Curious Late Nights at HMNS – The Mystery of Imperato’s Lost Tablet

Disclaimer: This fictional story was written by Julia Russell in Youth Education Programs.

Hello everyone,

My name is Julia, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since I started my research as a graduate student at HMNS. It really seems like it was just yesterday…

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I’ve loved museums since I was a child. I was always fascinated by the huge and impressive collections museums were able to acquire. It’s a curiosity of mine that has never fully disappeared. Being a mini-museum connoisseur growing up, I had many of my own collections. I had the traditional stamp collection. I had the cumbersome rock collection. (Gathering new specimens for my collection probably wasn’t the highlight of our family vacations for my parents.) I eventually moved on to collecting books about my two favorite topics: sharks and dinosaurs. This also led to a lot of “excavations” in my backyard. I was fairly unsympathetic about destroying the landscape of our backyard when I was on a search to uncover the greatest dinosaur fossil ever found. I never actually found it, but I did triumphantly reassure my dad that the numerous holes in the backyard were in the name of science and discovery!

Eventually, I decided to study history and biology at the University of Fibonacci. Throughout my time as an undergraduate student, I tried to find career paths that would let me combine my dual interests in the humanities and the hard sciences. The one place I could bring these two passions together? A museum! In keeping with my childhood, I continued to marvel at the world’s museums and their Impressionist paintings, ancient Greek pottery, dazzling gems and minerals, mummies, fossils, and so much more. The one question that began to echo through my mind as I visited these institutions: why do we collect? What drives people to create collections? Is it human nature to collect? Since four years of undergraduate work wasn’t nearly enough time to satisfy these questions, I decided to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Noneya to explore the art of collecting a little further.

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To better understand why, I had to start with when. At what point in our history did we start collecting? If I could find a starting point, I had a better chance of understanding the why. As it turns out, the practice of collecting is as old as humans themselves. The concept of collecting in an effort to better understand the natural world around us seems to be an inherent part of our human nature. In all of my studies, there was one particular collection that struck me: the collection of Ferrante Imperato.

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Like most people, I’m intrigued by the unknown. I think that’s what draws me to Imperato and his collection. We don’t know much about this…apothecary? Or was he an alchemist? I decided to make Imperato and his cabinet of curiosities, a kind of precursor to the natural history museums of today, the focus of my graduate thesis. Enter HMNS.

I came to HMNS after hearing that they were bringing Ferrante Imperato’s collection over from Naples, Italy. They were going to have his actual collection. It was a researcher’s dream. I reached out to HMNS and began studying the numerous objects and texts left behind by Ferrante and his son, Francesco.  

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I combed through original texts and flexed my semi-fluent Italian language muscles. I was particularly entranced by Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale from 1599. This engraved text outlines Imperato’s natural history collection, making it one of the first texts to do so. While I was interested in the extensive catalog of his collection and his reasons for collecting, I couldn’t help but notice some strange references throughout his texts. The word tesoro appears several times in Imperato’s writings. Tesoro is the Italian word for “treasure.” Of course, since Ferrante Imperato was an enthusiastic collector, I assumed he was referring to his collection as a treasure. As an 8-year-old, I frequently boasted about my collections of “treasures” though my treasures mostly consisted of dirt clods from my backyard excavations that I had yet to “prep out” as I explained to my parents. However, as I continued to read Imperato’s texts, I came to realize he wasn’t referring to his entire collection as a “treasure.” He was referring to a single object, a tablet.

I’m a firm believer that Ferrante Imperato was an alchemist as well as an apothecary. In my quest to understand what drives people to collect, it seems that Imperato was determined to use his collection to find natural remedies for a variety of ailments. He also frequently discussed the transformation of matter, a concept near and dear to alchemists’ hearts. Could this tablet be part of Imperato’s work as an alchemist? And more importantly, could this object be in the very Cabinet of Curiosities I’m studying right now?

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While I love talking about my research and the topic of my thesis, as any graduate student does (seriously, I’ll talk about it for hours), I really wanted to write this guest blog to ask for help. I need to solve the mystery of this tablet. I don’t have much longer to work with the collection before my thesis is due and my time at HMNS is up! So here I am, reaching out to the HMNS community for help. Can you unlock the secrets and solve the riddles of Ferrante Imperato’s Cabinet of Curiosities before it’s too late?

If your group is interested in helping Julia solve the mystery of Imperato’s lost tablet, email education@hmns.org for more information on this special Curious Late Night program.

 

Crime Lab Detective Now Open at HMNS at Sugar Land

Today’s post is by Adrienne Barker, Director of the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land. 

Saturday September 3rd marked the opening of the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land‘s latest exhibtion – Crime Lab Detective. One of my colleagues and I, Kathy Treibs, visited it on Labor Day to check it out.

Crime Lab Detective [HMNS at Sugar Land]
Crime Lab Detective is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land
now through May 6, 2012!

The exhibit is set in the home of the Johnsons who discover they’ve had a break in while on vacation.  As you enter the exhibit you see where the crime occurred and can take a look at the broken window, disturbed dirt outside and broken items inside.

Stopping at the first kiosk we saw a news report on the crime. 

After picking up a Crime Lab Detective Notebook, we headed to a second kiosk where we saw recordings of interrogations of suspects.  From there we were off to solve the crime!

Crime Lab Detective [HMNS at Sugar Land]

We walked through six different stations focused on various aspects of the crime.  From a teacher’s standpoint, Kathy discovered that students will have many opportunities to examine different types of scientific evidence and use problem solving skills to identify the criminal.  It will easily lead to many post-visit activities in science and career exploration for all grade levels.

We agreed that the crime is more difficult to solve than one might expect and a fun challenge to adults who don’t use these skills everyday.

Crime Lab Detective [HMNS at Sugar Land]

Catch our future messages as we take a closer look at fingerprinting, blood analysis, DNA, handwriting samples, and trace evidence including fibers and soil.  This is a great exhibit for everyone, especially those who like the challenge of criminology and solving the mystery.

Dec. Flickr Photo of the Month: Museum of Natural Science

Let’s face it – the holidays can be kind of crazy. So crazy, in fact, that December’s Flickr photo of the month was somehow overlooked until today. With apologies to wheelcipher, this month’s featured photographer:

The Hall of the Americas – a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science that features the history and cultures of North and South America – houses some of the most dramatic artifacts in the entire museum. Is it any wonder we were blown away by an image from this hall for the second month in a row?

Here’s what wheelcipher had to say about his stunning image:

The shot was “lucky.” I was trying to make the most of some less-than-ideal lighting conditions and playing with some of the exposure settings on my new Sony Alpha A100 camera. The fact that the picture came out so good was 99% luck. It was one of the best ones of the day.

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Museum of Natural Science by wheelcipher. You can see more of his photos on his blog.

So, what’s this Photo of the Month feature all about? Our science museum is lucky enough to have talented and enthusiastic people who visit us every day – wandering our halls, grounds and satellite facilities, capturing images of the wonders on display here that rival the beauty of the subjects themselves. Thankfully, many share their photos with us and everyone else in our HMNS Flickr group – and we’re posting our favorites here, on the Museum’s blog, once a month. (You can check out all our previous picks here or here.)

Many thanks to  wheelcipher for allowing us to share his beautiful photograph. We hope this and all the other amazing photography in our group on Flickr will inspire you to bring a camera along next time you’re here – and show us what you see.

Nov. Flickr Photo of the Month – Hemis-face

Once you’ve worked at the Museum for several years, you begin to think you’re familiar with everything, from the smallest object in the most remote exhibit hall to the most visible – giant dinosaurs. And it’s wonderful – objects are like old friends you pass every day in the halls.

So for me, one of the best things about HMNS pool on Flickr is that the amazing photographers who wander our halls are constantly showing me things in a new light. In the case of this month’s pick, Hemis-face by KenU Diggit?, I was completely blown away by something in one of our permanent exhibits that (even after almost five years here) I had actually never seen before. From the composition of the photograph to the contrast in the piece itself, this is a stunning image. Here, KenU Diggit? reveals his technique:

During my short time as a photography hobbyist, fresh perspectives, sharp contrasts, and textures affect how I compose every photograph. The process is simple: find something to shoot, try an interesting approach to the subject, and capture the picture when my “gut feeling” says so.

I have an affinity for macro photography; I love to take pictures as close as I can get to the subject. Little details and subtle textures are more easily captured this way. I was drawn to the wisps of hair and the wear upon the mask. The simple black background give the object the full attention of the viewer.

“Closeness” emotes intimacy. This is the reason why I chose to capture just a portion of the mask. The asymmetry adds an edge and a fresh angle of viewing. I also chose to focus on the eye of the mask. Due to this, the slightly blurred foreground of the mouth and brow creates a sense of depth and draws the viewer closer to the object, as if the mask were only inches away from their own face. For a second, one could mistaken this for real human expression than just a simple mask. As you look it, it looks at you. Don’t be rude; say “Hello” back.

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Hemis-face by KenU Diggit?

KenU Diggit? shot this in the John P McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science that features thousands of years of Native American history – from parkas made from seal intestines by the Inuit in Alaska to amazing feather art of the Amazon. This particular object is a Windmaker mask, circa 1875 – 1900. I hope you’ll visit us – and see if you can find it, too.

So, what’s this Photo of the Month feature all about? Our science museum is lucky enough to have talented and enthusiastic people who visit us every day – wandering our halls, grounds and satellite facilities, capturing images of the wonders on display here that rival the beauty of the subjects themselves. Thankfully, many share their photos with us and everyone else in our HMNS Flickr group – and we’re posting our favorites here, on the Museum’s blog, once a month. (You can check out all our previous picks here or here.)

Many thanks to  KenU Diggit? for allowing us to share his stunning beautiful photograph. We hope this and all the other amazing photography in our group on Flickr will inspire you to bring a camera along next time you’re here – and show us what you see.