The Untold Museum District, Part V

The Houston Museum District is home to a number of hidden treasures and untold stories. This is the fifth installment in a series looking at some of the lesser-known facts related to the 19 museums in the district.

Houston Museum of Natural Science

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is well known in Houston for its gorgeous walk-through habitat — a rainforest with tropical plants, waterfall and thousands of live butterflies. Few people, however, know the story of its challenging construction.

In 1992, the Houston Museum of Natural Science announced plans for a $19 million expansion – with a giant butterfly exhibit as its centerpiece. As the design process began, engineers and architects realized how unique a project the butterfly center would be.

Butterflies are a delicate species, requiring a lush tropical environment, with an abundance of flowering plants, minimum temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity of at least 70 percent.

Butterfly activity and plant growth depend on sunlight – so an abundance of glass was necessary, but the structure also had to be able to withstand Class 5 hurricane winds of the Gulf Coast. A strong support system was needed, but it could not be so complicated or it would interrupt the butterflies’ flight patterns.

Structural engineers eventually solved the problem — relying on exposed tension bracing. The need for tropical humidity also posed a challenge. The muggy temperatures inside the building could quickly corrode the structure. To extend the building’s life, the steel was abrasively blasted and coated with layers of epoxy and paint.

The resulting 70 ft. high exhibit is made of truncated glass cone with a sloping roof. There are no perfect rectangles – each of the 588 individual panels had to be custom cut.

Director of the Butterfly Center, Nancy Greig, said she was hired at the 11th hour of the building project. “The place was just a hole in the ground,” she said.

The center opened on schedule in July 1994 despite the complexity and was completed under the original budget for $5.85 million. It was one of the few butterfly centers in the country.

Greig explained that an unusual museum purchase sparked the idea for the center. Cases of butterflies and beetles were acquired from a self-educated taxidermist and artist named Michael Whitley in New Waverly.

He started collecting them as a boy to use as models for his paintings. The Cockrell Butterfly Center features a 3,000 sq. ft. exhibit to house Whitley’s thousands of exotic dried butterflies, beetles and moths on permanent display.

Greig said maintaining the rainforest in its pyramid of glass continues to pose a challenge – as does keeping its butterfly population. Cleaning the glass, for example, has been difficult. Also, butterflies have to be evacuated during a hurricane, she said.

“Museums are used to keeping dead things. This has been a learning curve,” she said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge. It’s a fascinating place.”

Houston Museum Of African American Culture

The story of the Houston Museum of African American Culture changed radically after John Guess Jr. decided to take the position of CEO. “I resisted for two years and then relented,” he admitted.

This native Houstonian, who was active on the boards of several cultural institutions, had a new vision for the museum. Instead of being dedicated to African American history, the museum would focus on more contemporary exhibits and activities.

“My idea was to put on the same quality programming based on excellence — comparable to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Menil,” Guess said.

He also wanted to showcase the diverse cultures of Houston in the museum. Guess has spent the past few years building contemporary, multicultural programming and starting a dialogue about transcendence.

“Having artists that transcend race, we were able to talk about race in a different way,” he said.

Guess has been creating a range of multimedia programming andgathering a roster of dynamic artists to fit the bill filmmakers, visual artists, curators and writers.

One recent partnership with the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) brought the award winning film, “Middle of Nowhere,” to Houston.

Sundance Director Award winner Ava Duvernay’s film tells the story of how a woman named Ruby changes her life during her husband’s incarceration. The story examines Ruby’s personal journey to maintain both her marriage and her own identity.

Guess met Duvernay, who is also the driving force behind AFFRM, last June in New Orleans. The conversation turned quickly to collaboration that will carry both groups into the future.

There are several upcoming events on the calendar at the Houston Museum of African American Culture – exploring historic and contemporary culture. The museum invites visitors of every race and background to engage in “discovery-driven learning.”

Rice Gallery

Rice Gallery is known as one of the most interesting installation venues in the country – but it took two professors to insure the University created a functioning art space.

An Caoin Ardaigh
John O’Neil, a painter and founding chair of Rice University’s art department, was serious about creating a gallery on campus. In the late 1960s, decided to usurp the foyer of his building, pushing desks and chairs aside, to make room for art displays.

O’Neil was still on the Rice faculty when Sewall Hall was built to house the art department and gallery. The new space was not ideal for exhibiting sculpture or paintings. The gallery would not accommodate a crowd, and the planned ceiling and plaster-covered concrete walls would not allow for hanging paintings or proper lighting.

O’Neil and William Camfield, the Joseph and Joanna Nazro Mullen Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History, met with architects to propose changes to the plan. The professors wanted track lighting, an open ceiling, gypsum board walls and a reinforced floor. The architects agreed to incorporate the suggestions.

The Sewall Hall Art Gallery was run by faculty, and the budget was limited. After 10 years, the department finally received enough funding to hire a director with a minimal salary. Three directors passed through in a short period of time. Without the sufficient funding for the director’s position, staff voted to discontinue the gallery in the early 1990s.

After one last appeal, additional funds were found. The University then hired a director willing to take the gamble on a fledgling gallery. Kim Davenport had a mission to do something completely different than any other arts institutions in town.

She decided to focus on installation — because of the gallery’s limited annual budget and limited space. There would not be room to store permanent art collections, and installations would be more cost-effective.

The first show installation created for the space was artist Michael Shaughnessy’s “An Caoin Ardaigh” (The Gentle Rise). In January 1996, Shaughnessy built giant arches out of woven hay in the space.

Shaughnessy’s installation set the stage for future shows – featuring unusual materials including giant balloons, masks, kiddie pools and umbrellas.

The installations have given Rice art students a glimpse into the installation process and inner workings of the gallery. They could watch art coming into existence.

While Davenport may have created an installation space for practical reasons, the decision has made a major impact on the campus and the city. Rice Gallery has a unique spot in Houston’s art scene – an ever-changing creative space where visitors never know what to expect.

Czech Center Museum Houston

The story of the Czech Center Museum begins with one dedicated and visionary woman — Effie Rosene, who founded the museum with her husband Bill.

Texas has more than one million people of Czech heritage, the most of any place outside of the Czech Republic, according to Rosene. The early immigrants from Czech and Slovak lands came to Texas for a better life, the abundance of farmland and the warm climate.

Effie Rosene grew up in Texas – one of 15 siblings who spent their childhood on a farm in Simonton. She knew little about her Czech heritage and said her parents were too busy struggling to make ends meet to teach her about their culture.

It wasn’t until she and her husband went to the first Czech Heritage Society of Texas meeting in Hilljie that a passion for her heritage was awakened. She came home with a dream of creating a local Czech center.

At the time, there were a few Czech groups in the city but no central organization. Meetings with a handful of local Czechs began at Rosenes’ home in 1995.

A year later, the Rosenes registered the Czech Cultural Center Houston as a nonprofit, and they launched a $4.5 million capital campaign to build a permanent home.

For awhile the group rented space in the Italian Cultural and Community Center and then leased a section of the Northwest Mall. Finally some large contributions made the dream of a museum a reality — including $320,000 from Thelma Burnett Maresh, age 100 at the time, in memory of her late husband Henry, and $900,000 from Louis Hanus and his family in 2003.

Construction began in 2002 and was completed in Sept. 2004. The Museum was built in a Baroque style – a three-story, 24,000 sq. ft., multipurpose facility. The building houses a non-denominational chapel that can be rented for receptions and reunions, as well as administrative offices, conference rooms, a 300-seat ballroom, an art gallery, a gift shop, a genealogy center and a learning facility.

Now the museum has celebrated its first decade and continues its efforts to bring attention to Czech history and culture. The center is not just for the Czech community – but for everyone to see that Czechs are an integral part of the cultural fabric of the state of Texas.