Building a Texas-Sized Exhibition

“…a wise and prudent administration in the commencement of her national existence will be universally expected; improving upon the difficult and delicate task of settling in complete and successful operation a political body based upon principles so hazardously asserted and so gloriously maintained.”

Sam Houston’s signature

The above quote could easily be attributed to any number of government entities that have arisen since 1776.  In fact, I wager that it’s applicable to many political upheavals we’re following in 2011.  At least, that what struck me as I recently read this historical document.  The phrase that was deliberately omitted from the quote is this, “For Texas.”  It comes from a letter President Sam Houston wrote to Edward Hall on November 3, 1836 from the town of Columbia.  You can see this letter yourself in our recently opened Texas! exhibit.

If there is any thread to my occasional posts as a HMNS registrar, it is that the connection between an object and a viewer influences the viewer in some way.  As someone whose professional life consists largely of dealing with objects, I am not unfamiliar with the concept.  My collections and exhibits colleagues and I are always keenly aware of the care and respect employed when handling museum objects.  So sometimes we can temporarily lose sight of an object’s scientific/ historical/ aesthetic/ educational value when we’re trying to ensure that its mount is supportive, the lighting levels aren’t harmful, the proper temp and humidity of a gallery/case environment is steadily maintained; in short that nothing goes wrong.  However, being Texas born and bred, I found it difficult not to get caught up in the emotional wow! factor of the items in this exhibit.

Audrey Jones Beck’s Mardi Gras Dress

I’ll readily admit that I inwardly groaned when I saw all the documents that needed condition reports at the start of the exhibit installation. Paper documents are delicate and fragile so we mostly viewed them through mylar sleeves, but even that method still needs an abundance of caution. It wasn’t a job we could zip through. And once again I marveled at the miracles a conservator can perform to mitigate the damages of time.

But over and over I found myself drawn into the words on the page, especially when they were handwritten and signed. In the letter quoted above, Sam Houston goes on to delineate his cabinet members. As I read the names my decidedly low-brow reaction was: well, geez, that’s half the streets downtown. Somehow I never knew that Rusk was the Secretary of War. While perusing the pages of the minutes of the Convention of Texas Independence, I started making connections with my travels throughout the state. The list of attendees is basically a roll call of the counties in this state. Sometimes the words would just sing and I had to take a moment.

Here’s a brief quote from page 24 of the minutes that I particularly like:

“…that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty or the capacity for self-government.”

Also in the minutes, directly following the declaration of independence, is the appointment of a committee charged with immediately getting the declaration to a printer for wide distribution. Communication is important no matter what era a revolution takes place but the distance between the printer’s broadsides of 1836 and the revolutionary tweets of 2011 is amazing, isn’t it? Not to mention the difference between putting quill to paper and tapping thumbs to glass screens. Which reminds me of something else I noticed through this long (fifty-four plus pages) document, the handwriting was remarkably clear and beautiful to start, towards the end the poor secretary’s hand was beginning to sag. It was a long convention.

Other documents provoked equally strong but completely opposite reactions. As one colleague pointed out, “We’re all creeped out by the slavery stuff.” Documents are made on paper but it’s the actual words that matter. So, yes, it’s pieces of paper from the Harris County tax office but those dry and orderly tax receipts for humans beings considered personal property right here in our now very diverse cosmopolitan city will always retain a repulsive taint. That’s why it’s important to include them in this exhibit.

Davy Crockett’s Violin

But enough already about documents! Let’s go on to random ‘wish we’d snapped a photo’ installation moments.

The faces when folks first saw the turkey dress, a combo of wow! and how the heck are we going to display that thing? Beth and Mike struggling with the San Jacinto Mardi Gras dress, dress waist too tiny, mannequin hips and shoulders too wide, Mike taking a hammer to the nude mannequin in an attempt to narrow said mannequin, suggestions made that our skinniest staff member just stand in the exhibit wearing the dress, sanity returns, new mannequin ordered. (Audrey Jones Beck truly was ‘a mere slip of a girl’ when she wore that thing.)

Rodney ‘age-ing’ the canvas of the Santa Anna tent prop in his backyard. Looking inside the proper right sound hole on Davy Crockett’s violin and seeing penciled “FRANKLIN CO./Feb.14, 1819,” then realizing that the date the violin was being examined was February 14, 2011.

Small things can humanize historical figures. Santa Anna was definitely a cruel harsh man but his fawn paperweight is unexpectedly goofy and charming. The small wood heart whittled by Sam Houston is a tender link to the monumental figure across the street from the museum’s doors.

Beth happened across a list of clothing in Anna Chase’s journal who may have been a spy but according to that wardrobe inventory was also something of a clothes horse. Trying not to hum “Old Man River” (Lift that bale!). The cotton bale is the traditional five hundred pounds, no mount needed. Most disappointing moment for yours truly during the exhibit installation was learning that due to curatorial decision the way cool children’s cap guns from the 1940s and 50s were cut from the exhibit. Man, they had Texas Rangers emblems on ‘em and really worked and everything! Dang.

So that’s a few behind the scenes moments from the Texas exhibit.  Many people worked tirelessly on this exhibit and the gracious lenders were very generous with their treasures.  It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

But one last thing… On that letter from Sam Houston to Edward Hall which started off this post, in the viewer’s upper left corner an unknown hand exuberantly wrote “Save this!”  Whoever scribbled that was absolutely right and I like to think it was an early forebear of a museum collections worker.

Letter from Sam Houston to Edward Hall with the phrase “Save This.”

Don’t miss these famous objects and more that make up our Texas! exhibition, now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You weren’t the only one who found eggs this Easter!

You weren’t the only one who found eggs this Easter. The Houston Museum of Natural Science added over 20 new artifacts to our Faberge exhibition this past weekend – jeweled cigarette cases, brooches, carved bowls, a pendant, a pair of cuff links, and a new Faberge egg.

This cigarette case, crafted in four colors of gold, was a gift from the Tsarina Maria Alexandrovich to the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlona and the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich on the occasion of their golden anniversary (25 years).

The design of this particular piece includes a neat trick. The center medallion of the Gold Anniversary case includes diamonds set in the form of the Roman numerals XXV (25). When viewed from the other direction, the diamonds appear to be an entwined M and V (for Maria and Vladimir).

Diamonds spell out Roman numerals XXV Diamonds make an intertwined M and V

Don’t miss your chance to see Faberge: Imperial Jeweler to the Tsars – including these brand new objects on display – at HMNS through July 25, 2010. Get a preview in this interview in the exhibit, with our President and Curator of Gems and Minerals, Joel A. Bartsch:

Can’t see the video? Click here to view it.

Connecting the Dots

Connecting the dots….. This blog could have many headers. I settled on “connecting the dots” because there are many interconnected topics I would like to address here. The starting point for all of us is a brief mention of our museum in a recent CNN blog. In a story about the US government returning cultural treasures to Iraq, one can read about one particular item being returned:

Roman denarius featuring the head of Apollo

A roman coin (not the one featured in the article)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Smabs Sputzer

“A Roman coin from A.D. 248-250, when the Romans occupied the region. The coin had been left at the Houston Museum of Natural Science by a man who said he was a contractor in Iraq. The museum’s curator of anthropology alerted federal authorities.”

In late February 2005, a visitor to the museum left a coin. This individual, who said that he had been working as a civilian truck driver in Iraq, had acquired other antiquities as well, including a clay statue. Excavations were going on all over the place, he said. They are indeed, except, in my world these excavations would be called looting. Here are the first two dots I want to connect: the coin, and the Parthians.

The coin was well preserved, with a legible Greek legend. With the help of the American numismatics society’s website it was possible to identify the coin as dating back to the reign of Emperor Philip (244 – 249 AD). Also known as Philippus Arabs, this Emperor lived during a period of major upheavals besetting the Roman Empire. Born in the Roman province of Arabia around 204 AD, he held several important positions before becoming Emperor in 244 AD. He succeeded Gordian III who had suffered an ignominious defeat against the Sassanid Empire. Gordian ended up being killed by his own soldiers. Sassanid artists commemorated the death of Gordian and the subsequent suing for peace by Philip in a large rock carving at Bishapur in modern Iran. After this rather rocky start to his own reign as emperor, in 248 AD Philip presided over the festivities celebrating the 1,000 anniversary of the founding of Rome, a celebration commemorated on many Roman coins. Things turned sour pretty quickly after that however. One year later, he was killed by his own soldiers after a defeat against rebellious forces near Verona.

I can imagine people thinking “A Roman coin in what is now Iraq? Surely that must have gotten there by accident?” Not really. Here are dots number two and three: the Parthians and their successors, the Sassanid Empire.

Statue of Alexander in the
Istanbul Archaeology
Museum

Emerging from the upheaval caused by Alexander the Great and his successors, during the third century BC, the Parthians established themselves as a major political, military and economic force in what is now Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

As Rome slowly grew and started asserting itself in the eastern Mediterranean, clashes occurred between the two empires. These encounters did not always end well for the Romans. In 53 B.C. Crassus and over 40,000 Roman troops were annihilated by the Parthian forces of Orodes II in the battle of Carrhae, a clash that continues to inspire modern historians.

The western border between Rome’s dominions and Parthia gradually stabilized on the banks of the Euphrates, but war was always a threat. Over the next two hundred years, Romans and Parthians would fight many wars. By 232 AD, the Parthians themselves were overtaken by the Sassanid Empire, which brings us back to dot number one: the coin left at the museum. The coin residing ever so briefly at the museum is a silent witness to those final years of Roman involvement in that part of the world. This brings up dot number four: looting and repatriation.

Looting is a scourge that besets archaeologists all over the world. Archaeological sites are being destroyed on a wholesale basis, with materials ending up in private hands, and sometimes in museum collections. International treaties attempt to curb these activities but are not always very successful in doing so. International treaties aimed at stopping this wanton destruction of our past are good, but… there is also a need for people to know why this is necessary. Failure to communicate this need usually makes people think “Sure, it is only the archaeologists who want to be able to dig. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do the same?”

Here is why you cannot or should not be digging randomly looking for “treasure.”

Pottery Shards
Context is important in Archaeology -
Knowing where the pottery comes from is
just as important as having the shards
Creative Commons License photo credit: Todd Huffman

Any object retrieved from the soil has a context. There is a story that can be told based on how the object got there. The coin that was brought in, the pot that was found, all got to the place they were found because someone dropped it, or placed it in a tomb, etc. Archaeologists are trained to retrieve materials and take note of the surroundings in which they found these items. Context makes the story much more complete. It represents the difference between retrieving half a book versus a whole book, half a story versus a complete story. In specific terms, context will help us to decide which of the following headlines makes sense: “A Roman ship landed in Mexico!” Or: “Something cool collected from the crew of a Spanish ship or an early Spanish colonist got traded to the residents of the town of Toluca.”

The coin in question dates to the end game of large-scale Roman involvement in Mesopotamia. I am not sure if a lot of these coins have been found in what is now Iraq. Without an accurate accounting of what is found and where it was found, we will never know. Conceivably, the coin’s context could have told us something about those final years of Roman presence. Perhaps it came from a small military encampment. Perhaps it was found with a lot of other coins – a hoard as it is sometimes known – which would indicate that the owners buried it for safekeeping. We will never know.

Saying no to looting is not the end of the story. Archaeologists have their work cut out for them too. We need to collect the context information, look for patterns to make sense out of it all and then share our findings with the public. The latter is very important. The more people know about what we do, the greater the understanding will be as to why it is a bad thing to acquire looted items or to go out and dig holes yourself. You are not doing history any service, and you might be breaking the law as well.

And so it is that we come full circle, connecting dots from coins to Romans and Parthians and international treaties regarding the protection of cultural property. It is all interconnected. I am sure that colleagues at other museums have had similar experiences. This is proof that working at a museum is so interesting, or “QED” as the ancient Romans would say.

HMNS’ 100th year comes to a close…

And what a year it’s been!

All throughout 2009, we’ve celebrated our hundredth year in Houston with a dedicated web site, a series of 100 fun family events; a showcase of our 100 favorite/most amazing/coolest artifacts; a video series with our longest-serving staff (the record is 39 years!), and a contest (which you can still enter for a chance to win a 2010 Museum membership!)

You can also check out 100 years of Museum history here: from our very first Museum bulletin in January 2010 through historic scientific expeditions, ambitious building projects and blockbuster exhibitions, it’s been quite a trip!

But we’re even more excited about what’s coming next – in our second century of science.

In fact, we’ve just broken ground on perhaps our most ambitious project yet: an expansion that will double the amount of public exhibition space that will be available for temporary and permanent exhibitions – including what we intend to be the world’s finest Hall of Paleontology; double the number of classrooms available for educational programs; and triple the amount of available collections storage space, to ensure the conservation and care of our collections for decades to come.

President Joel A. Bartsch talks about what’s next for the Museum in this video – and how you can help.

Help us continue and expand our mission of science education for even greater numbers of children and adults. Donate to the expansion today – and join our Cause on Facebook to help spread the word!

Happy New Year!