100 Years – 100 Objects: Element III

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

This modern piece of art was made by Tammy Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico). It represents a step-fret motif which we can find in Pre-Columbian cultures dating back more than a millennium. It shows up in Pre-Columbian architecture in Mesoamerica as well as pottery and textiles from South America. This Tammy Garcia piece embodies a link between the past and the present, with the former continuing to be an inspiration for today.

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year - in the
photo gallery on hmns.org.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Sailor’s Valentine [Happy Valentine's Day]

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Lisa Rebori, the museum’s Vice President of Collections. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent our Museum’s history, and our collections of historical technologies, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

Ca. 1850 – 1900
HMNS 1991.1085.1

This antique shell mosaic was a gift from Mr. and Mrs. J.R. Preston.

During the mid 19th century, sailors to the West Indies often returned from their long voyages with mosaic shell boxes for their loved ones. Messages of affection spelled out in shells were included at the center of the designs, surrounded by additional colorful shells arranged in geometric patterns and compartments.

These shell mosaics were commonly fitted into octagonal hinged boxes with glass covers on each half and were known as ‘Sailor’s Valentines.’

Although the shell mosaic featured here is not specifically a Sailor’s Valentine, it dates to the same era. The photograph at the center is a hand-tinted ambrotype of an unidentified woman. This shell mosaic frame is thought to represent a fraternal order or family crest for the recipient. All the shells in this antique frame are from the West Indies which helps to date the mosaic.


Check back soon for more of the
100 most compelling objects from the museum’s collections – we’ll be posting the series throughout 2009 as we celebrate a centennial of science in Houston.

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Perhaps you’ve heard HMNS is celebrating its centennial this year?  Well, ok, we’ve been mentioning it a LOT!  After all, it’s a pretty big deal and it’s quite a bit of history to cover.  So throughout this year you’ll learn about all the major highlights of the museum’s past.  But sometimes, there might be quirky little bits that will sneak in, courtesy of me.

One of the many fun parts of my job as Associate Registrar is that I have easy access to the museum’s history files.  Usually I dig into them to research an object or specimen from the collection or occasionally a long-ago donor.  Nearly always, I come across some odd fact I didn’t know or realize about the museum or the city of Houston.  Since I grew up here, I find it all interesting.  But I’ve also been at HMNS such a long time that sometimes my personal memories prompt research into the files.

All of the HMNS staff is very aware of the museum’s centennial year so it’s not surprising that a lot of us have been doing a stroll down memory lane in regards to this place.  I don’t have any particular fondness or nostalgia towards miniature dollhouses, but for some reason I’ve been remembering an exhibit from my first year at HMNS.

 Pamphlet cover for
the dinner and auction

From what I’ve been able to dig up in the archives during the early to mid-1980s the HMNS Guild, along with the Houston Area Miniaturists Society, sponsored brief exhibits, lasting about three weeks in the Brown Hall, of miniature dollhouses and miniaturist scenes.  There was a small fee for the exhibit and the funds went to the Guild.  (A portion also went to the Miniaturist Society.) 

I know, you’re thinking HUH?  But these exhibits were quite popular and brought in thousands of visitors during their brief time on view.  The scenes ran the gamut from historical to fantasy; hospitals and farmhouses to Santa’s workshop. 

In 1984 one “room box” was a depiction of Prince William’s nursery.  So popular were these miniatures that the Guild had one in the live auction at the 1985 Wild Game Dinner. As it was described in the program:

“A Miniature Mansion: The two-story plus attic, electrically wired, Williamsburg Colonial dollhouse is guaranteed to enchant adult and child alike.  Each room is lovingly and individually furnished by creative Guild members.” The winning bid was $3200.00 and was written about as the first item in Betty Ewing’s society column in the Houston Chronicle.  (For you youngsters, 1985 was an economically tough time for Houston, so that winning bid was a pretty good sum for a dollhouse.)

 Dollhouse of Prince William’s nursery

My hazy memory of a dollhouse exhibit is from 1987 – I’m fairly certain it was the last one.  I can’t find anything beyond that year in the archives and I don’t remember another one.  Alas, I also can’t find any good photos - just a few black and white news clippings - although there is a mention of Channel 13 doing an on-air story.  So this was just one of those fleeting events that ran for a few years, a miniature moment in the museum’s century-long history.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Luzon Peacock Swallowtail – Papilio chikae

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

One of the beautiful “peacock” swallowtails, this species has a very limited distribution – endemic to the mountains of Luzon in the Philippines – and was only discovered about 40 years ago.  Highly sought after by collectors and not well-protected in its native habitat, the Luzon Peacock is endangered enough to be listed on the CITES’ Appendix I (collecting or trading wild-caught CITES I species is prohibited by international agreement).

As is true for many swallowtails, the male and female Luzon Peacock are slightly different or “dimorphic” in size and color pattern (females typically being duller in color and larger in size, although this specimen is on the small side).  Here, the male is on the right, the female on the left.

Learn more about butterflies and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see larger and
more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.