Discreet Hoarding: The Mystery of the Disappearing Horses and Cabinets of Curiosity

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool museophile (no, I did not just make that word up). I love to look at collections of amazing specimens and artifacts. Turns out I also love to hoard things — oh, I mean collect items of great interest and importance. I like to believe my propensity to collect is an adaptive instinct that has been exponentially amplified over millions of years of selective evolution. This impulse to collect benefited my ancestors because they were driven to collect and accumulate scarce objects that could be used when times were tough. I’ll admit, if this is the case, my compulsion may have become somewhat maladaptive, though extremely satisfying.

I have different strategies and reasons for my collections. Some based on possessing as many objects as possible related to a specific subject and others amassed as a result of a shared relaxing activity, such as collecting “sea glass.” Still others evolved in an effort to collect and hold onto memories in a tangible way.

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Since we’re opening the Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit today at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I have spent the week recalling the various collections I have assembled over the years. Some I’ve hung onto, others have been dismantled and distributed to others through garage sales, gifts, and donations to Goodwill. My first collecting experience centered on tiny plastic horses. I can’t recall where any of them came from or where most of them went (I still have one; more on this later), but I do remember how much joy arranging and rearranging them on my windowsill brought me as a child.

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The next memory is of my marble collection. Collecting marbles of all sorts became an absolute obsession and my friends and I spent hours negotiating trades, which could get quite heated. My collection was kept in a homemade blue drawstring bag and I took it everywhere. The final disposition of this collection is a mystery to me, one which still bothers me when I have occasion to think about it.

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As a child who attended elementary school in the 1980s, I had the obligatory sticker collection. Stickers stuck carefully to the slick pages of a photo album, repurposed to house a growing collection. The most prized members of the collection were the puffy stickers with googly eyes and the scratch-and-sniff stickers carefully peeled from homework assignments that were well done. Strategic trades were made at the bus stop and trading with boys was to be avoided at all costs because their collections were not well-curated.

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Around this same time I began collecting “sea glass” with my mom, grandmother, and great aunt along the shores of Maine. This was a time-honored tradition that they felt compelled to pass down to me. There really is nothing like it. The feeling of finding a rare piece of blue cobalt glass is truly indescribable, it might as well have been gold. A full jar sits proudly on my bathroom counter and I still get pleasure from gazing at the colorful shards with the well-worn edges and remembering the cool summer mornings combing the shores of Maine with my mom, my grandmother (now deceased) and great-aunt Mimi.

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Later, gargoyles were the object of my desire. I spotted my first gargoyle strategically placed in my brother’s garden, hiding beneath the fern fronds. When I saw it, I was hooked on these dark and macabre figures who were inexplicably cute while still being scary. I was beyond excited when I found my first one at a price I could afford. The collection slowly grew over the next 10 years. Now, pieces of this once-prized collection reside in many different places and serve a variety purposes, such as props for the Medieval Madness camp and guardians for a very special friend of mine, perched high atop a kitchen cabinet keeping a watchful eye. One sits atop my prized collection of “sea glass,” ensuring it stays safe.

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I then turned my attention to collecting items associated with death and funerary rituals, a proclivity my mother objects to, asking, “Why can’t you find something more uplifting to be interested in?” The objects range from those related to El Día de los Muertos to replicas and art related to mummification in ancient Egypt, the most prized piece being a full-size replica of an ancient Egyptian mummiform coffin made to hold CD’s.

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Last but not least, is the antique printer’s drawer hanging on my bedroom wall. It is full of tiny priceless items that spark memories from many different stages of my life. Some pieces are more interesting than others, like the replica medieval dice engraved with skulls and the only small plastic horse to survive the mysterious disappearance of my first childhood collection. It also has some of my most precious childhood memories, like my first house key and the name tag from the collar of my first dog.

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Home Cabinets Social Media Contest

Have a collection of your own? We want to see it! Post images in the comments section on Facebook or on Instagram under #HMNS. Include what excites you and why you collect certain items. HMNS Marketing will put entries to a vote, and the owner of the most impressive cabinet will win four tickets to the permanent exhibit halls, which includes entry into our new Cabinet of Curiosities. We’ll also feature images of the winning cabient across our social media platforms. HMNS is accepting entries until May 20. Winner will be announced the first week of June.

I can’t find my reading glasses, but I’ll manage.

You’ve probably noticed the magnifying effect of a glass of water or any other clear beverage (the black text to the right of the glass is the same size as the black text behind the glass):

And you probably have some idea that the magnification has to do with the curved shape of the glass and the water it contains: The water in the glass bends light so it appears to us to be coming from an object that is bigger or closer than it really is.

To explore this more, try making differently sized water drops on top of a sheet of waxed paper (the waxed paper helps the water ‘bead up,’ which improves the effect):

You’re aiming for a large drop about 2 centimeters or 1 inch across, and medium and small drops that are, well, smaller.  If you don’t have an eyedropper to help you, you can either pour extremely carefully or dip a pencil or spoon in water and let the water drip off of it.

Look at a page with words through the drops (don’t use your first editions of The Old Man and the Sea or Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, because the water will eventually seep through the waxed paper and make you very, very sad).  Do you see any differences between the larger and smaller drops?

This looks much clearer if you try it yourself, so go do it! 

You may be thinking “My large drops (possibly puddles) don’t seem to change anything; why do the small drops work so much better?”  To explain this, try looking at your drops from the side (your eyes should be level with the surface of your table:

The shapes are different: The largest drop looks almost flat across the top, while the smallest drop makes a very tidy little dome shape.  Another way to say this is that the smallest drop’s surface is more sharply curved, or is more convex than the larger drops (convex surfaces bulge out, concave surfaces “cave in.” And it turns out that the less convex the surface of the drop, the less it magnifies.  If you want a more in depth explanation with diagrams, check out this site.

Convex and concave lenses are used in all kinds of cool equipment. For more information on lenses and the anatomy of your eyeballs, check out The Anatomy of the Eye.