docent Monica McHam welcomes Museum patrons to Magna Carta.

I thought about that conversation later and realized I do spend a lot of my time at HMNS in costume. Although costuming is not required (or even typical) for docents at our Museum, there is a group of docents that regularly dress for special exhibits such as Civil War, Titanic, and currently, Magna Carta.

Making a costume can take a lot of energy and a lot of time — and it can be pricey. On the other hand, the cost of buying an outfit could equal the GDP of a small developing country! So docents who dress tend to be handy — and have sewing skills. Depending on the time of the year and the exhibit in question, wearing a costume can leave you unbearably hot or miserably cold. Add in make-up, corsets, heels, and wigs, and I wondered, “Why do we dress?” I decided to find out by talking to some of my friends who also “dress for success.”

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Costumed Magna Carta docent Gillian Callen.

 

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Costumed Magna Carta docent Eileen Hatcher.

 

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Costumed Magna Carta docents Nancy Fischer and Kris Mills

I asked docent Kris Mills about dressing, and she had some very insightful comments.

She emphatically agreed that most costumes are hot; in fact, that is what she likes least about dressing. So, what does she like about dressing?

“I think it makes us approachable. We are less ‘teacherish,’ and perhaps less intimidating.” Then she confided that children “terrify” her (because she’s a bit shy)! And a costume is like a mask. “It helps get their attention and sometimes even their interest, but anonymously! Then we can have some fun.”

Nancy Fischer is a docent currently dressing in Magna Carta as the wife of a wealthy merchant. Like Kris, Nancy says dressing is a starting point for conversation. “Sometimes I’ll explain what character I am and then talk about the sumptuary laws and complain that I can’t wear certain colors or materials.” Nancy notes that this conversation often leads to a discussion of medieval life.

During tours of the Hall of Ancient Egypt, I am occasionally asked why I am wearing a shift when the women in the carvings are often bare “up there.” Like Kris and Nancy, I find this is a great introduction to a discussion of Egyptian art and the clothing of everyday Egyptians. I will admit, though, that the first time I was asked this question, by a third-grade boy, I wasn’t nearly as sanguine!

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Monica McHam “dressed for success” in the Hall of Ancient Egypt — without being “bare up there!”.

So we dress to inspire our patrons, with an added benefit of occasionally convincing other docents to jump on the bandwagon. Take Eileen Hatcher as an example: she decided to dress when she saw other docents “dedicated to costuming” and recognized that it was a fun and interesting way to interact with the public. She currently dresses as a poor peasant in Magna Carta — but elicits rich responses from Museum patrons!

Although docents who dress enjoy it and believe their efforts are worthwhile, occasionally patrons react in unexpected ways.

Kris relates the following story. “The first time I was in Titanic, I had laced myself too tightly into the corset and could not sit down the entire morning. Since I was representing the only woman who climbed out of a lifeboat back onto the Titanic, one kid said, ‘Well, you were pretty stupid, weren’t you?’

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First-class passengers for Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in 2012. Museum docent Pat Hazlett.

 

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First-class passenger for Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in 2012. Museum docent Kris Mills.

In addition to dealing with corsets, sometimes there is a “wardrobe malfunction” (albeit not of the Janet Jackson variety). Nancy says that the most embarrassing moment was when her headscarf slipped off in the middle of a Magna Carta tour. Knowing Nancy, I have a wonderful image of her holding her scarf with one hand, wrapping the other end of the scarf around her head with her other hand, and continuing her discussion of the relative merits of the English long bow versus the crossbow — without skipping a beat!

Docent Kathryn Fairbanks is often seen in Magna Carta near the Crusader knight, who sports a chain maille hauberk. Kathryn demonstrates the fine art of making chain maille to Museum patrons. While she does so, she dresses in a long black dress and swirling cape.

She says, “While wearing a costume is definitely one of my favorite parts of volunteering, it does have its drawbacks. One of my main problems is getting all the long, swirly cloak/dress/sleeves caught in the wheels of my rolling kit. It’s a minor problem to fix, but annoying when I have to stop every few minutes to retrieve my hemline.”

Like many other docents who dress, I find dressing fun — and I take every opportunity to do so. In recent years, my costumes have included a scribe’s wife for the Hall of Ancient Egypt, a coal stoker for Titanic, and an archaeologist for Lascaux Caves. Kris has dressed as a Civil War-era farm woman, a Renaissance noblewoman, and a first-class matron for Titanic, just to name a few. For Civil War, docent Pat Hazlett dressed as a genteel lady in purple satin with her grandmother’s cameo. For Titanic, Pat morphed into a first-class passenger who could have been the model for a fashion plate from a 1912 Ladies’ Home Journal. (Trivia alert: Ladies’ Home Journal was the first million-circulation magazine in America.)  

Discovering the Civil War with, from left to right, Monica McHam, museum staffer Rich Hutting, Kris Mills, and Pat Hazlett.

Discovering the Civil War. L to R: Monica McHam, Museum staffer Rich Hutting, Kris Mills, and Pat Hazlett.

Docents who dress agree that dressing helps them bring the exhibit to life and provides patrons with a more meaningful exhibition experience. But dressing is not just about patron interaction. Occasionally, there are personal experiences that can leave a talkative docent, well, speechless.

For example, if you dress as a gorgeous boyar noblewoman while driving to the Museum, you can expect to receive many strange looks from fellow Houston drivers. If driving while dressed as a gorgeous boyar noblewoman is not your cuppa tea, like Kris, that means you have to schlep the costume to the Museum, find a colleague to help you get into the many layers of satin and lace, tie all the ties, ensure the pearls hang just so, find someone to help you take it all off, and then, finally, schlep it all back home again.

Oh yes — somewhere in the midst of all the wardrobe details, you manage to give a tour in costume!

If, on the other hand, you are comfortable driving while dressed, you might get more than just looks. One night, driving home from an evening tour and still dressed as a Renaissance nun, I stopped at a fast food drive-through for late-night fortification. The cashier asked me, in all seriousness, to bless her! Now that was a big gulp! I simply told her that I was certain she was already blessed, took my drink, and hightailed it to the safety of my home.

Monica McHam as a Florentine Renaissance nun for Gems of the Medici—the costume that elicited the strange reaction at the local drive-through!

Monica McHam as a Florentine Renaissance nun for Gems of the Medici — the costume that elicited the strange reaction at the local drive-through.

Everyone at our Museum appreciates the many contributions of our more than 300 active docents. Our docents enhance the experience of Museum patrons by enhancing their fun, enriching their educational understanding, and providing a multifaceted appreciation of our permanent and special exhibits.

However, there is a special group of docents that go just one step further to enliven the experience of Museum patrons: docents who dress! Be sure to look for costumed docents on your next Museum visit — and be sure to offer them thanks for their creative efforts above and beyond the call of duty.

                               

Cracking the code: Deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with the Rosetta Stone

As you walk through our new Hall of Ancient Egypt, you might wonder how we know so much today about a civilization that thrived thousands of years ago. Here is how we got there: For most of the Middle Ages and even during the Renaissance, ancient Egypt was a vague concept in the Western world, most often associated with Biblical history. All of that changed in 1798.

Napoleon in Egypt and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone

Less than 10 years after the French revolution, Napoleon invaded Egypt. His army was accompanied by scientists, scholars and artists, who collected artifacts and mapped a good number of sites. With the support of Napoleon, this group of people known as the “Savants” started a center for the study of ancient Egypt, the Institut d’ Égypte. Sadly, in 2011, the Institut was severely damaged and most of its library destroyed.

The work by the French scholars culminated in a magnificent and monumental multiple-volume publication, the Description de l’Égypte, which appeared between 1809 and 1828. These volumes unleashed a wave of Egypt-o-mania in European art and design. This wave eventually reached American shores.

The month of July 1799 was of utmost importance in the history of deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Sometime around the middle of that month, Pierre François Xavier Bouchard, an officer of the Engineers, found what we now call the Rosetta stone. He was working on reinforcing the defenses of a small fort on the west bank of the Nile, near the small port of el-Rashid (the ancient Rosetta).

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Map of the Nile Delta, identifying the location of Rosetta, where the famous inscription was found. Image courtesy of michelhoude.com

Bouchard realized that the stone slab he had found was part of a larger stela inscribed in three scripts. The stone was cleaned, and the ancient Greek text of the inscription translated. Among other things, the Greek text conveyed the order that the inscription be recorded in three different scripts: ancient Greek on the bottom portion, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the top portion. The middle portion was initially thought to have been ancient Syriac; we now know that it is demotic.

News of the Stone’s discovery spread fast. By August 1799, the inscription was in Cairo, at the Institut d’ Égypte. Copies of the text reached Paris by the fall of 1800. We should not forget, however, that there was still a war being fought in Egypt. French forces, initially successful in the conquest of Egypt, were slowly being defeated by an Anglo-Turkish army. After Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at anchor in the bay of Aboukir, and after Napoleon ignominiously slipped through a British blockade on one of the few surviving French ships, a French defeat was inevitable.

By August 31, 1801, the last French units to offer resistance surrendered in Alexandria. By then, the Rosetta Stone had been transported from Cairo to Alexandria to keep it in the hands of French explorers and out of the hands of anyone else. But it was not to be. The victorious British forces took possession of the Stone, after allowing the French scholars to make a cast of the monument. A British warship carrying the Rosetta Stone arrived in Portsmouth in February 1802. It was placed in the London-based Society of Antiquaries, where several plaster casts were made. Engravings made of the inscription were made and widely distributed throughout Europe and even the United States.

The easiest portion of the inscription to translate and publish was the ancient Greek text. The translation, made in 1802 and presented as a paper, was published 10 years later in 1812. The Stone itself was officially donated to the British Museum by King George III in 1802; a painted text on one of the stela’s sides commemorates this act. With only two exceptions, it has remained in the British Museum ever since. Towards the end of the First World War, in 1917, when the Museum was concerned about heavy bombing in London, they moved it to safety along with other portable, ‘important’ objects. The Rosetta Stone spent the next two years in a station on the Postal Tube Railway 50 feet below the ground. Other than during wartime, the Rosetta Stone has left the British Museum only once. In October 1972, it was displayed at the Louvre in Paris alongside Champollion’s Lettre to mark the 150th anniversary of its publication (p. 23).**

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
 Cover of Champollion’s Lettre a M. Dacier. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Even though the inscription is known as the Rosetta Stone, referring to the ancient settlement of Rosetta, it is most likely that the stela fragment was brought to Rosetta as construction material from a more ancient site further inland. It is also probable that it was already broken by the time it was moved to the site of its discovery (p. 26).**

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Reconstruction of the Rosetta Stone. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Based on similar decrees of the same period, it is likely that the original shape of the Rosetta Stone included a rounded top, as can be seen in the reconstruction drawing (p.26).** The shape of the monument can also be seen toward the end of the last line of the hieroglyphic text.

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Black and white drawing of the Rosetta Stone. The original shape of the monument is shown in the final portion of the last sentence written in hieroglyphs. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The original shape of the monument is shown in the final portion of the last sentence written in hieroglyphs.

Deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and the role of the Rosetta Stone.

The decipherment of the Rosetta stone involved the contributions of many individuals. Among these were Swedish scholar Åkerblad; two British men, Bankes, a collector of antiquities, and a linguist, Young. Across the Channel, there were two Frenchmen, the orientalist de Sacy and a fellow by the name of Champollion.

An initial step towards reading ancient Egyptian texts came when de Sacy, working on the demotic portion of the text, identified the name of Ptolemy. In 1802, Åkerblad identified the demotic equivalents of “Egypt”, “temples”, “king”, and “Greek.” Unfortunately, both men were hampered in their attempts to crack the hieroglyphic portion by firmly believing that this script was alphabetical, a premise that proved to be false (p.31).**

In 1816, the British scholar Thomas Young, identified the name Ptolemy inside a cartouche on the hieroglyphic section of the stone. Using insights from the demotic text, he assigned the correct values of p, t, ma/m, i, s to five hieroglyphic signs (p.31).** In 1821, in a similar exercise, Bankes correctly translated the name “Cleopatra” inside a cartouche on an obelisk from Philae.**

It was a French scholar, Champollion, who by 1822 truly broke the code. Working with an engraving of the stone and a rendering of it in the Description, Champollion managed to go further than other researchers of his time. By 1822, he was aware of the work done by Young and Bankes. Working with a total of fourteen signs, he deciphered cartouches of other members of the Ptolemaic dynasty and even some Roman emperors. All of this led to Champollion writing his report, the Lettre à M. Dacier, which was read at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris on September 27, 1822 (p.35).** In 1824, Champollion’s letter was published. Subsequent application of Champollion’s insights on Egyptian texts in the British Museum collections proved that he was correct(p. 38 – 39).**

Champollion did not live long to savor his achievement. He was appointed curator at the Louvre in 1830. He held this position until 1832, when he died from a stroke (p.40).**

We all benefit from the hard work of these pioneers and those who came after them. They made it possible to read a vast corpus of ancient Egyptian texts. Texts carved in stone, like the Rosetta text, as well as those painted on pottery shards and shell, or carved in wood, are on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Each in their own way lift the veil of this distant past. Their messages vary from prayers on a papyrus to a medal issued to a soldier; all help us to understand what it must have been like to walk and talk like an ancient Egyptian.

What did the text on the Rosetta Stone say?

The inscription dates to 196 BC. It is an official document, with a message of thanks – in triplicate – from some priests to the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy V. Its content is interesting for those who like Hellenistic history; others might think that reading a part of the IRS code is equally interesting. A translation of the demotic portion of the inscription can be read here.

At the end of each text portion, we read that “the decree should be written on a stela of hard stone, in sacred writing, document writing, and Greek writing, and [that] it should be set up in the first-class temples, the second-class temples and the third-class temples, next to the statue of the King, living forever.” It is therefore very likely that several copies of the Rosetta Stone exist, as yet undiscovered.

**Dates and other factual information sourced here, for further reading: Parkinson, Richard, 1999. Cracking Codes. The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Shaking Hands Now

Sometimes it’s the small things.  I’ve previously written about the power of objects that captivate us.  Objects can make us curious to know more about the world and on occasion turn us into collectors.  Objects can also evoke memories, giving perspective and context to history.

It’s that last ability I’d like to discuss here.  The museum has a small collection of space memorabilia, mostly flight crew publicity photos, plaques, newspaper articles and other documents.  Recently an embroidered souvenir space flight patch entered the collection; probably not of high monetary value, it could have easily been sold in a gift shop at NASA or here at the museum.  Except that this patch was for the Apollo 17–Soyuz 19 mission.  Now unless you’re an ardent fan of NASA history or, ahem, a certain age, that last sentence is very likely meaningless to you.  My reaction however was “Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in years!”  Instantly history telescoped.

Context

For those of you either too young or a bit foggy on history, the Apollo-Soyuz mission took place July 15 – 24, 1975.  I’ll leave it to the HMNS Astronomy staff to determine the scientific significance of the flight but politically and historically it was a really big dang deal.  It was the last Apollo program flight and the first joint mission of two different nations in outer space.  Having won the race to be first on the moon six years earlier (1969), the last Apollo spacecraft docked with the Soyuz spacecraft of the USSR, the Americans’ lunar landing rival.  The 1970s were a time of détente, but the Cold War between the USA and the USSR was still raging. The fact that these two countries were able to pull off this joint venture is amazing.  And politics aside, the science and technology to be worked out between the two space agencies was no easy task.  Not to mention the language difficulties.

Our fair city was a big part of the mission. The Soviet cosmonauts, Alexey A. Leonov and Valery N. Kubasov, trained at JSC several times.  In turn, the Apollo astronauts, Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, and Donald (Deke) K. Slayton, trained in Moscow and were the first Americans to visit the Russian launch pad.  It was decided that each crew would learn the language of the other and speak to their counterparts in their newly acquired tongue.  Thus during the mission, the cosmonauts spoke in English to the astronauts who spoke to the cosmonauts in Russian.  Neither language is easy to learn, they don’t even share a common alphabet.  Just imagine that, along with all the pressures of a space flight and representing the best of your home country, you’re doing it all in a language that isn’t your native tongue.  When the two spacecrafts docked on July 17, the cosmonauts responded with “Soyuz and Apollo are shaking hands now.”  After the hatch between the two spacecrafts opened the crews physically shook hands in a moment transmitted live to earth and seen by a world-wide audience. For a good overview of the entire mission read this.

The Apollo-Soyuz mission wasn’t the only news event in 1975.  A few other things from that same year…Saigon fell to the communists, Franco died in Spain, oil rose to over $13 a barrel, a gallon of gas was about 44¢, Motorola took out its first patent for a mobile phone, a couple of guys named their start-up company Microsoft, some guy from New Jersey named Bruce released a vinyl record album called Born to Run, and NBC let a bunch of unknown comedians fill up dead air time in a show with the unimaginative title of Saturday Night Live.

Perspective

So, zooming thirty-five years forward through the telescope of history, what perspective does this simple patch bring?  Well, Americans and Russians have been working side by side in space for years now.  The USSR dissolved, the Cold War ended (the recent spy swap not withstanding!), and no one gets too excited about the multiple nationalities working together on the International Space Station.  We can see crystal clear NASA shuttle films in 3-D in the IMAX theatre right here at HMNS, no need to gather around a boxy television watching grainy images.  However, sad to say, as we note the 35th anniversary of the last Apollo flight we’re nearing the end of the space shuttle flights that replaced it.  Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, Microsoft, the Boss, and SNL are still influencing American culture, but there seems to be uncertainty about the future of NASA and manned space flights.  Our little souvenir space flight patch represents a distinct moment in both the history of NASA and the history of the country at large.  Small and ordinary it might be, but it allows us to reflect on what’s been and to wonder what’s next.