Inside Discovery Guides: Why you should consider a museum tour with a concierge

by “Cretaceous” Chris Wells

The Houston Museum of Natural Science started small. Back in 1909, when the museum was founded, you could probably see everything we had to offer in 30 minutes. But since our opening, HMNS has been growing exponentially. These days, our main campus is the heart of an international network, bringing exhibits and lecturers from places like England, Egypt, Italy, and China. To see everything here would take at least two days, and that figure doesn’t even account for all there is to see at our Sugar Land campus or the George Observatory. Trying to decide what to do can be overwhelming for guests, but luckily, our staff has evolved alongside our institution.

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Concierge Rigoberto Torres enjoys being the first to greet visitors to the museum, he said. “Once they come inside, we want to make sure their experience is good from the start.” Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The concierge service here at HMNS is like a mini travel agency whose services are free. All you have to do is walk up to the information desk, tell us what you’re interested in and listen to suggestions. It may seem like overkill, having staff just to explain what there is to see here, but consider this: our main campus covers four city blocks and contains 12 permanent exhibits and an ever-changing number of limited engagements visiting from all over the world. We also host a lecture series, adult education classes, multiple children’s education programs and much more. We have really interesting stuff, but it’s surprisingly easy to miss out.

Some visitors see the concierges standing at the information desk or sometimes patrolling the exhibits, and they don’t know what to think. Who are these people dressed in white shirts and black pants? They may look somewhat like used car salesmen, but they really aren’t here to sell anything. They’re here to help. Some members of the team have been with the museum for years, and they know the ins and outs of every department, so they can answer questions about membership, ticket sales, upcoming exhibits, you name it.

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Concierge Rich Hutting explains to visitors Jullie Fugitt and Roy Hey why this Uintatherium might have looked so strange. She developed many different adaptations all at once. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

Some of the concierges, called Discovery Guides, offer tours of the exhibits. Every day, the Discovery Guides take groups through our two most popular exhibits, the Morian Hall of Paleontology and the Hall of Ancient Egypt. Each guide has spent countless hours studying the objects housed in our collections. The little plaques in the exhibits give interesting information, but the juicy details, the romance and intrigue, the struggle for life and limb… those you can only hear on the tours.

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Corey Green explains illness in Ancient Egypt to a tour group of children. Egyptians used makeup to prevent flies from getting into their eyes, she said. Even men. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

Discovery Guides give interactive kid’s tours, too, where the children get to touch real fossils. On these special tours, the guides manage to explain what fossils are and where they come from without sounding like an audio version of paleontology textbook, so children and adults alike can walk away with a real understanding of the things in our exhibits.

The concierge team is blazing a trail toward providing better service to all who visit us at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Already, letters have come in calling us sweet and helpful, giving every guest the best experience possible. We are proud to offer a service not found in most other museums. A service that ensures there will be none of those awkward family photos where everybody looks tired and confused. Not when they’re at HMNS.

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

Look, ma, no roots! Learn to grow your own orchids, bromeliads & other “air plants”

It’s that time of year again: the long cold of winter is lifting, and we can see spring around the corner. Here at HMNS we ring in spring with a BLOOM — with our horticulture adult education classes. Kicking off the season on Mar. 8, we’re offering a class on growing orchids and other epiphytes!

“Other epiphytes?” you may ask, wondering, “I just thought orchids were flowers.” While they are flowering plants, there’s so much more that makes them really incredible. You see orchids, and epiphytes in general, distinguish themselves from other plants in that they do not need to grow in soil. They actually prefer not to. They have amazingly adapted so that their roots can suck moisture directly out of the air. By attaching to a tree, high off the ground, they can also avoid getting gobbled up by most herbivores.

Epiphytes are non-parasitic, meaning that they do not steal any nutrients from the plant they grow on, creating their energy through photosynthesis (although some species like the strangler fig can eventually overtake their host). Notable examples include ferns, orchids and bromeliads, but the most familiar epiphyte to people here in the South is a wispy bromeliad by the name of Spanish moss.

If you have ever strolled through the Cockrell Butterfly Center you have surely seen our stunning epiphytes clinging on nearly every nook and cranny of the larger trees and struts in the center.

To learn more tips and tricks for epiphyte growing, join me for the HMNS adult education class “How to Grow Orchids, Bromeliads and Other ‘Air Plants'” from 9 to 11 a.m. on Sat., Mar. 8 in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. The class includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Butterfly Center, followed by a hands-on class in which attendees will learn how to propagate, divide, mount and fertilize their own epiphytes. And finally, everyone goes home with their very own orchid or bromeliad to start (or add to) their collection.

Oktoberfest … right now? Yep, it’s possible with SCIENCE.

You’re probably familiar with Oktoberfest, the international festival held annually in late September and early October in Munich. It’s a family affair and a place to eat and party. Bavarians celebrate their heritage by wearing elaborate native costumes — think Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, but instead of cowboy hats and boots, men of every age sport lederhosen. People go for the day to see the livestock show, ride carnival rides, eat lots of unhealthy food, and drink beer. Lots and lots of beer.

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When I arrived, my first question was “Where are the beer tents?” They were actually right in front of me, but they looked nothing like tents. They are elaborate structures with brightly colored paint and moving figurines. The insides are decorated with banners, flowers and chandeliers.

The Hoffbrau House and Lowenbrau tents are very popular for the partying crowd. The ump-pa-pa bands play traditional German beer-drinking tunes and the popular songs of the day. Seemingly every 15 minutes “Ein Prosit” is played and everyone stands on their bench and raises their mugs to the unofficial Oktoberfest theme song.

Oktoberfest traditionally starts in the third weekend in September and ends the first Sunday of October. (There are many laughs when the Americans show up throughout October for the celebration.)

HMNS celebrates the history and science behind Oktoberfest and beer every year at Saint Arnold Brewery with founder Brock Wagner and his beer-making mentor Scott Birdwell of Defalco’s Home Wine & Beer Supplies. This year’s date is Sept. 25. If you want to raise your stein with us, click here for more info and to purchase tickets. The deadline for ticket purchases is Sept. 19.

From the Munich Tourist Office:

Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, was married to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810. The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate the happy royal event. The fields were renamed Theresienwiese (“Theresa Fields”) to honor the Crown Princess, although the locals have since abbreviated the name simply to “Wiesn.” Horse races in the presence of the royal family marked the close of the event that was celebrated as a festival for the whole of Bavaria. The decision to repeat the horse races in subsequent years gave rise to the tradition of Oktoberfest.

In 1811, an added feature to the horse races was the first Agricultural Show, designed to boost Bavarian agriculture. The horse races, which were the oldest – and at one time – the most popular event of the festival are no longer held today. But the Agricultural Show is still held every three years during the Oktoberfest on the southern part of the festival grounds.

In the first few decades, the choices of amusements were sparse. In 1818, the first carousel and two swings were set up. Visitors were able to quench their thirst at small beer stands, which grew rapidly in number. In 1896 the beer stands were replaced by the first beer tents and halls set up by the enterprising landlords with the backing of the breweries. The remainder of the festival site was taken up by a fun-fair. The range of carousels offered was already increasing rapidly in the 1870’s as the fairground trade continued to grow and develop in Germany.

Today, the Oktoberfest in Munich is the largest festival in the world, with an international flavor characteristic of the 20th century. At the foot of the Bavaria Statue, adjacent to the Huge Oktoberfest grounds there are also carousels, roller coasters and all the spectacular fun for the enjoyment and excitement of visitors of all ages.

The festivities are accompanied by a program of events, including the Grand Entry of the Oktoberfest Landlords and Breweries, the Costume and Riflemen’s Procession, and a concert involving all the brass bands represented at the “Wiesn.”

The Oktoberfest celebrated its 200th Anniversary in 2011, only wars and cholera epidemics have briefly interrupted the yearly beer celebration.

You will learn more beer history at HMNS’ Oktoberfest: The History & Science of Beer on Sept. 25 at Saint Arnold. Yes, that Saint Arnold: the patron saint of brewers.

Can’t wait until Sept. 25 to learn more about this saintly man? Click here.

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer’s utterly subjective examination

Editor’s Note: This blog comes to us courtesy of longtime volunteer John Moffitt.

I lead tours through the new HMNS Paleo Hall and spend a lot of time in the Paleozoic. Sometimes this ties in with a class on trilobites. During these tours, I answer a lot of questions like, “What is a trilobite, anyway?”

But a favorite question has always been, “What is the best trilobite in the collection?” The question may be worded differently or be slightly more specific, but an array of related questions always comes up:

•    What is the rarest trilobite?
•    What is the most scientifically significant trilobite?
•    What is your favorite trilobite?
•    Which trilobite is the most valuable?

The answers to these and similar questions are often different, and sometimes involve a process of further qualifying the question. To some degree, many of these questions involve personal opinion. For this article, I am going to put the question in terms of my own personal favorite trilobite with no further qualification required. Quite convenient!

I will pretend that I have done something so significant that the museum gives me a one-chance opportunity to walk through the entire trilobite collection, pick one out and take it home to live with me.

Once I’ve selected my favorite, I’ll tell you where to look for my favorite trilobite, a few things about where it was collected, and maybe even a few suggestions on how the museum might improve the overall display.

It will come as no surprise to anybody that knows me that I would select an odontopleurid trilobite, since I often wear one on my hat and my favorite trilobite graphics are nearly always odontopleurids. I am also known to have a special love for Oklahoma Devonian odontopleurids from the Arbuckle Mountains. For this exercise, I will pick an Ordovician odontopleurid, the enrolled Boedaspis ensifer located on your left shortly after entering the Paleozoic part of the museum exhibit.

While Boedaspis ensifer is a very rare Ordovician trilobite, a number of good specimens have been collected over the last 60 years. It wasn’t described until 1960, and even then only from trilobite fragments. Two of the very best complete specimens of Boedaspis ensifer that have ever been collected are in the museum in the current display. Both of these trilobites were donated from the Sam Stubbs collection.

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer's utterly subjective examination

In my opinion, this enrolled specimen of Boedaspis ensifer is the absolute best trilobite in the museum’s collection.
Family: Odontopleuridae BURMEISTER 1843
Genus: Genus Boedaspis WHITTINGTON & BOHLIN 1960
Species: Boedaspis ensifer WHITTINGTON & BOHLIN 1960

My reasons include — but are not limited to — the following:
•    This is a rare trilobite in any condition
•    This is one of the more interesting positions to find an odontopleurid
•    This is one of the best preparations of any trilobite that I’ve ever seen
•    This is one of the most beautiful and spectacular fully prepared trilobites that I’ve ever laid eyes on

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer's utterly subjective examination

This is a map of where most of the museum’s trilobites are displayed:

Using a map of the trilobite section of the hall, you can find my favorite trilobite on Wall C. But you would first need to pass by an outstretched specimen of the exact same species located across the walkway on Wall B, mixed in with some Devonian trilobites. The specimen of Boedaspis ensifer on Wall C was selected mostly because of the position it died and was permanently preserved in, inside mud that finally became rock, and because of the extraordinary preparation used to remove that rock.

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer's utterly subjective examination

Other views of the enrolled specimen Boedaspis ensifer help illustrate why this is — for my money — The Best Trilobite.

A slow turn from the rear position reveals the full richness of this trilobite. The outstretched specimen of that same species is shown here:

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer's utterly subjective examination

Both of these trilobites were collected from the Lower Ordovician Putilovo Quarry and the Kunda Herizont Formation, over 100 kilometers east of St Petersburg, Russia. Notice Putilovo down the M-18 freeway on the right side of this Russian map.

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer's utterly subjective examination

The entire length of this Ordovician shelf is an excellent collecting location for the entire Ordovician geological sequence. The Houston museum collection currently has 20 Ordovician trilobites on display that were collected from this region.

There are a lot of rarer, more important, and more valuable trilobites in the museum’s collection. You have to visit more than once to fully appreciate the many dimensions of this collection of extinct arthropods. Museum members get a free chance to visit the paleo hall as often as they choose, and there is always a FREE afternoon on Thursdays for those who are not museum members. Sam Stubbs has donated many of the trilobite specimens that you will see in this collection, and many of these are the best in the world for that species.

Continue your education at our hands-on Adult Education class this Tuesday, August 6 at 6 p.m. For more information or to reserve tickets online, click here.