Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 5/2-5/8

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Dylan (age: 9):

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Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty.

Cultural Feast – Amazonian Culinary Adventure
Wednesday, May 4
7:00 p.m.
During the 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese explorers searching for gold and other valuable commodities in the Amazon often suffered from food shortages. They had little or no interest in the exotic flora on which the native population thrived. With more scientific exploration by scholars beginning in the 18th century, the value of many of the native Amazonian plants and trees was soon recognized, as reflected in their impact on industry, medicine and cuisine. Chef David Cordúa will create innovative dishes featuring ingredients native to the Amazon, while culinary historian Merrianne Timko places the edible Amazon in historical context.

Cabinet of Curiosities opens Friday, May 6
As an homage to its own history, the Houston Museum of Natural Science will be presenting an interpretation of the cabinet of curiosity. Visitors will have the unique opportunity to peruse various objects of curiosity and wonder, up close and in a personal way.

Class – Virgen de Guadalupe Procession
Sunday, May 8
6:30 p.m.
The vibrant troupes of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Association will perform a special Mother’s Day procession in honor of the Holy Mother with music, dancing, elaborate costumes and Aztec feather headdresses. Live commentary will describe the symbolism unique to each troupe and traditions of Guadalupana processions.

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Under a Gold Blanket: Discovery Guide Tours Famed Mine in Minas Gerais

by “Cretaceous” Chris Wells

The City of Ouro Preto, “Black Gold”. It was the largest City in Latin America for a while in the 18th Century, during the Brazilian gold rush. Today the city is famous around the World for it’s preserved, Baroque Architecture.

The city of Ouro Preto, “Black Gold.” It was the largest City in Latin America in the 18th century during the Brazilian gold rush. Today the city is famous around the world for its preserved Baroque architecture.

Brazil is a beautiful country, but not in the same way as the Florida Keys, Hawaii, or Aspen. Everywhere in Brazil you have a wonderful dichotomy between the grotesque and the graceful. The entire country is like an impressionist painting — up close you see sloppiness and imperfection, but if you stand back, all of the colors and textures come together to create a stunning portrait, a portrait based in reality, not contrived. Throughout my July 2015 trip through the state of Minas Gerais, in the mountainous interior of Brazil, I had been awed by the natural beauty of the country, and also with the artificial splendors. I was always amazed by what people who have so little can create with what they do have.

The scenic train ride to the city of Mariana, where the mine museum was. Minas Gerais is famed in Brazil for its natural beauty

The scenic train ride to the city of Mariana, where the mine museum was. Minas Gerais is famed in Brazil for its natural beauty.

I was basking in the adrenaline and the charm of exotic travel, but the grotesque crept back into my perception as I sat in a rickety old mine car, suspended above the mouth of a mineshaft on a track with a forty-five degree slope. The rusted mining equipment and dilapidated offices and supply sheds had blended nicely with the mountainside when I first viewed them from across the valley during the train ride over, but up close it was less than dazzling. The only thing keeping us from sliding hundreds of feet into the earth was a steel cable hooked up to a winch probably as old as my grandfather. There were no seat belts in the cart, and the angle of the tracks was so steep, I had to press my feet against the seat in front of me to keep from sliding off. There were no other people visiting the mine — it was only Fernanda and I — and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a sinister reason for that emptiness. I was a bit nervous as the little old lady manning the craft announced in Portuguese that we were about to descend, but then the buttons were pressed, the car slipped slowly and smoothly into the darkness and it wasn’t that bad.

he entrance to the mine. Until only a couple decades ago, miners would make this descent every day.

he entrance to the mine. Until only a couple decades ago, miners would make this descent every day.

The trip down was noisy. The wheels of the cart screeched against the steel tracks, and every once in a while the cart would jump on a connection between two rails and snap back down loudly. The sound would bounce off the solid stone walls around us and pound our eardrums. The shaft was dark. Lamps, bare bulbs budding from a ragged wire that crept like a vine along the walls of the shaft, emitted a honey-colored glow that lent the place a very intimidating and volcanic atmosphere. But it was actually quite cool down there. The earth insulated us from the sun up top; we were no longer subject the conditions on the surface.

Our descent into the earth, in a simple old cart that used to ferry the miners down to their work.

Our descent into the Earth in a simple old cart that used to ferry the miners down to their work.

Beside us, embedded in the rock walls of the mine, ran a sliver of milky white quartz. The shaft followed it until we reached the bottom of the mine. At the bottom, the path flattened out and the rails ended. Men were laboring with shovels, loading rocks into a pile for transport back to the surface. The mine was not active anymore; these were simply employees of the museum that owned the mine clearing debris for the safety of the guests. Their store-bought, not-too-dirty clothes belied their fortunate position as men who did not permanently work in a mine. Still, they looked tired and unhappy, and generally ignored our presence, which I don’t blame them for. I have often said that I can do physical labor or customer service, but not both.

Milky-white bands of quatz running through the stone walls of the mine.

Milky-white bands of quartz running through the stone walls of the mine.

The vein of quartz that we had followed down was thicker at the bottom of the shaft.  Here it became apparent that it was not just a small sliver of quartz we had seen, but a thin cross-section of an entire layer blanketing the Earth for who knows how far in every direction. Originally, it would have formed as a flat layer, but like a massive, restless sleeper, the Earth had shrugged its silvery blanket during bouts of tectonic activity. The quartz layer had been folded into the Earth’s crust, resulting in a slumped, angled descent beneath the surface. This is why the mine goes so deep. It follows the descent of the quartz vein. The Portuguese had mined near the surface in the 18th century, but with their limited technology, they didn’t go very deep. The shaft we visited was dug much more recently.

Bands of quartz, along with other minerals, lined the walls.

Bands of quartz, along with other minerals, lined the walls.

The mine wasn’t a quartz mine. The reason this vein was so important is that very often gold is found in quartz. Down in the mine, we could see no gold, but it was there, trapped in the quartz. The mining companies had cleared the shafts with explosives, creating a maze of passages spreading in all directions. To keep these shafts from collapsing under the millions of tons of sediment above, they left columns of rock standing, like pillars in an Egyptian temple, throughout the galleries. Like the walls of the mine, these pillars had diagonal layers, alternating between rock and quartz, like a layered cake. In these columns, quartz and gold still rested, impossible to get to without collapsing the mine.

At the Bottom of the mine, passages like this one meandered in every direction. There were some passages that went deeper, but those had been flooded.

At the bottom of the mine, passages like this one meandered in every direction. There were some passages that went deeper, but those had been flooded.

And although the gold itself was invisible, pyrite (fool’s gold) was everywhere, so in places the mine shafts really did look like they were covered in gold. There were also tourmaline and garnet, a menagerie of natural splendor, though none of them were of gem quality. The good stuff would have been plucked out and sold. Museums around the world buy specimens from Minas, even our museum. A notable portion of the pieces in our Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals came from the region. Our hall is what inspired me to travel there in the first place. Our great collection of gold does not come from Minas, but like the mine I visited, our gold was found in quartz veins. We have a wonderful, natural gold “sculpture” called “the dragon,” a sliver of gold that actually looks like a rearing reptile with spread wings. We have other pieces of gold in all sorts of abstract, contorted shapes as well. Since gold doesn’t grow (unfortunately), the way it acquires these weird forms is by being trapped in quartz. As the quartz grows, it manipulates the gold inside into all sorts of interesting shapes. So originally our gold was trapped in quartz crystals, and was extracted by dissolving the quartz in a mild acid that does not harm the gold. A similar process is used to extract gold from quartz in mines like the one I visited.

My girlfriend and I.

Fernanda and I, overlooking the valley.

Editor’s Note: “Cretaceous” Chris is a Discovery Guide for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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Peale-ing Back American History: the Life of Charles Willson Peale and his Cabinet of Curiosities

In the first fan girl crush blog about Charles Willson Peale, I talked about how Peale created the first American Museum. Today, I’m talking about the rest of his life.

Part of the reason I admire Peale so much is that his attitude about life seemed to be, “I can figure that out.” If he admired a talent or a skill, he would figure out how to acquire that ability himself and work at it until he was at least proficient at the skill. At every turn, he taught what he knew to others, particularly his children. A contemporary of the founding fathers, Peale had the same zest for life and learning that Franklin and Jefferson exhibited. In fact, those three often exchanged correspondence discussing new inventions and sharing ideas on how to improve them. Until the very end of his life, Peale demonstrated this zeal for learning and a desire to share his knowledge with others.

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Charles Willson Peale.

But, let’s go back to the start…

Peale was the son of a British convict who was banished to the colonies. The senior Peale moved to Annapolis and used his considerable smarts to become the headmaster of a prestigious school, where the Peale family lived and the Peale children attended the school for free. This fantastic opportunity meant that young Charles Willson Peale was exposed to many subjects that he wouldn’t normally get to experience, and he soon discovered that he loved drawing and painting, a love that stayed with him his entire life. When the elder Peale died in 1750 at the age of 41 and the family was left destitute and homeless, an old student of elder Peale took the family in. Mrs. Peale became a dress maker to earn some money. Too young to work himself, Charles would help his mother by going to town to sketch the latest styles for her.

At the ripe old age of 13, Charles and his mother decided it was time for him to earn a trade, so he was apprenticed off. The two of them discussed his options and Charles decided on saddlery. Saddlery was smelly and hard but Charles was so industrious that his master gave him extra jobs and he was actually able to save some money. His first big purchase was a pocket watch, but it stopped working almost immediately. He took it in for repair, paid a considerable sum and then the watch stopped again. So he decided to learn how watches work so he could fix it himself. This started his interest in tinkering.

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Portrait of Marquis de Lafayette by Charles Willson Peale.

At 21, after considerable confusion, he was married to his first wife and the love of his life, Rachel. They lived with his mother while he was creating a successful business to compete with his former master. Unfortunately, he chose to establish his new business a little too close to his master, and to show his dissatisfaction, the old master offered to set Peale up in business by making him a loan on tools and leather. The friendly and trusting Peale took him up on his offer, only realizing the bad deal afterwards, which ended up being the cause of considerable financial troubles for years.

While on a trip to Norfolk to buy more supplies, Peale visited a man whose oil paintings were so bad that Peale thought, “I can do better.” He had never actually seen an oil painting before this visit and had nothing to use for comparison. But that didn’t matter. He was now a painter. He immediately came back to Annapolis and painted portraits of Rachel, his brother James and himself. They were so good, he got several commissions. At this point, he added sign-making to his trade using the carriage oil paint.

Rachel Weeping

Charles Willson Peale’s wife Rachel, weeping over their daughter who died of smallpox.

To continue with this new venture, he needed portrait supplies from Philadelphia. When he got to Philadelphia, Peale didn’t know how to actually paint so he couldn’t order pigments and supplies. Instead, he got a price list and said he’d come back. He then got a basic art instruction book (two volumes) from London and read that. With that new knowledge and his price list, he selected his supplies. He still had no practical knowledge, so he traded a saddle for lessons (stretching canvases, sizing a canvas, etc.) from a local artist.

In 1764, Peale joined “The Sons of Freedom” and used his artistic ability to paint their protest signs. Because of this, all the financial troubles he incurred from his original master came back to bite him. The prominent men to whom he owed money were not happy with his involvement with these colonial rabble-rousers, and they were coming for him. It was either flee or rot in jail. So, leaving a very pregnant Rachel at home, he fled to his sisters’ home. From there, he ended up on a schooner that was making a short trip to Boston to deliver corn. Eighteen months and several adventures later, Peale had developed enough skills to stave off his debts and reunite with his beloved Rachel. Shortly thereafter, he had the opportunity to study art in London for the next year.

While in London, Peale popped in on another colonist from Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin. This impromptu visit resulted in a great friendship that would last a lifetime. Upon returning to Pennsylvania, Peale spent the next several years building his reputation and earning commissions as a portrait painter.

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Independence Hall, formerly the Pennsylvania Statehouse, as painted by Charles Willson Peale.

On July 8, 1776, Peale began his military career. He made the short walk from a newly-purchased home in Philadelphia to the statehouse to hear the Declaration of Independence being read. A month later, he joined the militia and was responsible for a group of 81 men. Before heading out to an unknown fate, Peale made the effort to check on the families of each of his 81 men, inquiring about concerns and needs while they would be away fighting. Although he and his men were not at battle long, this concern for his men continued throughout the war and did not go unappreciated by those he led. During the Battle of Princeton, Peale used saddlery skills to make moccasins for those without shoes.

During the war, Peale painted portraits of various important figures. Among them was Gilbert du Motier, know as the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was a key figure in the American Revolution. He was commissioned as a major general and was a friend and trusted advisor to General George Washington. As Lafayette sat for his portrait, he and Peale became friends. This pattern repeated with Washington, Jefferson, Madison and many other familiar names.

Lord Cornwallis was defeated at Yorktown in 1781 which caused everyone to put candles in their windows. A young Frenchman removed two of the sashes in the windows and put up transparent pictures instead. Peale followed suit the next night and all the windows featured portraits of leaders of Yorktown. People came from all over town to see the display, which he changed out several more times. This provided a wider audience than his wealthy patrons and helped those who’d turned their back on Peale for political reasons to notice him again. This also began Peale’s career as a showman.

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Advertisement for Peale’s Museum.

Before, during and after the war, Peale painted portraits of various sizes, and a year after the Battle of Yorktown, Peale added an addition onto his house to hold them all. This was the first public picture gallery in America. The portraits were of the heroes of the revolution. Included in the gallery were full-length portraits of Washington and Gerard to smaller portraits of Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Thomas Paine, and Robert Morris. He charged no admission fee because he wanted commissions for copies but also because he wanted to inspire his fellow citizens to live up to the highest ideals of a republican form of government.

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Model of Peale’s patented fireplace.

The next few years were busy. First, the portrait gallery transformed into a gallery for moving pictures, and then later became the precursor to the first natural history museum. In 1804, Peale returned to painting again, which led to the founding the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Peale received two patents and subsequently spent a great deal of time copying out the documents for others. To save time, he perfected the polygraph, which allowed the writer to pen two documents at once.

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Peale is credited with patenting improvements to the original polygraph machine, which had nothing to do with truth-telling. A writer would pen a document on one side, and the machine would replicate the hand movements on the other.

In 1810, Peale decided to retire to a farm, and by retire he meant totally re-do. He added a studio, redid the kitchen, planted crops, and repaired the farm tools. Peale was too fond of his livestock to slaughter them. He needed money, so his neighbor suggested currants for wine, which he planted reluctantly because he himself was not a drinker. The wine became the most profitable project at the farm and was highly praised. During this time, Peale and Thomas Jefferson kept up a steady exchange of letters discussing new agricultural methods and equipment. At Monticello, Jefferson invented the moldboard plow and Peale put it into service at Belfield.

While Peale enjoyed tinkering with the farm equipment, he didn’t actually like the farming. In fact, farming may be the only thing at which Peale never truly excelled. Not to worry, however. His son Rubens loved botany, so he applied his artistic eye to this arena and created a lavish garden. The beauty of the gardens attracted flocks of people, so many in fact that the family had to close the gates to keep people from crushing the flowers. Rather than producing crops, Peale produced landscape paintings. In the end, Peale discovered that “retirement was hard on the wallet.” For a number of reasons, Belfield was sold, and Peale returned to Philly to focus on the future of his museum.

A few years later, the Marquis de Lafayette, a Revolutionary War hero, returned to Philadelphia for a visit. The red carpets were rolled out. There was to be a parade and a public gathering, but Peale was not asked to play any role in the visit. While this wounded his pride, he came to cheer in the crowd nonetheless. During the processional parade to the statehouse, however, Lafayette spied Peale in the crowd and immediately left the formal gathering and went to embrace his old friend. He insisted that Peale join him for several of the planned events as his special guest.

As he got older, his children believed that he had obtained a certain position in Philly society and they didn’t want him to jeopardize this. They became extremely nervous when he decided to write his autobiography in his mid-80’s. One of his daughters Sophy would read the installments nightly and would try to censor the more provocative parts. His kids were horrified when Peale put out an announcement in May of 1826 for his newest venture — Porcelain False Teeth, selling for $150 a set.

At the age of 85, Peale decided to find a fourth Mrs. Peale and marry again. A friend recommended an elderly lady who taught at a school for the deaf in New York. After a whirlwind two-week romance, Peale proposed to this lucky lady. The proposal also included an offer to teach her how to make false teeth. Shockingly, neither offer was accepted.

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Peale returned to Philly from this adventure by boat, but it ran aground in stormy weather about a mile from the dock, so he had to walk with his luggage in the rain for quite some distance. When he arrived home, he was exhausted and had “strained his heart.” He became increasingly weak over the next few weeks and died in his bed Feb. 22, 1827.  He was buried in St. Peter’s Churchyard in Philadelphia, just blocks from his beloved museum.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is opening a Peale-like Cabinet of Curiosities next Friday, May 6. Come visit for a taste of the wonder Americans might have felt wandering through Peale’s museum.

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Beached Galveston Whale Raises Concerns and Curiosities

Back in December, a 44-foot sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) washed ashore and died on the Galveston coastline near the Terramar subdivision. It was sighted by a passerby who spied it rolling in the waves, its spout the only clear sign that it was alive. A crowd gathered, including a local dolphin rescue group and machinery crews who brought out a front-end loader.

Not much could be done for the whale, unfortunately, since its size prevented advocacy groups and interested citizens from helping it back into the ocean. A frightened whale, rolling in the waves, poses a serious threat of crushing those who wish to help it. Onlookers had no choice but to watch and hope for the best.

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Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis)

When the whale stopped spouting, a sign it was no longer breathing, crews dragged it ashore so a necropsy, or animal autopsy, could be performed and its species could be identified. After the seven-hour procedure to determine its cause of death, results were inconclusive and remained murky for several weeks. A number of combined factors could have contributed to its becoming stranded. The whale was dragged on shore by front-end loaders and buried in a deep trench near the water table, common practice for any beached cetacean.

“Typically when dolphins are beached, we take them to an off-site location and bury them. This whale was 60,000 pounds, so we buried it at the site where it washed up,” said Mary Beth Bassett, Public Relations Coordinator for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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Woodcut of Dutch whalers in the 1800s.

The World Wildlife Fund lists the sei whale as an endangered species, with less than 12,000 individuals estimated to live in today’s oceans. Commercial whalers targeted the species and hunted them heavily when blue and fin whales became scarce, driving their numbers dangerously low. While advocacy groups continue to work to restore the population, the sei whale, and ocean-going whales in general, remain difficult to track and understand, and so must be protected through international whaling laws.

Because whales use echolocation to navigate, sonar from commercial ships might confuse whales, driving them into dangerous situations that lead to beachings, explained Tina Petway, Houston Museum of Natural Science Associate Curator of Malacology. This could have played a factor in the death of this whale, which was also probably ill and its navigational faculties already impaired.

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Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

“Whales frequently have parasites that get in the inner ear and cause them to have echolocation problems and lose their balance easily,” Petway said. “They can be led off their paths when their echolocation doesn’t seem to work.”

Petway theorized that some of these ocean-going whales unused to inshore areas can become “lost” between sandbars. When led astray, they might pass a sandbar and believe they are heading back out to sea when in fact, they are in a trough between sandbars. By this time, they are trapped and the inshore current continues to push them further onto the beach.

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Bryce’s whale, (Balaenoptera brydei) with three distinctive ridges on its head.

“But something was wrong before it got stranded,” Petway said.

The sei whale belongs to a family of fin whales characterized by a small, backward-curving dorsal fin far down their backs. Only four whales have this specific characteristic, the blue whale, the fin whale (its name no surprise), the Bryde’s (pronounced broo-des) whale, and the sei whale. The Bryde’s and the sei are difficult to distinguish from one another. They are almost identical in size and shape, but the Bryde’s has three ridges on the top of its head running from its blowhole to its snout, while the sei whale has only one.

“Almost all species of whales can be found in the Gulf of Mexico,” Petway said. “We have pods of killer whales (orcas) in the Gulf of Mexico. They don’t travel. They are resident pods.”

Baleen

Fin whales all use baleen to catch and filter krill out of large gulps of seawater. They swim through large schools of krill, or copopods, with their mouths open, and push the water through the baleen (which has the appearance of broom bristles hanging from the top of the mouth) with their tongues. Like dust, the baleen catches the krill, which the whale then swallows.

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The growing amount of bits of plastic in the ocean, now so far broken down some of it is microscopic, is a concern for baleen whales. Because the bits of plastic are about the same size as krill, they are filtered out and swallowed with all the rest. Scientists are unsure how this affects whales since they are difficult to study, but it can’t be good. You can help these whales when you observe World Oceans Day June 8 this year by making a pledge to reduce your plastic use and begin recycling. Spread the word and encourage others to do the same. Plastic in the oceans is a serious world emergency. Whales like the sei and other fin whales, which are already endangered, need no more problems threatening their numbers, and plastic affects the entire food chain, including we humans, who also depend on the oceans as a source of food.

You can size yourself up to a complete whale skeleton in HMNS’s newest exhibit, Cabinet of Curiosities, opening Friday, May 6. Personnel are currently restoring the skeleton, which has been in storage for a number of years, and will hang it from the ceiling as part of this hands-on history of wonder.

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