Being Natural: James Washington

May 17, 2015
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Discovery Guide James Washington, III, better known at the Houston Museum of Natural Science as “Jurassic James,” has made a career out of going above and beyond the call of duty.

“[My bosses] say, ‘You have your responsibilities. Make sure those are done, but then do whatever you want to do’,” he said. “So of course, me being me, I kept adding things to my job description.”

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James Washington shows off his collection of model dinosaurs, which he has been compiling since he was a young boy. They have since been repurposed into a wildly successful training regimen for HMNS employees.

Five years ago, Washington was tutoring Geology at Lone Star College when his students were offered extra credit for visiting the Cullen Hall of Gems & Minerals at HMNS. He volunteered to spend his Saturdays giving free tours for his students and made an impression on museum staff in the process.

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Washington explains the properties of the mineral pyrite by comparing several examples with other similar minerals.

“The guy who interviewed me was like, ‘You look familiar.’ I told him I did a tour here last weekend for some students. So, they hired me on in front-line visitor services,” Washington said.

Washington could do it all and was quickly promoted into the concierge program before becoming one of the first of the museum’s full-time Discovery Tour Guides. He continued to do extra work that was technically someone else’s job, scheduling tours and handling requests, eventually earning a promotion to Concierge Lead.

But where Washington really found his calling was with training and teaching. It’s what he calls, “the best part of my job.”

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Washington stands before the extensive whiteboard diagrams he drew to model the prehistoric Paleozoic and Mesozoic oceans.

Over the years, Washington has collected fossils, artifacts, and model animals and dinosaurs. Beginning in the fall of 2014, much of that collection made its way to the HMNS basement into a special training classroom Washington developed for the concierge program.

Since that time, the classroom has expanded from one room to three and has grown to cover more topics including geology, paleontology, and more. An entire counter is filled with colorful plastic dinosaur models, a long row of folding tables models the evolution of numerous animal species, and the walls are covered in dry-erase drawings of volcanoes, oceanic layers, and prehistoric reptile anatomy. It’s the end-result of years of hard work.

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Washington hand-drew and colored this 20-foot-long poster board modeling the evolution of life over time, completing the display with models from his personal collection.

“I just kept bringing more and more stuff in and reorganizing. This is not in my job description; I’m only supposed to do tour scheduling, but I end up doing two Adult Education classes and now some home-school classes in the fall,” Washington said.

“Every once in a while, I feel sorry for whoever replaces me,” he added with a grin.

Washington has always wanted to be a science teacher, specifically at the university-level, but for now, his work at the museum allows him to explore the depths of a variety of subjects.

“I like learning about ancient history and earth science and biology and animals and I don’t want to commit to learning just one of those concepts forever. The museum facilitates that. I can learn everything I want and apply it,” Washington said.

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Geologic specimens Washington collected over the years on various digs and field excursions cover this counter in the Museum’s basement.

The first step towards that goal is completing college and earning a bachelor’s degree, and Washington works hard to balance a full-time job with a full-time course load. Between working five days a week and a class schedule that begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 8:30 p.m. on his days off, it’s no wonder that he jokes, “I don’t sleep.”

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Washington demonstrates the differences between two versions of Tyrannosaurus rex that appeared in two different Jurassic Park films to show how human understanding of prehistoric life has changed over time.

Washington was always interested in dinosaurs and loved visiting the museum as a kid. He says he puts the museum on a pedestal, so much so that when he first applied, he remembered thinking, “I could never work at the museum. This is the Museum of Natural Science.”

Today, coming up on four years as an employee, Washington is thankful for the opportunities afforded him. He still can’t believe he works here.

“I look at what the Museum has given to me. I am talking to their guests about science. I am being sent out to give talks about fossils. I am doing Skype tours of this place, and I’m just a little kid from Houston,” Washington said. “It’s just really neat that they have entrusted me to do all of these things. It’s a real honor.”

Children and adults alike love accompanying “Jurassic James” on his tours. Visit the museum today, and take one for yourself!

Authored By Sahil Patel

Sahil has worked for HMNS in some capacity each summer since 2007 with the Moran Ecoteen Program and Xplorations Summer Camps. He quite literally grew up at the Museum; Sahil and his mom made biweekly trips at lunchtime until he started school at age 5, and he was a regular camper in Xplorations from ages 6-13. In 2014, he was hired full-time as Outreach Presenter, a job where his friends think he spends all day playing with alligators, tarantulas, and dinosaur fossils. He doesn’t like to contradict them.

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