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Houston Museum of Natural Science

No, Texans!

If you regularly see Metro buses around town, you might have noticed that during the football season they will sometimes display “GO TEXANS!” on their marquees, rotating with their route information. They display similar messages for other local teams during their seasons as well. Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez wants them to stop doing that.

It’s nothing personal against the Houston Texans, the Astros, Rockets or Dynamo. Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez just wants Metro to stop picking winners and losers with its digital bus marquees.

This spring, after Sanchez raised concerns, the Metro board of directors adopted a policy with pre-approved messages for display on the destination signs on the fronts and sides of its buses, including ones covering five “major” local sporting teams. Some of the messages, such as “Happy Holidays,” are appropriate, Sanchez said, but others, such as “Go Texans,” are not.

“We have great athletic teams, there’s a lot of great things in this city, but it’s troubling when an appointed, non-answerable board of directors of a publicly funded institution like Metro gets to pick and choose what corporations get to have their name placed on our infrastructure,” Sanchez said, noting that he has only seen the “Go Texans” message.

The complaint is similar to one Sanchez had a few years ago when the back halves of some Houston Police Department patrol cars were made to look like Yellow Cab taxis for what was supposed to be a public service announcement to deter drunken driving. The so-called wraps included the local Yellow Cab phone number.

That inspired the former Houston city councilman and unsuccessful mayoral candidate, who said he plans to seek a third term as treasurer next year, to submit an inquiry to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which sided with him and – in an April 2011 letter – thanked him for his “efforts to prevent government waste, fraud and abuse.”

First let me say “Hey, look! It’s a story involving Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez!” I sometimes forget the guy exists. As a longtime proponent of Metro selling ads on its buses and light rail cars, I can see his point about this. This space has value, and Metro’s giving it away for free.

That said, my overall reaction to reading this story is “Really? What’s the big deal?” Metro was never going to sell ad space on the bus marquees – some people don’t want them to have ads on the exterior of their buses at all – so the value argument falls short. I see this as just basic civic boosterism. It’s hardly unusual for public officials to publicly state support for local sports teams – I’m pretty sure that if Orlando Sanchez had been elected Mayor in 2003, he’d have been out there leading the cheers for the Astros in 2005 as they made their run to the World Series – and I’ve never known that to be controversial, with the exception of the Mayor of a two-sports team town like New York openly favoring one team over the other. And for what it’s worth, Metro has used its buses and trains to promote things other than the Texans, such as the Houston Zoo and the Museum of Natural Science. Perhaps Sanchez would object to those as well, I don’t know. Again, I gotta say, what’s the big deal?

You simply must see us this year

The New York Times commands you.

Houston is probably best known as the Texan center for energy and industry, but it’s making a bid to be the state’s cultural and culinary capital as well. The Houston Museum District is a formidable coterie of institutions that includes the Rothko Chapel, the Museum of African American Culture, which made its debut last February; and the Asia Society Texas Center, which opened in a stunning Yoshio Taniguchi-designed building in April. And last summer, the Houston Museum of Natural Science opened a 30,000-square-foot hall of paleontology in a new $85 million wing. Meanwhile, the city’s dining scene is also heating up, with three of the city’s newest restaurants — Oxheart, Underbelly and Uchi — placing on national best-new-restaurant lists.

Our fair city is number 7 on their list of 46 places to visit in 2013, one of only four places in the continental United States. So what are you waiting for? Hair Balls has more.

Time to vote for the new corpse flower name

You may recall that the Houston Museum of Natural Science has a new corpse flower to go with its star attraction Lois, and they have a contest going on to name the newbie. They’ve narrowed things down to five finalists, and they need your help picking the winner.

Help decide the name of our new corpse flower – vote for your favorite!

There are two ways to vote:

1. Click here to vote on Facebook.

2. Vote via Twitter by sending a tweet to @hmns with one of the following hashtags. Your vote will be automatically counted in the Facebook poll – so check that link to see the scoreboard!

#corpseflowerCLARK
#corpseflowerAUDREY
#corpseflowerVIOLET
#corpseflowerHERMANN
#corpseflowerDELILAH

If do not have a Facebook or Twitter account, you may also vote by leaving a comment on this post. (Comments left on other posts will not be counted.)

The winning name will be announced on the anniversary of Lois’ bloom: Monday, July 25 at 10 am!

My choice is Clark, but to each their own. Go vote, and may the best name win.

Name the new Corpse Flower

The Houston Museum of Natural Science needs your help.

You remember Lois the Corpse Flower, right? Of course you do. Because no one could forget our favorite stinky plant!

As it turns out, the fine folks at CultureMap – the home of @CorpzFlowrLois tweeter @stevenjthomsonreceived a Corpse Flower as a gift after Lois’ twitter identity was revealed.

Now, as Zac, our horticulturist, will tell you – corpse flowers are tricky beasts. They are rare outside their native Sumatra for a reason. They require constant, skilled care. And, of course, a habitat capable of maintaining jungle-like humidity levels.

As much as the CultureMappers loved their new flower – their lovely offices do not yet boast a greenhouse. So, they donated it to the museum, making theirs a much happier plant – and giving Lois a new roommate.

It’s going to take a lot – of time, and sass – for this little-sister leaf to live up to Leave-Em-Wanting-More Lois.

And there’s just no way for that to happen as long as our newest corpse flower remains nameless.

Lois, as you may know, is named after the mother of Eddie Holik – the former director of the Butterfly Center who acquired her 7 years ago.

We thought we’d give you the honor this time.

Help Us Name Our New Corpse Flower!

To do so, just click the link and leave a comment with your suggestion. You have until July 15 to submit your names. Submit as many as you like, just make sure you include your email address so they can contact you to tell you that you’ve won. Finalists will be posted on July 18, and the winner announced on July 25, a year to the day after Lois bloomed. Good luck!

“Born To Be Wild”

The family and I had the chance to see a preview of “Born To Be Wild”, a 3D IMAX movie at the Museum of Natural Science about saving orphaned elephants and orangutans on Thursday evening. We all loved it. I knew pretty much nothing about what the childhood (for lack of a better term) of these animals is like, or what the challenges are for saving those whose mothers have been poached or are otherwise unable to care for them so that they can be returned to the wild. The whole thing is about 40 minutes long, and there’s nothing scary or too intense for a little kid. Audrey did just fine watching it, though the 3-D glasses occasionally bothered her; Olivia was rapt from beginning to end. You can see a bit more about the animals and their caretakers at the HMNS blog. It’s good all-around family entertainment, so go check it out.

Saturday video break: I’m just a mean green mutha from outer space

I can’t be the only person who has followed the story of Lois the corpse flower to think of this, can I? (Warning: Some naughty words in the video.)

Now, now, I know fully well that Lois is not in fact a bloodthirsty, man-eating space alien bent on world domination. But you have to admit, there is a resemblance. For more about Lois, see here and all over the HMNS blog. You can also watch Lois on the HMNS webcam.

Archaeopteryx chat

And now, a brief moment of Science from HMNS:

On Thursday, June 17, from 10 – 10:45 a.m., HMNS is hosting a live online discussion with paleontologist Pete Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute. Pete will be discussing his new research into the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx fossil that is currently on display at HMNS – and the astounding new discovery he and the team he worked with have made.

During this online event, you can ask Larson questions about his new research and learn more about our current Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution exhibition.

The Research
Click here to read an abstract of the paper; Brian Switek (@laelaps) has a good post on the content on the excellent Dinosaur Tracking blog. As Switek put it, “By using a kind of scanning technology called SRS-XRF, the scientists expected to detect the distribution of chemicals in the skeleton and the surrounding rock. This would allow them to get a better idea of how the skeleton became fossilized and what it may have looked like in life.” Read on at the links above for more information; get the inside scoop from Larson himself during the event on June 17.

The Event
This event will take place online from 10 – 10:45 Central Time on Thursday, June 17. Space is limited, so be sure to submit your registration today. To register: click here; once the registration page loads, click “Register” (a blue link on the left side of the page), then enter your information and click “Submit.” If you have any problems, please contact us at blogadmin@hmns.org

Tune in if you can and learn more.

It’s magic

I’ve always been a fan of magic acts – I still remember seeing Doug Henning’s “The Magic Show” on Broadway with my dad when I was a kid – so I’m really excited about Magic!, the new exhibit at HMNS.

Running through Sept. 6, the exhibit illuminates the craft of the world’s greatest magicians, from 19th-century titan Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin through 20th-century wonders Slydini, Cardini and Houdini to today’s Las Vegas headliners, Penn and Teller.

Realizing some exhibits can be staid, museum brass wanted Magic! to “leap off the shelf,” said curator Scott Cervine. To that end, they enlisted a cadre of the city’s top illusionists to flaunt their skills on a specially built mini-stage. Visitors beware: Magicians mixing with the crowd may occasionally extract handkerchiefs from the ears of the unwary.

Creating wonder is magic’s goal, said Cervine, a Los Angeles prestidigitator and filmmaker, and museum visitors shouldn’t expect to learn how the great tricks are performed. What they will learn is the science at their core.

“You couldn’t have miracles without science — they’re two sides of a coin,” he said.

Olivia helps magician Richard Hatch with a trick

Olivia helps magician Richard Hatch with a trick

Tiffany and I attended the preview party last Thursday. The exhibits – art, video demonstrations, and all kinds of props and paraphernalia from the history of magic, including a milk bucket and wooden box that were part of Houdini’s escape acts – are cool enough, but there are also a number of actual magicians present, doing stage shows and close-up magic as well, and that really puts it over the top for me. Olivia and I visited on Saturday. Photography isn’t allowed in the exhibit, but we were there on a special tour the museum provided for a few local bloggers and their kids, and we had permission to take pictures.

Seeing magic tricks performed right before her eyes really captivated Olivia, and she wasn’t the only kid in attendance to be mesmerized by the sleight of hand.

Magician Richard Hatch prepares to bedazzle the kids

Magician Richard Hatch prepares to bedazzle the kids

She watched all of the videos all the way through, and put herself right up front for each subsequent magic act we saw. There are regular performances through the day, and a couple of magicians I wanted to see but didn’t get the chance to. I’m thinking a return visit, this time with Audrey as well, is in order. If you like magic, and especially if you have kids, check it out. More info on the exhibit, including some videos, is here and on the HMNS blog. My thanks to Erin Flis for the invitations.

Sneak preview of HMNS Sugar Land facility

You may have heard that the Houston Museum of Natural Science will be opening a site in Sugar Land on October 3. If you’re in the are Thursday afternoon, you can get a sneak preview of it as they finish up construction. Here are the details if you’re interested.

Join the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the City of Sugar Land, and Newland Communities for a special guided tour of the new satellite facility, the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land, opening Oct. 3. This project, the result of many years of planning and partnership, was made possible when Newland Communities donated the building to the City of Sugar Land and the Sugar Land 4B Corporation approved funding for the renovation of the former prison building into a shell of a world class museum to be operated by the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Dr. Carolyn Sumners, vice president for the physical sciences at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, will present the fascinating tale behind this historic prison building and give an overview of the floor plans and coming exhibitions before leading guests on a tour of the 43,000 square foot building and the surrounding 5.5 acres.

See where the state-of-the-art Science on a Sphere and Stan, the T-rex, will be installed. Walk through the space of the four permanent galleries, which will reflect the most popular exhibit areas of the main Museum campus. And, get a sneak peak at the view from the second floor where the special exhibit, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Exhibition, will be housed.

Tour takes 30 minutes to 1 hour. Staff will be on hand to answer questions before and after the tour. Please note: due to the construction, closed-toed shoes and long pants are required on site.

This takes place tomorrow – Thursday, August 27, at 4 PM, at the HMNS-Sugar Land campus, 13016 University Blvd. (at the corner of University and New Territory Blvds.) You can get directions here. Enjoy!

Terra Cotta Warriors

I got a chance to get a sneak peek of the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at HMNS last week, and it was awesome. I confess, I knew nothing about this beforehand; Tiffany, who has a vivid childhood memory of a National Geographic edition from around the time of their discovery, was much more familiar with them and was greatly excited about getting to see them. I came away very impressed, both with the exhibit itself, which was really well done, and with the idea of this imperial afterlife army, and the sheer amount of manpower it took to create. Amazing how much of what we can still experience from ancient history is a testament to ego and megalomania, isn’t it – pyramids, coliseums, etc – isn’t it? Anyway, if you’re like me and are wondering what the fuss is about, go here and get an idea, then buy some tickets and see for yourself. If you already know about them, well, just go buy the tickets. It’s totally worth it.

The new Hermann Park train

All aboard!

Hermann Park Conservancy on Saturday will formally unveil $14 million in park improvements, including a new miniature train station, dramatically landscaped grounds and a lakeside plaza featuring a restaurant, gift shop and rest­rooms.

Among other project highlights for the 6-acre tract adjoining the northeastern edge of McGovern Lake, said conservancy executive director Doreen Stoller, were the planting of 300 trees and improvement of a waterway that will drain to Brays Bayou.

Stoller likened the transformation of the area, which abuts parking for the Houston Zoo, to that at downtown’s Discovery Green.

“This is even prettier than I imagined,” she said.

The station will serve as the focal point of the expanded miniature railroad, whose route was lengthened to nearly two miles and now includes stops at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Texas Medical Center and a transfer point to Metro’s light rail system.

We go to the zoo a lot, so we’ve been watching this progress. I can’t wait to take the girls on the new train – they’ll love it. I just hope yesterday’s inclement weather didn’t put a damper on the festivities.

Good times and bad for museums

Nice to hear that a couple of local museums are thriving in these hard times. Sadly, they’re very much the exception.

On the heels of the March 14 opening of a seven-gallery addition to its Hermann Park-area building, the [Children’s Museum of Houston] this week announced plans to add 25 positions to its 177-member workforce.

The $35 million expansion almost doubles the museum’s size to 90,000 square feet. Plans call for boosting programs targeting low-income or bilingual families.

Meanwhile, the [Houston Museum of Natural Science], which this year marks its centennial, is moving forward with a campaign to raise $85 million for construction of a 194,000-square-foot addition that will help it cope with millions of visitors who pour through its doors annually.

Museum President Joel Bartsch said $61 million has been raised and a summer groundbreaking is scheduled.

“We’re fairly fortunate in that we have a lot of rocks and seashells — and a town full of geologists and universities,” said Bartsch, who noted attendance, membership and revenues all have increased over the past year.

I’ve heard many good things about the Children’s Museum expansion, which we plan to experience soon for ourselves. The HMNS expansion sounds exciting, too – Olivia has been a big fan of dinosaurs for awhile now, so I’m sure she’ll love this. The BeyondBONES blog has been giving regular updates on their centennial celebration.

Unfortunately, as noted, for most museums it’s been the opposite experience.

“Overall, the state of non-profits right now is very, very difficult,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. “They are laying off staff. We hear a lot of stories about capital campaigns postponed. Nationally, museum attendance is up … unfortunately, admissions don’t pay the bills.”

As foundations and private donors see the value of their portfolios dwindle, he said, donations drop. Profitable museum memberships, Bell said, also are declining.

Earlier this month, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would lay off one-fourth of its merchandising staff and cut its total workforce by 10 percent by summer.

The New York Times reported the museum, whose endowment lost $800 million, or 28 percent of its value, since last summer, has halted hiring and curtailed merit raises and staff travel.

Museums in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis and Los Angeles also have cut staff, the newspaper reported.

The Museum of Fine Arts-Houston has cut workers’ salaries up to 4 percent, and the Contemporary Art Museum imposed a hiring freeze and reduced its budget by 10 percent. By the end of last year, said MFA spokeswoman Mary Haus, the value of the art museum’s endowment had dropped 28 percent. CAM spokeswoman Connie McAllister said the museum fell short of its fall fundraising goal.

That’s really sad. I just hope things turn around soon for them.