Skeleton men being attacked by skeleton snakes
Skeleton men being attacked by skeleton snakes
Photo by Jef Rouner

Death by Natural Causes at HMNS Brings a Dose of Dark Reality

There’s a wonderfully morbid bent to the Houston Museum of Natural Science lately, and it’s reached a delicious acme (so far) with Death by Natural Causes. The temporary exhibit on the already dark and somewhat spooky third floor of the museum is a celebration of all the ways the world can kill you, and in doing so it also teaches a vital lesson about the way we live and the magic of statistics.

Can you identify the poisonous mushrooms?
Can you identify the poisonous mushrooms?
Photo by Lynda Rouner

The exhibit runs a pretty wide gamut of dangers. Poisons get one of the most prominent places, and a lot about ourselves can be learned by what toxins we’ve come into contact with over our history. Some of the highlights include a small exhibit about the Radium Girls, a group of female factory workers who poisoned themselves painting luminescent watch faces and whose case eventually led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Their bosses told them to use their wet lips to “point” their brushes, leading to them ingesting hazardous amounts of radium. Another neat example of mankind’s endless ingenuity when it comes to misusing natural resources is a reproduction of a dress where copper and arsenic were mixed together to make a green color. The coloring would activate when it got wet, say in the rain or from sweat, and the wearer would be poisoned to death.

A plague doctor uniform
A plague doctor uniform
Photo by Lynda Rouner

If you’re into animals, then Death by Natural Causes has some really fun stuff. Outside of the Houston Zoo, the museum probably now houses the most diverse collection of venomous creatures in the city. Spider, snakes, scorpions and centipedes are all on display along with the probability of dying by their bites and stings. That’s in addition to some rather over-the-top displays of stuffed remains and posed skeletons. I haven’t seen better bone art since the last time I was at Wilde Collection. The skeleton man being chased by a skeleton komodo dragon was particular, ghoulish fun.

A greenhouse of horrors.
A greenhouse of horrors.
Photo by Lynda Rouner

My favorite aspect of the exhibit was its frightful honesty about what is deadly and how deadly it is. Near the beginning is an interactive bit inviting visitors to guess which is more likely to kill you. These range from lightning to furniture to dogs with guns. It’s a sobering reminder that what we are most likely to fear is not necessarily what we are most likely to die from. Cows are far more deadly than sharks, for instance, and Death by Natural Causes rams that sort of knowledge home with as much hands-on instruction as possible.

Madame Uncanny Valley
Madame Uncanny Valley
Photo by Jef Rouner

They also have a fortune teller, who I jokingly referred to as Madame Uncanny Valley because, yeesh, that thing is creepy. By answering a few yes or no questions and then peering into her crystal ball you’re supposed to find out how much longer you’re likely to be alive. It was there I learned that being left-handed makes you more likely to die an accidental death, which makes sense in a mostly right-handed world. My lifestyle apparently gives me another 51 years annoying you good people here on Planet Texas.

La-de-da-da-de dead bodies!
La-de-da-da-de dead bodies!
Photo by Jef Rouner

Curators David and Nicole Temple have put together a marvelously macabre outing that you could happily spend hours in learning the ins and outs of death. There are lessons about civilization, vanity, the biosphere, industry and human behavior all on display, and it’s wrapped up with a flair for the dramatic that borders on whimsically fiendish. I never did figure out why I had to place my hand in a dark box that vibrated menacingly to find out why the synthetic corpse before me had died of bubonic plague, but it sure did keep the darksome tone of the whole affair in the right key. You don’t want to miss this.
[location-1] Death by Natural Causes runs through September 4 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. $12 - $30)

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