Tag Archives: Collections

More wonders at HMNS

What with all the blogging and tweeting about last Saturday’s WordCamp at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), I suddenly realized that I had never written an account of my trip to Houston last September to see the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at HMNS. I was spending a hell of a lot of my time back then firing off job applications, and the rest of my time I spent wringing my hands and wondering how long before I’d be living on the street if I didn’t find a job. Not exactly conducive to generating the kind of energy to write a bunch of upbeat blog content. Nevertheless, I knew I would hate myself later if I passed up the chance to see that exhibit, in spite of how much it might set me back in groceries.

While it didn’t register in my mind at the time that there was any particular significance to the date, I went to Houston on a Wednesday, September 9 (yeah, 09-09-09). (Oh my, oh my, oh my. If stuff like that is supposed to mark significant changes… well, we got some rain here a few days later, after several months of drought. But my job drought continued.)

I took my brother’s camera, and then found out I couldn’t take pictures in the exhibit. I don’t know if taking pictures would be harmful to the terra cotta figures, or whether there are just different policies set up by the owners of each exhibit (I would have been allowed to take pictures of the fossils in the Archaeopteryx exhibit if I’d had the camera with me then). There was a whole little shop full of T.C. Warrior merchandise at the end of the exhibit, so that might have been the deal — don’t let people take their own photos and they’ll buy books and miniature figures, etc. However, there were two figures at the entrance to the exhibit that it was okay to photograph, so I did. Then I proceeded to go around to other parts of the museum and take some more pictures, which I have been meaning to share.

I failed to write down the scientific names for the stuff I was taking pictures of, so we’ll all have to be content with names like “really big geode,” etc. Sometimes I get caught up in being an enthusiast/tourist and forget to be anything else (like scientist, journalist/photojournalist, whatever).

Kneeling terracotta archer

Terra Cotta archer

Terracotta Official

Terra Cotta Official

Marlin "trophies" and mural

Marlin "trophies" and mural

Armadillo ancestor

Really big 'dillo

Ankylosaur and his groupies

Ankylosaur and his groupies


Part of the seashell display

I love seashells. The more the merrier

Giant snail shell

Imagine if you will, a snail the size of a six-year-old

Giant amathyst crystal geode

Really big geode

A cube of quartz

Really big quartz crystal

Pictures! and stuff…

It’s been a while since I did a post with a bunch of pictures. Gee, that means I’ve actually been thinking up stuff to write — or just bugging out of the whole scene, like I did the last couple weeks. Well, I have a few pictures to share, and they’re pretty random, which is kind of fun in itself. Here goes…


How many zebras can you find?

How many zebras can you find?



Hey, somebody get me a brewski.

Hey, somebody get me a brewski.



Everybody say "Awwww!"

Everybody say "Awwww!"



I swear there was no cat in that yard...

I swear there was no cat in that yard...

Notes on a local collection

My favorite place locally is the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection (TCWC). It is not a well-known attraction, but every former student of the local university who majored in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences (WFS) or Renewable Natural Resources (RENR) knows what and where it is.

The “collection” is a natural history collection, in short, dead animals. Dead animals in drawers, dead animals in jars, dead animals in tanks. Technically, they are called study skins, alcoholic preps, or just specimens. They represent wildlife, large and small, from all over Texas and the world, and from every imaginable habitat on land, sea and air. They are arranged, within the collection, according to a taxonomic or systematic scheme. They are in order phylogenetically, which means that the presumed oldest groups are “first.” For instance, the sharks and their closest relatives are in the front ranks of the fish study (ichthyology) collection. As creatures with cartilagenous skeletons, they are presumed to predate the “bony fishes.”

There is a lot of “stirring the pot” going on in the field of systematics because of molecular genetics and the new field of “evo-devo.” Groups of organisms are being rearranged with new and different relationships to other groups of organisms. It won’t mean one group of mammals ending up in a closer relationship to fish than to other mammals — nothing that radical — but for instance whales and cattle have moved closer together. And some of these moves are being supported by new fossil evidence, too, not just molecular data. Hard specimens are still important, although many institutions have packed up their collections and dispersed them to other holding facilities because there are no more funds or caring individuals to properly maintain them.

About eight months after I moved back home to help take care of Pop, I looked up TCWC on the web and sent them an e-mail, asking if I could come and work a few hours a week as a volunteer. Why? Because I’m one of those former WFS students and I always felt a connection to those stuffy rooms in the basement of Nagle Hall, and later the basement of Evans Library. Now the collection is housed in one section of the former Texas Instruments plant east of the Highway 6 by-pass (now known as Earl Rudder Freeway) between University Drive and Harvey Road. They have a lot more room there and have absorbed some of those orphaned collections from other places. But they aren’t really any better funded for collection maintenance, and the neglect is starting to take a toll.

You might think, well, aren’t they preserved? and doesn’t that mean indefinitely? Or you might think, what’s the loss if they crumble to dust? And, yes, they are preserved, but like a lot of things, some were prepared better than others and hold up better. And if they crumble to dust and are lost forever — what’s one more vanished piece of history? Yes, we value our history, or we wouldn’t have museums at all. I think a few people would kick if the Italians decided to stop wasting funds trying to keep the Colluseum from falling down, or if the Egyptians knocked apart the Sphinx to make room for an apartment complex, but what are a few drawers full of field mice, or jars of minnows, or toads? I mean, really.

It’s only a matter of scale — scale of size, scale of focus, scale of appeal. Nearly everyone can appreciate some aspect of the Roman Colluseum or the Great Sphinx, but it takes a special individual to get excited about those drawers full of field mice.

Drawer full of field mice.

Drawer full of field mice.

Case in point. Who finds this picture exciting? Intriguing? Mildly interesting? Not even mildly? How sad. Because there are about 12 cases of these guys in the collection. Each case holds up to fifteen of these drawers, and as you can deduce, that means there is room for just buckets of mice.

What’s the point of having so many? They represent a range of sizes and conditions through space and time, grouped by country, state, counties within states in many instances. Often the size and color of a population reflects where within the range of the species it is found. If only one member of a population is collected, it could be a fluke. Only by having a representative sample size can you begin to draw conclusions about the life history of a species. And when the specimens fall apart or get eaten up by bugs, your representative sample is no longer so representative.

It took me several hours, working one drawer at a time, to get this whole case looking this organized. This one case had apparently been skipped during a previous cleaning bout, because it was the only one that needed so much attention. There were other cases — some with pocket gophers, some with squirrels — that needed to be rearranged to alleviate crowding in some drawers, but I’ve barely started. And I only have a few hours a week to spend there. No one is paying me, or anyone else, to do it. And that’s a shame. It’s honorable work. It’s a labor of love.

Why do we collect things?

I’m no psychologist.  But I wonder, what if collecting things is a holdover from much earlier, less settled times in human history, when it might have made sense to gather and hang on to portable, edible items?  Hmm.

This is completely unscientific, of course, but if you do a web search, you’ll find that websites with the word “collection” or “collections” in them generally have something to do with debts.   Type in “collectibles,” on the other hand, and that’s a whole new world.  But it still boils down to having a collection of something.

Some collections are whimsical, of value only to their owners.  Others vary in value; some are beyond price.

I suppose it all depends on your point of view.  I have a few collections of my own.  And there is a class of collections that is of special concern to me — natural science and natural history collections.  Of most concern are taxonomic collections that are being neglected because they are just not “sexy” any more.  Taxonomy and systematics these days are being done at the molecular level — DNA, ribosomal RNA, mitochondrial DNA.  You get the picture.

And really, who would want to sit at a microscope and study all the different cusp patterns of rodent molars when you can just slap a blood sample into a gene sequencer and print out a histogram with easily readable and colorful squiggles?  Plus you get to bat around terms like “polymerase chain reaction,” or the more mysterious sounding “PCR.”  You can talk about Southern blots, DNA clones in plasmid vectors, shotgun sequences, and other obscure and perhaps ominous-sounding things.  And I’ve done those things.

I would rather pull out a drawer of natural history specimens — say study skins of pocket gophers — and by just looking at them, be able to guess “these probably live in dark soil; these live in light-colored sand; these look like stronger diggers, so maybe they live in heavy soil.”   Things like that.

Study skins from 1941

Field mice collected in 1941

It’s true you can get more specific information about how organisms are related, how long ago they may have diverged on the tree of life, what types of disease mechanisms they have that may be similar to ours — and perhaps why — and how all this can answer hugely important, life-saving questions.  And, yes, that’s all very sexy indeed.

But I’m not.  And I think that you can still get more information about an animal and the world it lives in when you have the whole animal.  In the case of some specimens in natural history collections, a study skin is a relic of something that no longer exists — field mice collected from a site that is now a shopping mall. And why might that be important?  Because we are a species of record keepers, and natural history collections are, more than anything else, a record of where we’ve been.