From fossils dating back to the dawn of time to artifacts of ancient cultures, glittering gemstones, and cabinets full of curiosities, you never know what you’re going to find when you step inside the Houston Museum of Natural Science. More than a century old, this Bayou City institution boasts 2.5 million items and specimens in its vast permanent collection, with the best of them displayed at its facility on the northern edge of Hermann Park. “It mirrors the inquisitiveness of our community,” says Lisa Rebori, vice president of collections.

Strelley Pool Stromatolite sample

1. Oldest: Strelley Pool Stromatolite sample

When people think old creatures, their minds often head straight to dinosaurs, but there are whole eras of terrestrial history that are far older. Consider, if you will, stromatolites: layered mounds of rock formed by ancient marine bacteria. HMNS’s sample from Australia’s Strelley Pool Stromatolite is estimated to be around 3.5 billion years old, and this rock slice, with its wavy earth-toned arches of color, is strikingly beautiful. “What you see is lots of layers,” says David Temple, associate curator of paleontology. “That’s what makes them pretty.”

Siren of  Serendip blue sapphire

2. Rarest: Siren of Serendip blue sapphire

Named in homage to the sirens of Greek mythology and the serendipity the museum felt at acquiring such a gorgeous specimen, HMNS’s giant blue sapphire is one of the largest in the world. “It’s rarest because of the overall quality, size, and consistency of the gemstone,” says Rebori. Discovered about a century ago in Sri Lanka, the gem, which is encased in a diamond-studded white gold and platinum necklace forged by master jeweler Ingo Henn, weighs a whopping 422.66 carats (for comparison, the Smithsonian’s famed Hope Diamond weighs 45.52 carats). Luckily, this deep-sea-hued beauty isn’t cursed—that we know of.

Dipsy, the Diplodocus hayii

3. Best Story: Dipsy, the Diplodocus hayii

A beloved staple of the museum, Dipsy became Houston’s first dinosaur skeleton when it was unveiled in 1975, and it came a long way to get here. After being discovered by fossil hunter William Utterback in Wyoming around the turn of the 20th century, it sat in packing crates for decades at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh before making its way to Cleveland and finally to its permanent home in the Bayou City. “At the time, the founders didn’t even think of a paleo hall,” says Temple. “They just knew if you were going to be a museum, you had to have a dinosaur.” As it happened, they lucked into a pretty cool one: Dipsy is actually a holotype, the fossil scientists use as a model when they formally describe a species, making it something of a celebrity in the dino kingdom.

Baboon coffin

4. Weirdest: Baboon coffin

Most people know that ancient Egyptians used to mummify their dead, but did you know they also mummified their pets? Fido and friends were preserved using the same techniques employed for their human counterparts and placed in small, animal-shaped coffins, like the HMNS’s baboon coffin. Since animals often symbolized different Egyptian gods (baboons were one of the manifestations of Thoth, god of wisdom, magic, and the moon), a coffin’s design is focused more on a particular deity being honored or beseeched than on what’s inside, says Tom Hardwick, HMNS’s consulting curator of Egyptology. “Whoever donated this to Thoth,” he says, “was asking a big favor.” The museum doesn’t yet know what was buried inside this 2,000-year-old baboon coffin, he adds, but staffers have been working with scientists in Cairo for more than half a year and hope to solve that mystery soon.

Houston Museum of Natural Science, 555 Hermann Park Dr. 713-639-4629.

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