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!

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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.

Ready, set, STEM! 2016 HMNS Outreach programs focus on physical fitness!

Get yourself in gear this summer with the Houston Museum of Natural Science and our Science Start Outreach programs! It’s never too early to register for these super fun educational activities.

Take the first steps to physical fitness by understanding how the human body works and how it compares to other animals with our brand new Body Works programs! There will be three different programs, each focusing on a different portion of the body: Movin’ and Shakin’, Pump It Up and Head Honcho.

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How do the different parts of your body work in coordination to throw a football? We’ll discuss human anatomy in Science Start: Body Works!

Any discussion of sports and fitness needs to include a lengthy section on the human body’s skeleton and muscles, and we’ll tackle those topics in Movin’ and Shakin’! The components of our endoskeleton give our body its shape and stability; it would be pretty tough to shoot some hoops without bones! The muscles, tendons and ligaments allow for efficient and calculated motion that lets humans do everything from riding a bike to kicking a ball.

We’ll explore differences between our arms and the appendages of other animals that have different purposes, like a bird’s wing or a whale’s flipper. We’ll discover how our muscles work together to make simple actions like smiling possible. And we’ll do it all with museum specimens and a museum educator leading the way!

Next, it’s important to understand how the body gets the energy it needs to keep going. Pump It Up takes a look at the heart, blood and kidneys and how they work together to keep the body running smoothly. The bloodstream is vital for exercise, as our red blood cells carry oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, supplying cells in muscles with important resources to continue working properly. Of course, the blood won’t get very far without the pumping action of the heart, and the bloodstream would not be as effective without the filtering power of the kidneys.

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In Pump It Up, we’ll compare the human heart with that of an animal much smaller than us (a rat) and an animal much larger (a cow). We will take a look at the rainbow of different colors of blood represented by various animals around the world as well as how human kidneys keep our blood pure. We’ll certainly get your heart racing!

Of course, to complete an action as complex as throwing a curveball, there has to be a manager, coordinating all of the motions to produce a consistent result. That’s the head honcho, so to speak, or the brain! The human brain has around 100 billion neurons, and many of those have hundreds of synapses (essentially connections between neurons). It’s estimated that there are over 100 trillion synapses in the human brain!

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In Head Honcho, we’ll compare our brain with animals of all kinds, from the ancient Tyrannosaurus rex to modern sharks. From there, we’ll look at the skulls and teeth of other animals and how we can figure out what that animal ate from what its teeth look like.

Each of these programs correlates to TEKS objectives and is perfect for young learners! Book now for these awesome programs, beginning June 1.

To schedule a presentation, contact us at outreach@hmns.org or (713) 639-4758!

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

Amazing Cakes: Top picks of Party Smarty 2015

by Karen Whitley

Every year we see hundreds of birthday cakes, and we are blown away (candle pun intended) by some of the creations parents bring in! From the cakes that defy gravity to the ones we have to use careful geometry to cut, we are always excited to see what a party brings in. Here’s a look at some of our favorite cakes so far.

Here’s a gorgeous cake to celebrate our butterfly theme. The bees and ladybugs add the perfect touch!

BFC cake

If you have a boy (or girl) more interested in bugs than botany, check out this cake crawling with garden pals.

Insect Cake

For all of you mad scientists out there, here’s a chemistry cake for you.

Chemistry cake

In celebration of our brand new Wildlife theme. You can’t see it, but there are alligators lurking along the edges of this Texas cake!

Texas Cake 2

This stellar Jupiter cake is out of this world!

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While it’s not one of our themes, Elsa and Anna from Frozen made numerous appearances this year.

Frozen

A fabulous Ancient Egypt cake, complete with flaming torches! Walking like a hieroglyph yet?

Egypt cake

And to round off our Amazing Cakes, here’s a look at some of our favorite dinosaur delicacies!

Dino cake with painted dinos

Jurassic World CakeDino Cake by Gina

Jurassic World Fragile Cakedinosaur cake

And finally our personal favorite here at Party Smarty.

Logo Cake

Is it just me, or is there a resemblance?

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If you need help finding cakes as awesome as these for your HMNS birthday party, give us a call! We keep a list of the best places to find cool creations.

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