The Aftermath: Discovery Days at the Museum of Nature & Science

Texas Triffid Ranch table

Last weekend’s Discovery Days show at Dallas’s Museum of Nature & Science went off without a hiccup, even with the slightly melancholy vibe running the entire weekend. As of September 16, when the current Planet Shark exhibition closes, so will the Science Museum building, previously known as The Science Place for the last three decades. Considering the amount of time I’ve spent over the last quarter-century in this building (the original Robot Dinosaurs exhibition opened on my 21st birthday), this was a second-to-last opportunity to say goodbye to an old and dear friend.

The welcome sign at Discovery Days

The idea was simple: come out with a sampling of carnivores for exhibition, and answer questions the attending kids had about the plants and how they lived. As with last year’s Discovery Days show, both kids and adults kept me on my toes with thoughtful, sharp, and detailed questions about carnivorous plant physiology and habits. What was new this year was the number of visitors, both from out-of-state and out-of-country, who had great insights. When I wasn’t talking to a Romanian engineer about Transylvanian dinosaurs (and he was absolutely amazed that such a thing existed) and his world-famous countryman Baron Nopsca, I was helping to identify pitcher plants on Luzon in the Philippines. If I was twitching by the end, it was only because of the sheer amount of information that attendees shared, and I only hope that I was able to return the favor.

A small selection from my carnivorous plant library

As I did last year, I brought out a cross-section of reference books on the subject to show examples of plants I didn’t have in my collection at the moment, but it may be time to get an iPad and go electronic. My back still hurts from hauling them out of the car on Sunday evening.

Sarracenia lid and lip

All of the plants were popular, but the big Sarracenia hybrid was the belle of the ball. In fact, a couple of people made precisely that comment. Not only did she draw interest in the first place, but she was ultimately more accessible to understanding basic passive-trap physiology than any other plant there. (In particular, one attendee had a slight freakout when I was demonstrating with a UV light how the lid interiors and lips of the pitcher fluoresce under ultraviolet light, and she literally squeaked “It’s a sonic screwdriver!”) That said, most of the kids liked her cousin…

The provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador

I was regularly asked if I named individual plants, and I was half-tempted to nickname the two Sarracenia purpurea “Red” and “Harold” for the duration of the show. Considering the number of Canadians, not to mention us Canadian anchor babies, out to see the sharks, that may or may not have been prudent. Bringing “Red” out, though, was especially important for one four-year-old with a look in her eye that I knew well from her age: “Don’t you DARE patronize me.” She wanted everything explained to her exactly the way I would have done with her parents, and she asked as many questions as she could about the hairs on the lip and composition of the debris in the bottom of the pitchers with her admittedly slightly limited vocabulary. I hope to run into her again in a few years and see how far she leaves me in the dust in scientific inquiries.

Nepenthes ampullaria

And the other surprise hit? Explaining the number of mutualistic relationships between carnivores and various animals had some kids engrossed, especially when I told them about the relationships between Nepenthes ampullaria and the frog Microhyla nepenthicola. Frogs that nest and breed in pitcher plants? Oh, that shattered a few fragile young minds. (I’ll say the greatest satisfaction came with a group of teenagers who claimed that they were there to watch out for little brothers, and they must have hung out on Saturday afternoon for an hour, asking every question they could. I don’t know if they were too fascinated to pretend to be nonplussed, or if I treated them like adults, but they asked some of the sharpest questions the whole weekend long. And so much for kids today being lazy and stupid, eh?)

As mentioned before, this was the last actual event at the old Museum, but I’ve been assured that the crew wants a carnivorous plant presence at the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science, which opens next year. In the meantime, I’m planning to organize one last outing to the current Museum on September 16, where those of us who remember the two separate museums in Fair Park can come out and have one last look around. For the Czarina and myself, it’ll be particularly important, as we were married under the Protostega in the Texas Giants Hall at the old Museum of Natural History, and this is as close to renewing our vows in the same place as we’re going to get.

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