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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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

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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.

 

The Adventures of Archie the Wandering T. rex: France

by Karen Whitley

Hey there, devoted fans! Archie checking in. I can’t wait to tell you about my last adventure abroad.

After packing up from my last adventure to jolly ol’ England, I said “Cheers!” to the United Kingdom and boarded the Eurostar to France! Parlez-vous français anyone? Yeah, me neither, unfortunately. The Chunnel was great, zooming along an underground tunnel at 160 kph (that’s about 100 mph for us Americans) while changing countries, languages, currency, and even time! But the absolute best part was the jelly they served with breakfast! Oops, I mean the preserves. Don’t worry, I took a photo of the jar so we could all benefit! *Cough* I may have taken the rest of the jar with me. A dinosaur has to eat, after all.

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So after a scrumptious meal and a quick changeover in Lille, Nord-Pas-de-Calais we arrived at Disneyland Paris where we would be staying for our whole trip. Interesting note, all of the Disney hotels have American names. What can I say? It’s a small world. The parks were a lot of fun and we learned to get around the language barrier. They were amazing at accommodating people and dinosaurs from all over the world. Of course we managed to ask for the most important thing, une glace. At least that’s how the locals say cremèe glacée: ice cream!

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Despite how awesome the parks were, you can’t go all the way to France without checking out Paris proper. I was lucky to be with some veteran travelers who knew the ins and outs, so we took the metro to the Trocadéro stop to begin our new site-seeing adventure!

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Grr, argh!

After lunch under the Eiffel Tower (and let me tell you, you haven’t had a hot dog until you’ve had one in France. It was in a baguette!), we took a boat down the Seine to our final Paris destination. Can you guess?

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Notre Dame Cathedral was beyond spectacular, but I can’t tell you how excited I was to discover what was on top. Only 387 steps up (ok, I totally piggybacked that climb) I discovered what looked like some long lost cousins on my mother’s side. Oh boy, I really felt a connection here! I almost didn’t want to leave, but I had a new adventure just around the corner.

After my amazing summer trip, I headed back home to the Houston Museum of Natural Science just in time to join an Adult Education program that had us going to Germany to visit amazing museums and even some dig sites. Sprechen Sie deutsch? Yeah, that’s another no for me too. Anyway, the Bavarian countryside was absolutely beautiful and we enjoyed amazing weather throughout! We were even there for Oktoberfest. Prosit! The best part, and to me even better than beer, is staying at Schloss Eggersberg. My German may not be great, but one word I do know is schloss, or castle! My room was in the top corner of the castle in what would be considered a servants’ room. A grown man could spread his arms and touch both sides of the room! Looks like being 8.5 inches tall is paying off for once.

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With the program, one of the amazing sites we visited was Solnhofen, home of what they call a Lagerstatte, a site filled with wonderfully preserved fossils. They have found over 500 species in this one site, but the coolest thing (at least what I think) is that this is where the Archaeopteryx was first discovered, the earliest bird known to fossil record!

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We also visited the Messel Pit Fossil Site. Man, I had some fun here. This place is rich in fossils, including being where the much debated Ida was discovered about 30 years ago. Whether or not Ida is the missing link, Messel has provided the world with tens of thousands of amazing fossils. And an awesome replica of a Masillamys, which patrons are probably not encouraged to ride. But I did anyway. Woohoo, ride ‘em cowboy!

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After a week of enjoying the German countryside and exploring and learning about different fossil sites, it was back to HMNS again to prepare for my next trip. I can’t wait to tell you about my next adventure!

You can find Archie and the whole Adopt-a-Dino family in the HMNS Museum Store. Drop by and take one home!

Editor’s Note: Karen is the Assistant Birthday Party Manager for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The Adventures of Archie the Wandering T. rex: England

by Karen Whitley

Man am I one lucky dinosaur. When I was adopted last summer from the Museum Store at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I had no idea I was on my way to becoming a world traveler, a globetrotter, an adventurer if you will. Just call me Lemuel Gulliver! (Like from Gulliver’s Travels? Get it??)

Well, actually, I was given the name Archibald… (Pretentious much?) But you can call me Archie. While my cousins and friends all waited to be adopted, I packed my suitcase (let me tell you, not so easy with short arms) and began my new life. A life filled with far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise… eh, maybe not so much. Let’s just say my human watches a little too much Disney.

To celebrate, my new family and I went off on a summer vacation! I did worry about the airplane, I mean flying dinosaurs….it’s not natural. But luckily everything went smoothly. The food wasn’t great and all, but I did get to catch up on some movies, and they even gave me some wings! I’m telling you, wings on a dinosaur… Not natural. Before I knew it, we had set down in Merry Ol’ England. Did you know they have a queen and princes (I wonder if they are in disguise), but no king? Guess I’m the king around here!AirportLondon is such a busy city! Taxi drivers zooming in and out, people filling the sidewalks, lines of big red buses everywhere. There was so much to see and do: from walks in St. James Park and Kensington Gardens (and ice cream), to Westminster Abby, Buckingham Palace (and ice cream), St. Paul’s Cathedral, LEGOLAND (and ice cream), and more (plus more ice cream)! The adventure never stopped! Here are just a few highlights from this great country.

There was this old clock that everyone was taking photos with… Big Ben, I’m told. Do you think I can get people to call me Big Archie? I won’t lie; for a clock, it was pretty spectacular. I reminds me of the Chronophage back home at HMNS.Big BenOM NOM NOM!! Look at me, I’m eating the clock! Godzilla IRL! LOL! JK…Eating Big BenThen we went on this giant Ferris wheel called the London Eye. We got a really cool bird’s-eye view of London, but for some reason people kept taking photos of me, even people in the pods next to us. Guess they had never seen a blue dinosaur before. It ain’t easy being blue.London EyeHey look, there’s the clock thing again! See it to the right?London Eye 4I even went on my first boat ride down the Thames to see the London Bridge (eh, not that impressed…) and the Tower Bridge (now THERE’s a bridge!), where we ended up at the Tower of London.Tower Bridge 2You’ll be happy to know that the ravens were present and accounted for when I left. I did try to eat a few, but since apparently that would have been disastrous to the realm of England. They kept them pretty safe. What do you think, would I make a good guard? (I’m pretty good at standing still…)Guard TowerWe did leave London to go out into the country to visit Leeds Castle in Kent, which was amazing! I mean, it has a moat. Who doesn’t love a moat?Castle LeedsThere was a tricky maze, which is not easy when you’re nine inches tall (Ok, eight and a half, but who’s counting?), but I didn’t let it stop me. Here’s me in the center of the maze!Castle Leeds Maze 2My final adventure in England was at King’s Cross Station where I journeyed onto Platform 9 3/4. They even sorted me into a house, Ravenclaw… They seemed to think it was where I belonged before I ran through the wall. Hmmm, magic, princes, a far off place… All we needed was a sword fight. Maybe my life is turning out like a Disney film, after all.Harry PotterSpeaking of Disney, tune in again in a couple of weeks as I tell you about my adventures in Paris that includes a trip to Disney! As for this trip to England, that’s about all the stories I have to tell. Until next time!

Oh, I almost forgot. I’ve got a big family still waiting to be adopted at the HMNS Museum Store! Stop by and meet them all, including my big brother! If they’re lucky, maybe you’ll take them on adventures, too!

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

The Art of the Skull: Museum Store highlights the beauty of the human skeleton

One of the most photographed pieces in the museum’s collections is the “jaw dropping” crystal quartz skull in the exhibit Gemstone Carvings: Masterworks by Harold Van Pelt.  The hollow, life-sized skull with articulated jaw, was carved from a single block of rare izoklakeite quartz.

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Harold van Pelt’s quartz skull.

Our fascination with human skulls spans cultures and eras. From the Neolithic plaster-covered skulls of Jericho, the ornate Buddhist kapala skull cups, European vanitas morality paintings, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos festivals, and all the way up to modern works of art from people like Damien Hirst, the skull represents our views about mortality and humanity.

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Vanitas Still Life. 1648, Jan Jansz. Treck.

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Click photo to open ShopHMNS Instagram.

The European Enlightenment period led to an interest in natural history, anatomy, and archaeology, and gentlemen’s cabinets of curiosities often included a collection of skulls, both animal and human. While these early wunderkammer were more about collecting the unusual and “wonderful” rather than scholarly study, they were the precursor to our modern natural history museums.

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Click photo to see product in the Museum Store.

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Click photo to open ShopHMNS Instagram.

Here in the Museum Store, we’re still fascinated with collecting skull art and imagery. One of our favorite items is the intricately beaded skull necklaces from local artist team Brassthread. Inspired by Huichol beadwork and Dia de los Muertos folk art, the tiny handmade skull is painstakingly set with miniscule beads in an intricate pattern.

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While not an original Van Pelt carving, this labradorite skull was hand carved in Madagascar from a solid block of labradorite, and flashes light and rich colors from different angles.

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Reminiscent of momento mori and Victorian headstone carvings, f. is for frank’s cast pewter skull ring is the work of Texas sculptors Shoshannah Frank and Casey Melton.

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Our newest artist is Ashley Lyons of New Orlean’s Porter Lyons. Her Voodoo collection pays homage to the history and customs behind the religion that was so much a part of New Orleans Creole culture. Her Baron Samedi earrings reference the loa who is the spirit of both death and resurrection.

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There is beauty and art in science, as shown by x-ray artist Hugh Turvey. Turvey uses industrial x-rays to photograph not just skeletons, but also the “bones” of everyday objects. Designer Michael Revil Madjus also captures the beauty of the human skull with his x-ray pillow.

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We love to see the natural world transformed into art, so even if skulls and skeletons aren’t your thing, we have intriguing items from a wide range of artists and designers, both in store and online at museumstore.hmns.org. And 100% of store proceeds benefits the museum and its educational programming. #ChillsAtHMNS