I’ve lived in Houston many years and one thing tourists may not know is that Houston has an excellent Museum District. For this post, I decided to visit a couple of exhibitions at both the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Menil Collection. Unfortunately, Houston seems to be bypassed in the press by Dallas and Austin so I was glad to see that The New York Times recently included Houston in its feature “46 Places to Go in 2013”.
March 16, 2013
The Houston Museum of Natural Science
It’s a Saturday morning during Texas spring break, and one of those beautiful mornings in Houston when the azaleas are in full bloom and it’s not too hot to go outside. I pick the Houston Museum of Natural Science and arrive early before the crowds are too bad, as this museum gets packed on weekends. The Houston Museum of Natural Science was originally founded in 1909 and was originally called the Houston Museum of Natural History. The current location has been the museum’s home since 1961.
This museum attracts a lot of families and includes everything from a “bucking Bronco Saurus” ride for children (there are, however, age, weight and height restrictions) to the Weiss Energy Hall (as Houston is synonymous with the oil and gas industry), a planetarium, a brand new paleontology hall and even a giant screen theatre. Personally, I love the Cockrell Butterfly Center which was added to the museum in 1994. I decide to focus my visit on the Butterfly Center.
Admission to the Butterfly Center only is $8.00 (general admission to the entire museum is $15.00). Visitors will enter through the Brown Hall of Entomology which includes exhibits on insect evolution as well as several quiz stations for kids. The exhibits include caterpillars, moths and even tarantulas (but frankly, I’m not a big fan of spiders even if they are behind glass!).
Entering the Butterfly Center is an interesting experience as the Center is a simulated tropical rain forest. Visitors are advised to stay on the trails and not touch any butterflies. Inside the Center, the temperatures are kept at 80 degrees with 80 percent humidity, which apparently is the perfect environment for both butterflies and tropical plants. The butterflies are obtained from butterfly farms around the world including parts of the United States, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the United Kingdom, Kenya, Malaysia and Taiwan. I was surprised to hear that the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires special importation permits as butterflies are considered pests.
Visitors entering the Center will immediately notice the warm temperatures and butterflies everywhere. I had to laugh that one butterfly quickly landed on my camera and another landed on my leg. Signs are posted to make sure to check any bags and purses to make sure visitors do not leave with stowaways.
Inside the Center is a waterfall which adds to the effects of a real rain forest. Even though there will be lots of people on the trails, with the dense tropical plants and lots of butterflies, visitors will almost forget about the other people around. I personally like sitting on the benches and watching several species of butterflies everywhere.
Sponges (soaked in water and sugar) and fruit are also scattered throughout the Center as this attracts butterflies. Near the back of the trails, is a caged iguana named Chano. Chano has free reign of the Butterfly Center at night but during the day has a special cage during visiting hours as the crowds can make him nervous. Chano was found and donated by the Brownsville, Texas zoo and was likely someone’s abandoned pet. I was glad to see that Chano has a new, welcoming home surrounded by a waterfall and lots of butterflies.
I could spend hours just watching all the butterflies as this Center is something unique. Visitors should be sure to bring their cameras as photo opportunities are everywhere. I would recommend visiting the Butterfly Center (and the entire museum) early. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is one of Houston’s more popular museums and will easily require several hours to see everything.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science
5555 Hermann Park Drive
Houston, Texas 77030
Good Dog Hot Dog Truck
After spending the morning exploring the Butterfly Center, I decide to have lunch at the Good Dog Hot Dog Truck. I love food trucks and am a huge fan of hot dogs anyway. I first heard about this food truck in the Houston Chronicle and I’ve been hooked ever since. This truck operates Wednesdays through Sundays, but visitors should check Good Dog’s website as to where the truck will be (and to be sure the truck has no mechanical problems or that the stop is being cancelled due to poor weather). On Saturdays, Good Dog may be stationed at Inversion Coffee House off Montrose Boulevard, which happens to be near my next museum stop.
Good Dog offers gourmet hot dogs priced roughly $5.00 to $6.50 each. All of the condiments are homemade and the hot dogs have various themes including the popular Ol’ Zapata (which includes bacon, jalapenos and relish), the New Yorker (which includes beer-braised sauerkraut and whole grain mustard) the Corny Dog, the Guac-a-Dog (with avocado, jalapenos, cilantro, cumin and lime) or one of my favorites, the Chi-Town Dog (which includes tomatoes, dill pickle slices, pickled peppers, relish and mustard on a poppy seed bun).
Several of us in line are “Good Dog Groupies” as I am embarrassed to admit that I have driven across Houston on a weekend just to have these hot dogs. It’s funny to find out that several in line have done the same thing.
The Good Dog Hot Dog Truck is celebrating its two year anniversary next weekend. For visitors to Houston, be sure to find this truck as I don’t think I’ve ever had a hot dog this good.
The Menil Collection
The Menil Collection was founded by John de Menil and Dominique Schlumberger from France. During World War II, the de Menils left France and relocated in Houston, collecting substantial art while John de Menil headed Schlumberger’s operations (oilfield services). The Menil Collection is a diverse collection of both modern art and ancient artifacts, housed in a simple grey building designed by architect Renzo Piano.
The building itself is filled with lots of natural light and hidden courtyards inside. Dominique de Menil wanted a museum where people could view art with few distractions. There are minimal descriptions and the museum is designed for visitors just to enjoy art. Rooms are divided into ancient art (like ancient Greek artifacts thousands of years old), modern art (like Warhol and Rothko) and surrealist art (like Picasso and Magritte). Unfortunately, any photos inside are prohibited.
I personally find some of the modern art too eclectic for my taste but for fans of museums like the Tate Modern or the Museum of Modern Art, the Menil Collection has a similar feel. What I love about this museum is both the building and the African art collection from the 19th and 20th centuries. It seems like many museums do not focus on African art and I enjoy the masks (especially the owl masks) from the Congo. There are rooms filled with art from Mali, Gabon and Nigeria, and the masks and statues, while modern, definitely convey an emotion. I could visit these rooms over and over again as the craftsmanship is spectacular. To me, the talent and creativity is amazing.
The Menil Collection is free and is a great stop for visitors who just want to spend an afternoon looking at art. Visitors will also notice that in addition to the bookshop across the street, all of the houses in the two blocks surrounding the museum are painted in similar shades of grey. No one knows exactly how or why this occurred but for any residences in the 1400 to 1500 blocks of Sul Ross or Barnard, houses must be painted grey. It is speculated that Dominique de Menil may have visited a village in France where the entire village was painted the same, but no one can confirm if that’s true.
The Menil Collection is one of Houston’s secret finds. It’s an afternoon to view world class art in a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere.
The Menil Collection
1515 Sul Ross Street
Houston, Texas 77006