Fill in the Blanks with Curator of Anthropology Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout

May 27, 2020
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Whether you need a quick explainer on a key turning point in the history of the Mayan civilization, the New Orleans Saints’ past playoff woes or the subtleties between seasons of “The Simpsons”, there is no person better equipped at the Houston Museum of Natural Science than Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout.

He speaks five languages, so he can offer up his favorite ‘Simpsons’ quotes in English, Spanish, Dutch, French and German.

Since 1999 he’s been a key part of your experience at the museum, curating the John P. McGovern Hall of Americas (soon to undergo a long-awaited reboot) and co-curator (along with Tom Hardwick) of the Hall of Ancient Egypt. He also assists with traveling exhibitions that fascinate the eye and the mind, including our recent Stonehenge attraction.

Like everyone else, he has spent the past month or so of his COVID-19 life working from home. He’s stayed busy getting his ducks in a row for that anticipated Hall of Americas update, which we are excited to experience.

For this first installment of “Fill in the Blanks” we mined his mind for some special nuggets from his wild and varied life.

If there is one thing I have learned at HMNS it’s that it takes a whole team to make an exhibit a success. Whether it is a temporary show or a permanent one, the general public never sees the work that goes into building an exhibit. This is done by a team of professionals who transform an empty 10,000-square-foot space into an exhibit in a matter of weeks. They make it look like magic, but it involves a lot of work. It takes a whole team.

If I had only ten minutes to visit HMNS I would visit the Hall of the Americas. Ever wondered who walked around in what is now Houston, some 10,000 years ago? Ever wondered if a person sitting next to you on the bus might be a descendant of these earliest immigrants? The Hall of the Americas presents a framework to answer questions like these.

Some people probably don’t know that I gave a museum tour to the president of Ethiopia.

If I had the world’s ear for just five minutes to say anything I would tell the world that “learn from history, or we are doomed to repeat it” are not empty words. History matters, and, by the way, science does too.

The wisest person I ever met once told me nothing. Instead, they showed me. Yes, “they.” I have met many wise people, men and women. They did not tell me the imparted wisdom but they instead showed me how. From my sixth-grade teacher and his enthusiasm for history, to professors in graduate school who saw a person instead of just another student, they all pushed me along, and guided me towards where I am today. Regardless of how we got to where we are, and regardless of whether people told us or showed us, remember what they did for you, and then “pay it forward.” Try to help the next generation in ways you recall were helpful for you.

If I wasn’t working at a science museum, I would probably be teaching anthropology at a college and be in the field digging.

In 50 years, I think that HMNS will have solidified its role as an educational resource for the Houston community and beyond.

Visit the McGovern Hall of the Americas to learn more about more than 50 diverse cultures from Alaska to Peru.

Authored By Craig Hlavaty

Craig Hlavaty has been covering Houston pop-culture since 2006 at various outlets around the city. He is currently the social media manager at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and eats his tamales with ketchup.

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