personal essay

Rediscovering the Museum of Natural Science

I took mandatory field trips to the HMNS every year from kindergarten through sixth grade. Now, for the first time in years, I felt ready to give it another chance.

By Shondrika Cook April 16, 2015

The Morian Hall of Paleontology

Houston Museum of Natural Science
$20; free admission to permanent exhibits on Thursdays from 2–5
Mon–Sun from 9–5
5555 Hermann Park Dr.

As I recently approached the main entrance of the Houston Museum of Natural Science for the first time in years, I immediately noticed the group of elementary school children waiting outside. The vision brought me back to when I was their age, enduring that same endless wait by the giant sundial before finally being allowed to head inside. Now that I’m in my 20s, of course, I’m free to venture in whenever I please—not that I’ve made much use of that opportunity. Other than a single trip in high school, I hadn’t visited the museum since sixth grade. By that time, I had visited with my school each year since kindergarten, so I had all but lost interest in the place. Now, I was hoping the time away would give me a fresh pair of eyes for the exhibits.

A few weeks ago I was offered the chance to give the museum another whirl, so I invited my cousin, a science buff who also hadn’t visited in a long time, to tag along. We were both expecting to have a good time reacquainting ourselves with the exhibits. When I walked inside, I instantly felt bigger, as if the building, which had seemed so massive to me as a kid, had shrunk. I met my cousin, who had our passes, in the gift shop. In addition to the permanent exhibits, our tickets gave us access to the Burke Baker Planetarium, a place we both remembered fondly, as well as the Cockrell Butterfly Center. We geeked out over which film to see at the planetarium, eventually settling on what seemed the best choice, a film on black holes. We had plenty of time before the screening, so we left to explore the rest of the museum.

T-Rex, up close | Flickr user Theodore Scott

When my cousin and I entered the main exhibit hall I expected to be greeted by Bucky, the hulking T-Rex I remembered from my school trips. Instead, there was a largely empty sitting area. My memory and my eyes fought it out for a moment, trying to make sense of the space, before I remembered that all the dinosaur skeletons had been relocated in 2012 to a new $85 million, 30,000-square-foot wing, the Morian Hall of Paleontology. We followed the signs in that direction, passing through the old Weiss Hall of Energy, which fit my memories to a T. The Foucault’s Pendulum was still swinging after all these years. You could say it has Southern way of moving—slow and steady—with an almost imperceptible H-Town lean. The energy exhibit was just as I remembered it, with the cool little people inside the life-size diorama. We took a trip on the Geovator and relearned how oil is extracted from ground.

Finally I arrived at what I’d been most excited to see, the new paleontology wing. Distant memories from yesteryear were replaced by a new vision, and a new journey through prehistory. We charted own path through the exhibit, mostly disregarding chronology. Compared to the old displays, this new space was brighter, more open. I could almost imagine what life would have been like dwelling among the animal kingdom’s ancestors. My cousin observed that the hall seemed to be trying to appeal as much to adults as children. There was more drama to it, more action. Some skeletons were positioned to mimic the wall murals depicting scenes of prehistoric wildlife; others seemed to be engaged in harrowing escapes from predators.

One alcove featured a fascinating display of petrified wood. The slices taken from tree trunks revealed a gem-like beauty—I had never seen anything like it. I was in awe of the lovely patterns that brought to mind onyx and rubies. Such beauty hiding in tree trunks, created only by time and nature. After passing through the alcove I finally stumbled upon my old friend Bucky the T-Rex, caught in mid-stride. I was also delighted to find the museum’s brontosaurus, its long tail curving out into the distance. I recalled that same tail looping around the main entrance years ago.

Around noon, my cousin and I headed to what remains the museum’s only eatery, McDonald’s. Even with a redesigned space, I still wonder how such a great museum could offer fast food as the only option. (I heard it has something to do with a long-term vending contract the museum is locked into.) We finished lunch in time to catch our highly anticipated black hole film. Passing the school group again, I remembered sitting with my own former classmates in a straight line in the middle of the floor between scheduled activities. Like everything else at the museum, the planetarium was smaller than I remembered. My cousin and I settled into two of the reclining seats that allowed us to lay back and watch the film overhead.

Guests of the Cockrell Butterfly Center | Flickr user

I was a little disappointed that the film only lasted about a half hour, but, then again, that just gave us more time to explore the rest of the attractions. We headed next to the Cockrell Butterfly Center, the museum’s trademark glass greenhouse that I had only visited once or twice. I’d forgotten that before you enter the greenhouse you pass through a learning center featuring nothing but bugs—big bugs, little bugs, common and uncommon bugs. My cousin and I were more fascinated by them than we thought, probably because these ones weren’t crawling on the floor but kept safely behind glass. After pausing to admire a two-foot-high anthill, we passed through a set of doors and entered the butterfly oasis.

It was a characteristically damp day in Houston—in addition to the artificial waterfall, it happened to be raining outside, and the drops of water falling on the glass walls of the greenhouse only enhanced the sensation of being in a rainforest. Quiet, gentle butterflies fluttered about, so close I could touch them mid-flight. I caught one with a torn wing, and felt a twinge of sadness. I snapped pictures with my phone left and right, laughing at myself and the technology-filled life I now lead. These days, most people don’t think twice about whipping out their smartphone to document their visit—another change from my childhood memories of the museum.

The last place my cousin and I visited was the HMNS Shop, which made Houstonia’s list of 101 Great Little Shops in March. It was easy to see why it made the cut. It’s the kind of store that makes me feel fortunate to be an adult with money in my pocket, rather than a kid relying on the generosity of a parent. All kinds of scientific trinkets, jewelry, books and toys are at your fingertips, ready to be taken home—for a (sometimes steep) price, of course. I was captivated by a periodic table puzzle, which brought back memories of taking chemistry as a high school sophomore. I made good grades that year, so I bought the puzzle.

Though I didn’t have time to see any of the temporary shows, like the intriguing new exhibition of ancient Chinese artifacts, on this visit, the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s permanent collections offered plenty of entertainment and education on their own. Even as someone now more interested in the arts than the sciences, I gained a renewed appreciation for the earth and its treasures. The museum reminded me that humans are just a small part of a much grander world, and that’s knowledge worth coming back for.  



Show Comments