Forty years after Dipsy’s unveiling, original welder John Barber is back to watch her disassembly

There’s no sweeter story than that of a boy and his … dinosaur?

In February of 1973, 24-year-old John Barber was just out of art school in Virginia, having barely missed the draft and with no idea what to do with himself. He was visiting an aunt and uncle in Houston when he paid a visit to the Houston Museum of Natural Science — and happened upon a scene that would change his life.

“There was a large wooden platform raked at an angle, and a lot of large bones laid out in some kind of order. I walked around it a couple of times and realized that they were apparently going to assemble a big dinosaur,” Barber says. “I thought, holy cow!”

Having earned a fine arts degree in sculpture — and worked his way through school as a welder — Barber asked to speak to then-curator Dwayne Hicks to see if he might make himself useful. They reviewed his skills and 20 minutes later, Barber, now 64, left with a job.

Barber estimates he was making about $525 a month in those days. “I arrived in Houston with a small valise, a box of Magic Markers and a cardboard tube of drawing paper.”

Forty years later, Barber is back at HMNS supervising Dipsy’s de-installation. He paused to chat with us about his own history with Houston’s best-loved dinosaur and how it feels to see her come down.

Twenty years after their first meeting, John Barber is back to bid farewell to Dipsy
Barber poses with Dipsy during her de-installation

When Barber first began work on Dipsy’s armature, 18 months of bone preparation had already been completed. For non-sculptors, an “armature” refers to the steel support that, in this case, took the place of cartilage and muscles that would have supported Dipsy’s skeleton in life. The objective, Barber says, was to make the support as unobtrusive as possible so the public would view the maximum amount of dinosaur bone and minimum steel support. His mentor, Dr. Wann Langston, used to joke, “If you do your work right, no one will ever see it.”

By 1975, Dipsy was revealed to the general public.

via Pinterest

“We worked on that mount for almost two years,” Barber says. “Some people got upset that it took so long, but Dr. Langston was old school. His main interest in the mount was the feet. The reason our Diplodocus is mounted moving up a slope has to do with how the feet and legs were able to support that 30-ton mass going up a grade.”

via Pinterest

In life, Dipsy would have weighed the equivalent of two tractor trailers stacked on top of one another. Even her skeleton is heavy enough that it required 250-pound, 8-inch I-beams for support, laid across two pieces of railroad track that are concealed in her base.

Barber remained in the Museum exhibit business — and in Houston — for the next 25 years, only more recently deciding to devote his full attention back to (more traditional) sculpture. His sheet metal sculptures of Gulf Coast wildlife are shown at galleries throughout the region and online at johnbarber.com.

“As we approach the task of disassembling the Diplodocus some 40 years since I started working on it, I find myself contemplating the issue of time — how 40 years is the working life of a man, but for a fossil specimen is but a moment. I feel that I have an obligation to that specimen; it changed the course of my life in a profound manner, and brought me into a line of work that I found artistically fulfilling and intellectually satisfying. How much more can a man ask for in life?”

Have your own special memory of Dipsy? Post it here in the comments or share it with us on Facebook!

HMNS: Here’s to 101! [12 Days of HMNS]

Today is the Twelfth Day of HMNS! In the spirit of the classic holiday carol, we’re taking 12 days to feature 12 different videos that preview or go behind-the-scenes of a holiday museum activity, here on the blog (or, you can get a sneak peek at all the videos on 12days.hmns.org – we won’t tell).

2009 was the Museum’s centennial – our 100th year of science education in Houston. We’re very proud of our history – and excited about the amazing changes that are coming to the Museum as we expand our facility over the next few years.

Throughout the year, we produced a video series of interviews with our staff who have been here the longest – the record is 39 years! This video is a collection of our favorite moments with them, as well as their ideas for where the Museum is headed for our next century of science. Enjoy!

Need to catch up?

The First Day of HMNS – Explore: Snow Science
The Second Day of HMNS – Preview: The Chronicles of Narnia Exhibition
The Third Day of HMNS – Preview: Disney’s A Christmas Carol
The Fourth Day of HMNS – Investigate: The Star of Bethlehem
The Fifth Day of HMNS – Shop: The Perfect Gift
The Sixth Day of HMNS – Marvel: Faberge
The Seventh Day of HMNS – Glimpse: Spirits & Headhunters
The Eighth Day of HMNS – Behind the Scenes: HMNS Greenhouses
The Ninth Day of HMNS – Revealed: Gem Vault
The Tenth Day of HMNS – Discover: HMNS at Sugar Land
The Eleventh Day of HMNS – Magic: The Science of Wonder

Get into the holiday spirit! Visit our 12 Days of HMNS web site to see the videos and get more information about each event, exhibit and film: 12days.hmns.org

Today is our last day of videos, and we hope you’ve enjoyed the series. It’s also Christmas day – and if you’re looking for something to do – we’ve got you covered. Both HMNS and HMNS at Sugar Land are open today – we hope to see you!

Happy Holidays!

‘Tis the Season…

20080927_7701
The world’s largest
shell, an object from
the HMNS collection that
is currently on display.
Creative Commons License photo credit: etee

This is the time of year when we’re all thinking about what we’re giving to friends and family. Especially this year, when most of us are being more thoughtful about what it is we’re giving. Since my job duties entail the registration and processing of donations to the museum’s collections, I encounter gift giving all year long. But especially at the end of the year and this month has kept me busy! Currently, I’m plowing through recent donations of things as varied as Amazonian spears to a swan specimen to Native American pueblo pottery. All of these donations will enhance our collections and all of us in the Collections Department are most appreciative of our generous donors.

However, these are the most recent acquisitions. The Houston Museum of Natural Science wouldn’t be where it is today without nearly a century of far-sighted people who generously and intelligently gave entire collections of natural specimens and cultural artifacts. They entrusted things they had collected with passion and zeal to a museum that was just beginning to grow so that Houstonians could learn about the natural world around them. In the coming year of 2009, as the museum celebrates its centennial, you’ll hear more about the names of Attwater, Westheimer, Milsaps, McDannald but their generosity was the foundation of the museum’s collections.

A spectacular mineral specimen in the
HMNS collection.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Lori Greig

And that’s what it takes – generosity. I wonder what our past donors would think of today’s natural history auction market? Fossils and minerals can fetch exorbitant prices, far more than most museums can ever pay. Would those long ago donors who thought so highly of museums as institutions for the public approve of specimens and artifacts staying in the private hands of the highest bidder? After all, these early naturalists, amateur and professional, were often wealthy and acute businessmen themselves. But they did give and the museum has been fortunate that that kind of generosity has prevailed for a century. Indeed, it continues today and our collections continue to grow.

So, I’ll continue to measure and count amazing artifacts and specimens and make sure each donor is properly acknowledged. It’s just my small part in witnessing how the thoughtful generosity of our donors makes the museum a better place for us all.