Tag Archives: Museum

Return of the Mummy: My Second Brush with Ramses the Great

Halloween is just around the corner! In honor of that, this blog is about a mummy. No, not the Universal Pictures mummy (though I love me some Boris Karloff), nor one of the Brendan Fraser variety, but a real, actual mummy.

Namely, Ramses the Great.

My first brush with Ramses was as a kid in 1989 when his exhibit came to the Dallas Museum of Natural History at Fair Park. The man himself was not there, unfortunately — he was still in his resting place in Cairo, but a lot of his artifacts made the trip over. The exhibit included carved statues of his likeness, incredible jewelry, cups, bowls, personal implements, you name it. Not all of it was tied to Ramses himself, but much of it belonged to those who lived in that general era of time, some 3,300 years ago. 

Several of these artifacts were included in the 1989 exhibit, especially the stone slab depicting Anubis.

Considering in my heart of hearts I wanted to be an archaeologist back then, this was both a figurative and literal treasure trove for me. Egyptology was a field I considered going into, and it remains an interest of mine to this day. So, to say this trip had an impact on me as a kid is an understatement.   

At that time, my grandmother was a schoolteacher, and there was a whole unit in social studies that taught us the basics of life in ancient Egypt, about the 19th Dynasty when Ramses reigned, and so forth. After the fact, I wound up with teacher’s resource guide used to teach the lessons. I put it with my other books on archaeology. Here’s a photo. We’ll get back to this book in a moment.

That logo, though.

Now, fast-forward to last December. I was passing through Houston and saw a billboard for a new exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science: Ramses The Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs. I knew immediately that this was my chance to revisit the time of Ramses II. So, after the holidays, I loaded up the family and that’s exactly what I did.

This is what greeted us as we walked in.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science already has a wonderful Egyptian exhibit on permanent display there, which is definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area. This particular temporary exhibit was an extension of that section. The artifacts of the Ramses exhibit were incredible. I’ve included some pictures here, but trust me when I say that they don’t do them justice.

Beyond that, the technical side of the exhibit was flawless, and I say this having worked on exhibits in museums previously. The lighting, the flow from one display cluster to the next, even the music playing throughout the various spaces was everything I could have asked for. The display that explained the famous Battle of Kadesh, in particular, had a cool back-projection effect that looked nearly holographic. (Unfortunately my photos of it didn’t come out well, so I can’t show what it looked like.)

At one point, I came across a magnificent golden necklace. This one, the Gold of Valor belonging to Psusennes the First, a pharaoh of the 21st Dynasty.

Wow…

It looked really familiar, as did a number of the pieces of jewelry in the case, all of which are breathtaking. It was at that point that I wondered if some of these artifacts had been on display back in 1989.

Later, when I got back home, I unearthed the teachers guide that had been in my collection for years. In the back of the guide, there was a list of the artifacts on display back then. I put that next to the official exhibit book I picked up in the Houston museum’s gift shop. Turns out, it was the same necklace I had seen as a kid.

It struck me that in the intervening 33 years, the necklace had made the trip to Egypt and back and likely been on display in number of other exhibits. As I leafed through the teachers guide and the official companion book, I realized that I had seen many of the other artifacts before as well. While it had been most of a lifetime for me, what was a mere three decades compared to the three millennia these artifacts had seen since their creation? They were ancient in a way that my fellow Americans often have a hard time comprehending.

As we left the exhibit, we found a bench and started talking amongst ourselves about our favorite moments and displays. That’s when a gentleman from Egypt approached us and asked if he could ask us a few survey questions. I was too happy to oblige. The questions were mainly along the lines of ‘how did you enjoy the exhibit, and what could be better?’ I had nothing but glowing things to say. The question that really stuck with me, though, was the last one he asked me: “Why do you think people are interested in Ramses today?”

In my excitement, I was probably pretty rambling, but my answer was to the effect of: “When most people think of an Egyptian pharaoh, everyone knows the name of King Tutankhamen, but the kind of epic figure they are probably thinking of is likely Ramses himself. Immortality was something Ramses sought in life, and the fact that we are still thinking and talking about him three thousand years later means that, in many ways, he succeeded.”    

The gentlemen from Egypt seemed to really enjoy that answer. I didn’t remember until later that I had snapped a picture of an ancient Egyptian prayer as I left the exhibit. I’ll let it speak for itself here.

Perhaps memory really is the closest thing to immortality we can achieve in life. At the risk of this post straying into melancholy waters, I know that the last few years have been ones of loss for many of us, myself included. Yet there is something comforting, something eternal in those words: “Speak the name of the dead and they will live forever.” Thanks for reading…and Happy Halloween!

Perhaps we’ll meet again someday.

The Day the Music Died: My Visit to the Buddy Holly Center

I’m a big believer in the power of art. Whether it’s books, TV, movies, video games, or other media, I think that the creative arts represent humanity at our best. I’ve also spoken about the healing power it’s had for me personally in a number of places on this blog. I’m sure you, the reader, are no stranger to being uplifted by a well-timed song on the radio, a silly comedy when you’re feeling down, or any number of other examples that come to mind. Art and the act of creation are, to me, the defining trait of our human-ness.

I didn’t realize until posting this that you can see me holding up my phone in the reflection.

Not to get too Maximus Decimus Meridius on you here, but I do think that what we do in life does, in fact, echo in eternity, especially for artists. Some folks, like Stephen King or Willie Nelson, have had long careers, and have had a hand in defining and redefining their genres more than once. They are the pillars on which several generations of future artists may find inspiration while they continue being legends of their respective media. We are so lucky to have them.

Sadly, there are artists who leave us far too early, often tragically young. These are the comets of the artistic world, blazing a path through the heavens before the sudden absence of their light leaves us cold in their wake. Don Mclean’s famous song, American Pie, speaks about one of these comets, referencing February 3, 1959 — the day the music died.

His plaque on the Walk of Fame.

That’s when a plane crashed in a corn field near Clear Lake, Iowa that resulted in the deaths of, among others,  Jiles Perry “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Jr., Ritchie Valens, and Charles Hardin Holley, better known by his stage name: Buddy Holly. I remember hearing about the plane crash as a kid, especially when La Bamba, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens, premiered in 1987. The movie ends with the now-famous coin flip between Ritchie and Tommy Allsup to determine the seat on the plane.

Exterior of the museum.

Last year, I travelled to Buddy Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas to learn more about this icon of the ’50s and early rock legend. The West Texas city is surrounded by miles and miles of cotton fields, studded with towering metal windmills. Travelling there at night from Dallas, I remember the hypnotic red lights on those windmills the most, as they always appeared in the distance without ever seeming to get closer.

The next morning, I went to the Buddy Holly Center in the heart of the city’s Depot District. The Center is situated in an old train depot. Across the street, you’ll find the famous Buddy Holly statue at the West Texas Walk of Fame. The statue was much taller than it looked from the photos, but it’s fitting for a figure who casts such a long shadow in the music world. His signature look is all accounted for there in bronze: the suit, the guitar, and (of course) the glasses.

Wow.

Speaking of the glasses, the sign at the front of the Center is a giant-sized pair of Buddy Holly specs. The museum itself consists of two main galleries. One is a recreation of Buddy’s bedroom, including several pieces of furniture he owned. Opposite that display are tributes from many other famous musicians that have made the pilgrimage to the museum. The other gallery contains a host of memorabilia from his personal life, his performances, and a timeline of his career. Photography is not allowed inside the exhibits, but there are photos on Google.   

Before you go in, you are treated to a short movie about Buddy’s life and legacy. A notable personality who shows up in that presentation is Paul McCartney, who talks about how the concert that Buddy Holly played in Liverpool was a catalyst to form the Beatles. Even the name of the Fab Four’s band was a reference to Buddy’s own band, the Crickets.

A wider shot of the West Texas Walk of Fame.

Of course, Buddy looks young in all the photos we have of him, but I didn’t realize just how young he was. When that plane crashed on February 3, he was just 22 years old. Twenty-two. His entire musical career lasted only around 18 months, but in that time he left an enduring mark upon the world. A comet, indeed.

That realization stung me pretty hard as I stood there looking at the actual glasses, which were recovered from the crash site. It really drove home what a tragedy it was to lose such a gifted musician at the dawn of his career. The Big Bopper had been oldest of that trio at 28, and Ritchie Valens was only 17. Yeah, the lump that I got in my throat as That’ll Be The Day played through the hall is roughly equivalent to the one I’m feeling now as I write this.

I didn’t take this photo. It’s from Wikipedia.

While the Center does not shy away from the circumstances of Buddy’s death, the museum itself is far from a solemn place of remembrance. Quite the opposite, in fact — it’s an upbeat and lively space. It’s a fitting testament to the man who, by all accounts, brought such an energy and fire everywhere he went, to everything he did.

You know, the act of creation is sometimes like throwing pebbles into the still waters of a pond. For many of us who create, the ripples we cause are small, barely noticeable most of the time. But as I stood there on the museum floor, surrounded on all sides by artifacts from his life, I found myself in awe of just how big the ripple Buddy left behind truly is.

So, should you find yourself out in Lubbock, Texas one day, I highly recommend that you make a visit to the Buddy Holly Center to learn not only about the legend but also the man behind the myth. As long as we remember him, a part of him endures. As Buddy himself put it:

Love to last more than one day,

Love is loving and not fade away.


My (Most Recent) Trip to the National Museum of the Pacific War

Down in the South Texas hill country, situated between vast open green fields and numerous vineyards, sits the picturesque town of Fredricksburg. Many of the buildings are built of white stone flecked with streaks of orange. The people are friendly, and the whole place just has a good vibe to it, with rows of antique shops, restaurants, and boutiques along the main strip. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend stopping over there.

Fredricksburg also has the distinction of being the hometown of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet during World War II. In fact, there’s a large bronze statue of him right next to the old hotel where he grew up, which is now the Nimitz Museum. Just look for the distinctive ‘steamboat’ structure off the main street — you can’t miss it.

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The man himself.

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The Old Nimitz Hotel (Now the Admiral Nimitz Museum).

If you circle that block, you’ll also find that the town is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War. The place is enormous. It contains hundreds of displays and exhibits, models of ships, uniforms, presentations, and mini-featurettes. It starts with the roots of the conflict between China and Japan, and then takes you all the way through the Pacific War, from Pearl Harbor to the U.S.S. Missouri. Every major engagement and landing is covered here, and in pretty extensive depth. If you tried to read every panel and display, it would take you days to get through it all. Believe me, I’ve tried.

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Just around the corner.

Full disclosure: This latest outing to the museum is my fourth trip there. Each time I go, something new resonates with me. The last time I went was when my son was two. The thing that moved me the most then was the famous “Bloody Saturday” photo of a baby crying amid the ruins of a bombed out train station in Shanghai. It’s still a powerful photo, and indeed the entire museum is a moving experience. It’s hard to look at the dizzying scope of the conflict, along with the countless examples of courage and valor, and the loss of so many lives, and not feel something.

Case and point:  Just after the presentation about Pearl Harbor, there is a little alcove that contains a rusty metal hatch. There is a noticeable black stain across the middle of it. Above those black lines is an egg-shaped hole cut into the metal.

At first, it might seem an odd artifact – that is until you realize that it is a hatch from U.S.S. Arizona. The black line is where the oil floated at the waterline. The hole was cut by Navy divers to see if there were any survivors in the compartment. Powerful stuff. Just seeing it is enough to make me tear up.

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Every. Time.

We see it all in black-and-white photos and newsreels, but the time that has passed disconnects us from it. This one piece of rusted metal has a way of bringing me back to one of the darkest days in U.S. naval history.

I hasten to add that, though the museum does present the war from the USA’s point of view, it does not balk at showing the devastation and loss that Japan endured. There’s always the temptation to downplay that aspect of the war, but the museum does not. When a warship went down in the Pacific, several hundred people died, regardless of which flag it was flying, hundreds or thousands at a time.

Horrific.

In fact, on this trip the image that struck me the most was a photo of two dead Japanese soldiers washed up on the shore at Guadalcanal. Both were half-buried in the tide, and looked painfully young. I can’t imagine they were older than 18 or 19. I won’t display it here, but you can find it easily enough on Google.

Now I’m not trying to diminish the impact of those photos of dead American soldiers, such as those taken from the Bataan Death March, just simply reflecting that wars have a cost on both sides. Every one of those boys that didn’t go home left a hole in someone’s life. A mother, a father, wife, son, daughter – you name it. You don’t have to go much farther than the exhibit about the five Sullivan brothers aboard the U.S.S. Juneau to see what I mean.

But, as an anodyne to these feelings of loss and pain, there is one other feature of the grounds that is a ‘must see’ as far as I’m concerned. Just behind the Nimitz museum, there is a Japanese peace garden, a gift to from a group of retired Japanese admirals.

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May peace endure.

It is absolutely stunning. There’s a koi pond, with a flowing water course that winds around the periphery to a replica of Admiral Togo’s study. In the middle of the garden there is a Zen garden made of raked white stone. It’s…pretty sublime standing there, a place of tranquility and introspection.

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Profound.

If you’re ever at the museum and things get just a little too intense, stepping into the garden is a good way to reaffirm the beauty that people can create, even between those who were former enemies. I always like to end a tour of the museum with a stop here. Just my personal preference. It’s the cleansing breath that brings you back to center.

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Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

Again, if you’re ever in the area, I can’t say enough good things about Fredericksburg and the Pacific War Museum.  I hope that you find it as illuminating, emotional, and powerful as I have.

But don’t take my word for it…