Are You Making a Connection?

October 23, 2008

So, why are you here? What part of yourself did you bring today? What experience do you want to have? These are the questions I wish I could ask every one of you as you come through the museum’s doors. Then according to your answers I’d play matchmaker, pointing out an exhibit hall, hooking you up with just the right specimen or artifact so you could make a connection.

In today’s increasingly digitized world we are overwhelmed with visual images, most of which we ignore. You come to the museum and we’ve got…uh…more stuff for you to look at. Yet, you’re here. You could have stayed home twitching through a hundred television channels or trawling online for something, anything, about science. But you dealt with traffic and parking to experience something real, so what will you connect with and why?

Everyone coming to the museum brings their own individual history, likes and dislikes and those things obviously factor into the objects they find appealing. Suppose you love all things purple and you really like minerals, it’s no big revelation that one of your favorite specimens at HMNS might be the amethyst geode in the mineral hall. At this point, mentally Rolodex the specimens and artifacts you’ve come to love at HMNS. What do you never tire looking at, what do you always re-visit? Fossils? Shells? Taxidermied wildlife? A Native American pot? You can probably easily state the reasons why, too. Old stuff’s cool, shells are pretty, animals fascinate me, etc., etc. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Model: giraffe
Creative Commons License photo credit: jrsnchzhrs

Think of an object at the museum that caught your attention for no particular reason, it sorta surprised you. It might have been nothing special until you read the label, learned something new, and suddenly you saw that object differently. Or across the gallery something grabbed your eye and you absolutely had to know what that thing was. Aha! A connection’s been made, you’re not completely sure why, but you enjoy it and now it’s a favorite thing to see and share with others when you visit the museum.

Let me assure you, that very real connection between you and your special item can’t be downloaded or digitized. To illustrate I’ll share one of my favorites – but I have to cheat a little. This specimen’s not on exhibit but is part of the vertebrate zoology collection. A few years back a giraffe died of old age at the Houston Zoo and the skull was sent over to Dr. Brooks, our Curator of Vertebrate Zoology. The giraffe was Hi-Lo, whom I remember fondly from my childhood zoo visits (that’s my personal history connection) so I was pleased his skull came into our collections. Then I observed that the horns, those knobby things on a giraffe’s head, are actually bone. Somehow I thought they’d be some sort of spongy cartilage. Who knew? But I gained new insight. Last, for no reason I can defend, I truly love the slender elongated sculptural beauty of the skull. It’s just cool. Yeah, I can google an image of a giraffe’s skull on any computer but it’ll never delight me the way that Hi-Lo’s does.

Ok, a connection’s been made. Where will it take you? Does it inspire enough to pursue further knowledge or is the experience of the connection enough in itself? As a child, the late great Stephen Jay Gould so loved the dinosaur skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History that he became a renowned paleontologist. Me? I enjoy looking at the giraffe’s skull over and over again but am content to remain a registrar. And here’s some more musings regarding our connections with objects. Why do we take photos of our favorite things in museums? Why do we take photos of ourselves with them? Why do we buy replicas of them in the museum gift shop?

Pharaoh hats
Creative Commons License photo credit:

Whew, lots of questions in this blog! Now it’s your turn, let’s make this a discussion. Which objects do you think best represent the museum; are there iconic objects that connect with every visitor? Communicate with us; tell us what your favorite HMNS artifacts and specimens are and why. Because, if I could, the last question I’d ask when you go out the museum’s doors would be: Did you make a connection?

Donna Meadows
Associate Registrar, Acquisitions

Authored By Donna Meadows

Despite many childhood visits to HMNS, Donna was clueless that she would have a career here as a registrar instead of as a world famous ballerina. She has worked so long in the Collections Department that it must be more than a quirky, passing phase. When not processing new acquisitions into the permanent collections, peppering the curators with questions, or making people put on gloves, Donna can be found in a dance class, a bell tower, at a dance performance, or reading a book.

6 responses to “Are You Making a Connection?”

  1. Linda Harmes says:

    I can’t say I have a particular favorite. I always like to be surprised by something new. I love the shells because I started collecting them as a child and never tire of going through my various containers of shells when I come across them. I am usually most drawn to the anthropological exhibits. I am fascinated by the various tools, textiles and art work. I like to think about how the first person came to figure out how to turn some plant into fabric. I have especially enjoyed the exhibits on Ben Franklin and Lucy. Thanks for bringing us so many ways to connect with the natural sciences.

  2. Dave says:

    I have to honestly think that there really isn’t anything in the permanent halls that really makes me look in awe and amazement. It is not like the AMNH in New York with their amazing dinosaur displays and such….or in many of the best art museums. Art museums just have so many monumental and famous piece of works that really attract me, such as the works by Da Vinci, Picasso, or the cutting edge modern art, or fascinating Egyptian sculptures not found in Science museums.

  3. Linh says:

    I am always drawn to the minerals and malacology section at HMNS. I enjoy the mini-aquariums and find the display cases and taxonomy comforting.

  4. Donna says:

    One of the things I find intriguing about natural history/science museums is they offer a way to connect with the natural world to people in urban environments. Many of the school children who come through here don’t have an opportunity to actually pick up shells or rocks in nature but the museum staff can at least show them specimens to illustrate what’s out there. Of course, nature and science aren’t always pretty but what I like about specimens is that they are what they are, untouched by humans. We have no influence on the mollusk making its shell but we sure can enjoy and admire the result. It’s also interesting to me that while both Linda and Linh like the malacology exhibit, one mentions collecting shells and the other mentions the display cases.

  5. Chloe says:

    Is the Houston Museum of Natural Science one of the biggest museums in the world? It seems huge to me!! Just wondering, if not, what is if you know?

  6. Donna says:

    Gosh, Chloe what a great question! We’re a good-sized museum but there are several I can think of off the top of my head that are even larger. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Field Museum in Chicago, The Museum of Natural History in London are all huge. The entire Smithsonian Institute complex in Washington D.C. is overwhelming. And if you want to add in art and history museums, the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London, the Museum of FIne Arts in Boston could take days to see every exhibit! But here’s my point, we love having you visit HMNS, please come see us and get to know and love our permanent exhibits. As my blog says, make your own connection. Then wherever you may travel go to at least one museum, spend an afternoon, wander around. Don’t worry about getting lost, a guard or docent is sure to find you! There are so many museums and every one offers its own distinct experience. But I hope the Houston Museum of Natural Science will always be a favorite of yours. Thanks so much for your comment!

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