Behind the Scenes: Retablos Fit for an Icon

When you walk into the museum store, you may notice the elaborate display wall at the entrance. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look with our Creative Merchandising Director on how it all comes together.

This season’s display is a tribute to Mexican arts and culture and features a life-sized retablo complete with a Catrina figurine. My inspiration were the detailed nichos, or retablos, that are such a central part of Latin American folk art. These retablos are usually under 12 or 18 inches in height but I wanted to create a seven-foot-tall reproduction. 

Starting with a metal wedding arch I found at the local party supply, I wired a support cage along the back and sides of the arch. Foam core cut to size was wired onto the side to create the retablo doors. Then the real work began: covering the structure with a few hundred giant paper flowers!

Arch

Each of these flowers was made by hand, and I gave countless lessons to curious patrons on how to make them. Here’s what you do:

Take five sheets of tissue paper. Starting from the short side, accordion pleat into three to four-inch folds down the length of the tissue. Fold the pleated paper in half and twist a pipe cleaner around the center to hold the folds in place. Cut each end of the folded paper in a rounded shape to create your petals. Open up the folds and very gently, starting from the top sheet, pull each sheet of tissue toward the center pipe cleaner.

flower pile

The flowers were tied onto the arch, inside and out, and paper roses hot-glued to the doors. Next, I had to create our Catrina.

Flowers

La Catrina is a popular figure on El Día de los Muertos. Originally a turn-of-the-century political cartoon by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, La Catrina was popularized by artist Diego Rivera. Rivera’s famous mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central prominently features La Catrina between Posada, a young Rivera, and Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo. The mural is a visual commentary on the history of Mexico with La Catrina representing that all are equal in the face of death.

Using an old mannequin from our Exhibits department, I spray-painted it bright red and then painted on a traditional calavera face.

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HeadCloseup

 I wanted our Catrina to reference artist and cultural icon Frida Kahlo and acknowledge her contributions to La Catrina’s popularity as well as Kahlo’s dedication to Mexican heritage. A rose headdress and Oaxacan blouse, similar to the huipil Kahlo was known for wearing, were added along with a white petticoat that resembles the Tehuana skirts she favored.

FullMannequin

The final piece of clothing is a very special item. This ornate, heavy overskirt belongs to a local los matachines dancer. With roots in both Medieval Europe and Native American dance, los matachines dance on important feast days with Dec. 12, the feast day of La Virgen de Guadalupe, being one of the most important. Our dancer was not able to perform this holiday and generously loaned us her costume.

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Finishing up the display wall involved climbing up 20 feet to hang more flower pompoms from the ceiling and adding folk art pieces to the wall.

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Wall

Our six-foot-tall papier maché skeleton guards the jewelry and retablos in the wall cases.

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Though a challenging project, this display is one of my favorites. Thank you to everyone who stopped by to ask questions while I was working out there. I enjoyed getting the chance to talk about our beautiful and moving exhibit on the Virgin. And it’s the proceeds from the museum store that make it possible for the Houston Museum of Natural Science to develop these exhibits, so we are always grateful for your support and patronage.

 

Halloween How-to: Make a Spooky Skeleton Out of Recycled Milk Jugs!

Halloween requires skeletons. (And so does El Dia de los Muertos, for that matter…) If you’re on a budget but like to decorate, or you’re crazy about recycling, or you’re the crafty type who loves to add custom flair to everything, or you just want to see if you can do it, we’ve got a project for you!

Using recycled gallon and half-gallon milk jugs and some other simple materials, you can make your own reusable skeleton decoration to hang in your tree or around the house for spook season. Read through this easy procedure and watch our how-to videos for a clear example. Make one or make several, depending on how much milk your family drinks…

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This homemade decoration is almost like the real thing! Photo by: Jason Schaefer

Materials: 

A minimum of nine plastic jugs – at least three of them gallon-sized

Scissors

Hole punch

String, brads or pipe cleaners

Sharpie permanent markers or paint

Decorative bits (glitter, sequins, buttons, etc.)

Optional – High-temperature glue gun for punching holes

Procedure:

Three notes before you get started:

  • If you are making a second skeleton, you can probably use your jugs more efficiently than listed here and therefore need less.  If you are making this skeleton for the first time, I have asked you to provide 9 jugs (at least three of them being gallon-sized) so that you don’t have to work quite so hard to get a completed product.
  • The high-temperature glue gun works FABULOUSLY for punching the holes in the milk carton plastic, but I don’t recommend this method if you are a) working with younger children or are b) me because I absolutely burned myself. If you can get a volunteer in, they can sit and make the holes for the students pretty quickly.
  • If you are nervous about what you are doing, you can always sketch out your pieces with a Sharpie. Once you have them the way you want them, use rubbing alcohol to remove the Sharpie lines.
  1. Lay your hand or a template of a hand over the handle of one milk jug and trace.  Reverse the template or use your other hand for the second milk jug. Carefully cut the hands out. Save the extra bits.
  2. Repeat step one for the feet.
  3. Using a fifth and sixth jug, cut an extended oval out of jug around the handle, being as generous as you can with the oval. You can always trim it later! These will be the shoulder bones or scapulae. If you are clever, you can use the leftover bits to make your rib cage in step 9 as well.
  4. At this point, you should have two hands, two feet and two shoulder bones and a pile of left over bits.
    skeleton

    Where on the family tree would you place this skeleton? Photo by: Jason Schaefer

  5. Punch holes near the wrist portion of the hands and the ankle portion of the feet. Punch a hole in each end of the shoulder pieces.
  6. Using the leftover bits of your first six jugs, sketch out some bones. These should be basic stick shapes with lumps at each end. You will eventually need eight bones (four longer pieces for leg bones – two for each leg – and four shorter pieces for arms – two for each arm). Make them as long as possible. Once again, you can always trim them! In the example, my long leg bones crossed the jug diagonally to give them some extra length. With careful placement, I cut two long leg bones (and two knee caps) out of one of the leftover jugs.
  7. On a seventh jug, sketch out a skull (should consist of two large round eye sockets, an upside down heart or triangle for a nose and squares or ovals all lined up and touching for teeth). Use the two surfaces opposite the handle, and the jug should be upside-down. The neck of the jug will end up being the neck of your skull as well. You can add details as you see fit. It is also optional to cut the face out.
  8. Punch a hole in each side of the “neck” of your skull jug.
  9. Use your eighth jug to make a rib cage. You need to leave the neck of the jug as this will be the attachment point between the “hips” and the “ribs.”  That being said, cut out the handle of your jug so that there is a pretty big hole on one side of the jug.  This will be the front side of the rib cage. The neck and opposite side will represent the spine.
  10. To make the rib cage vaguely more accurate, cut some mostly horizontal strips out of the sides of the jug to leave the impression of ribs. The strips you cut out will become the empty spaces between the ribs. You will have to imagine that you are leaving a two inch vertical strip from the neck of the jug up the back to the bottom and down the front to the hole. This will act like the spine and the sternum. The horizontal strips you cut out should leave the two inch vertical strip intact.
  11. To make connection spots for the ribcage portion, cut two slits in the bottom of the jug on each side of the center. Then punch a hole on either side of each slit (for four holes total). Then punch two holes in the neck of the jug. If you are looking into the hole you created when you removed the handle, you will punch the one hole on the left of the neck and one hole on the right of the neck.
  12. To make hips, cut off the bottom of a ninth jug about two or three inches up. The example has a reinforced ring of plastic around the bottom and that was used to approximate the cuts. Round the corners of the jug and make the sides dip closer to the bottom of the jug.
  13. Punch holes in two opposite corners of the “hips.” 
  14. Cut a slit in the bottom of the “hip” piece and then punch two holes on either side of each slit (for four holes total). This is where you will attach your rib cage.
  15. Cut out two rounded corner squares from whatever leftover bits you have. These will be the kneecaps of your skeleton. Punch two holes in each that are opposite of each other.
  16. After you have everything cut out, you can make the parts interesting by drawing designs on all the bones in glow in the dark paint or Sharpie. Feel free to decorate your skeleton in either traditional Halloween or in the lighter and more decorative Dia de Los Muertos calacas style.
  17. Using a flat surface, align all the parts, making sure that you have the right connection holes punched out. Then connect all the parts together using the string, yarn or wire. Poke two holes in the top of the head and tie a loop that you can hang your skeleton from. From the top down, you should connect the pieces as such:
    • One shoulder piece to each side of the skull jug neck. Make sure they are facing the same way.
    • Tucking the ribs under the shoulder pieces so they stick out a bit, use the same skull jug neck holes to attach the rib cage. You will use the holes you created in the bottom of the rib cage jug to do this.
    • Connect your arm bones to each other and then to the shoulder.
    • Connect your hand to the end of the arm. Make sure they are facing the correct direction.
    • Connect the hip jug (bottom only) to the neck of the rib cage jug. You will use the four holes in the hip jug to connect to the two holes in the neck of the rib cage jug.
    • Connect the upper leg bones to the knee caps. 
    • Connect the knee caps to the lower leg bones.
    • Making sure they match, connect the legs to the holes in the side of the hip jug.
    • Connect the feet to the lower leg bones. Make sure they are facing the correct direction.

    #ChillsAtHMNS

    Spider Crimes: the Worst Halloween Decorations on the Shelf, Scientifically Speaking

    by Melissa Hudnall

    September comes and I am shaken to the core with fear. I know what’s coming. No, I don’t mean winter, I mean another year of dismembered bodies and deformed figures. Can I handle the pain in their hurt eyes? Then it happens; I see the first hint of a hairy leg. My trepidation is high as I round the corner to see…

    ANATOMICALLY INCORRECT HALLOWEEN DECORATIONS!!!! 😮 😮 😮

    1

    Kill… mmeeee…

    I am infamous among my coworkers for getting just as upset as I am excited to see Halloween decorations going up. I adore Halloween, but I also love spiders, and this is where my conflict lies. Halloween does not love spiders. I have used my own tarantula so you can compare real treat to the tricks sitting on the shelves.

    Let’s go over some spider basics so you too can feel my pain.

    Capture

    Pay attention to the pedipalps and chelicerae; you may not see them again. Pedipalps are for mating and holding food, and chelicerae house the venom and end in fangs, so these are important body parts. Going without these four appendages is like missing your arms, jaws and teeth.

    Capture2

    First off, spiders have eight legs. Count the green circles. Only those are legs. Everything else, not legs.

    2

    So basically, I ate this cookie to remove this abomination from the world.

    Secondly, they have two body segments — not one, not three. The legs are also attached to the front segment, not the back! The front is the cephalothorax, meaning “head thorax” and the back is the abdomen. Attaching the legs to the back is the same as having a leg growing out of your stomach.

    Capture3

    I’m going to assume that these were not meant to be spiders with three segments, but rather very clever spider-mimicking ants. If you can have ant mimicking spiders, then surely it must work the other way around.

    3

    These look like ladybugs hitching rides on top of spiders.

    4

    And come on, people. Even dogs have standards. This chew toy is sub-par.

    Lastly, have you ever tried your hardest and just barely missed your goal? I feel like this next spider embodies that moment. He has the correct number of legs, segments, pedipalps, chelicerae, and they’re all attached in the right places! However, SPIDERS DO NOT HAVE BONES!

    5

    *Drops the mic.*

    Editor’s Note: Melissa Hudnall is a Programs Facilitator for the Youth Education department at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

    #ChillsAtHMNS

    HMNS is warming up for Spirits and Skeletons. Are you?

    For thrills and chills and looks that kill, there’s no Halloween party bigger or better than Spirits and Skeletons at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Hundreds of costumed creatures pack the museum floors each year for drinks and dancing and a ghoulish good time. Where else can you celebrate with the hottest crowd in Houston, surrounded by huge dinosaur bones, real mummies and live creepy crawlies? The answer is nowhere.

    From 8 p.m. to midnight on Oct. 31, we’ll open all four floors to the public (21 and up) with 30 cash bars spread throughout the museum, five food trucks outside for a quick bite and two DJs to get your bones moving. With numbers like that, you can count on a good time, but if you’re a visual learner, check out these shots from previous years.

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    You can’t bust a move in costume underneath a Triceratops or a T. rex unless you’re at HMNS. Don’t miss the chance to party in the Morian Hall of Paleontology for Halloween.

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    Outside the front doors, take a break from the dance floor and grab a bite to eat. With five of Houston’s best food trucks, you’ll find something to munch on.

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    While you’re chowing down, you can meet a character or two and show off your fancy costume. Come dressed for success, though. For our party, folks can really bring it. You can go sweet and cute…

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    …or scary and traditional.

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    You can go as a supervillain…

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    …or go completely nasty.

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    Maybe get silly like this half-man, half-dog from Spaceballs…

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    …or put your hard-earned dollars to good use.

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    Go aboriginal…

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    …or take an original spin on the native look. Taking a friend or five can open up even more ideas.

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    Pay homage to your favorite cast of characters…

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    …be members of the crew…

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    …or put your heads together, and who knows what you’ll come up with?

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    Maybe you just broke out…

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    …or just broke out some teeth. However you choose to dress, just remember, this is HMNS, where you never know what you’ll see around the next corner.

    Don’t miss Spirits and Skeletons this year! It’s the most fun you can have in costume. Tickets $50, members $25.

    Additional note: Throughout the month of October, keep an eye on our HMNS social media platforms under #ChillsatHMNS for Halloween tricks and treats to warm up for the big party. Because at the museum, we do spooky up big. Look us up on Facebook for holiday highlights, drop in on Instagram for 31 Days of Skeletons and follow our story on Snapchat for Halloween humor. Scan our Twitter feed for updates on all things museum and streaming video feed through Periscope.