Mining the HMNS: Video and Pics

April 9, 2016

In 2016 we teamed up with TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) to launch an exhibition at Project Row Houses, a cultural institution in Houston’s Third Ward. TitledMining the HMNS: An Investigation by The Natural History Museum it highlighted the voices and stories that are excluded from the local city science museum’s Energy Hall: those of the predominantly low-income Latino and African-American communities living in the shadow of refineries and petrochemical plants.

Situated at the confluence of scientific research, environmental justice, and critical museum practice, the exhibition aimed to model the museum of the future–one that works to mobilize a collective response to the challenges of the Anthropocene.


Operation Dinosaur launches at Project Row Houses, a cultural institution in Houston's Third Ward and the site of our latest pop-up exhibition "Mining the HMNS".

The Natural History Museum's primary subject of study is the “fossil fuel ecosystem”, encompassing land, energy, politics, society, economics and culture. We turn our anthropological gaze on traditional science museums as ideological habitats within this ecosystem.

"Mining the HMNS: An Investigation by the Natural History Museum" is on view at Project Row Houses in Houston's Third Ward from March 26 – June 19, 2016

"Is the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences a museum or a PR front for the fossil fuel industry?". This is the central question we explore in 'Mining the HMNS'

A recreation of the sponsorship wall in the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences--ours highlights HMNS corporate sponsors' greenhouse gas emissions rather than amount of money donated.

In this sponsorship wall recreation, the corporate sponsors of the HMNS’s Energy Hall are sized according to their greenhouse gas emissions rather than the size of their contributions.

This installation highlights the impact HMNS corporate sponsors have on young museum visitors as literal tour guides interpreting the Energy exhibit, and on young residents living in the shadow of East Houston refineries and petrochemical plants, where childhood leukemia rates are well above average.

As a sponsorship perk, employees of companies that give the museum $25,000 or more get priority scheduling to be trained as docents of the Weiss Energy Hall.

Docents interact directly with the public, including many schools groups, and play an influential role in framing how people see and understand the museum.

In this display, the headset of the docent plays an excerpt of a song featured in a cartoon video from the Weiss Energy Hall, with the refrain: "Oil, it makes the world go round".

Children who live within 2 miles of the Houston ship channel where the petrochemical industry is concentrated have a 56% greater likelihood of getting leukemia than those who live elsewhere.

Texas Coastal Ecology installation / intervention

As a critical reproduction of a diorama found in the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, this installation includes additional content to provide broader context to the display.

This recreated installation highlights the role of HMNS's corporate sponsors, in this case Exxon Mobil, in relation to the local ecology.

As a community-led air quality monitoring study, Operation Dinosaur aims to provide useful data for TEJAS in their current campaigns, and educate and empower local community members with knowledge about what’s in the air they breathe.

As part of the air monitoring project, dinosaurs like the one seen here are outfitted with OVM badges to measure the concentration of pollutants in playgrounds, porches, yards, and schools in close proximity to noxious industry.

This display highlights the local environmental justice issues faced by the fence-line communities in Houston--which are excluded from the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences.

The "fence-line" communities of East Houston face dramatically increased exposure to environmental toxins and hazards.

Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.) is a community-based organization in East Houston that fights for environmental justice through education, policy development, community awareness, and legal action.

As highlighted in the map, communities along the Houston Ship Channel are sited next to one of the world's largest petrochemical hubs, and suffer from the health affects of breathing air containing high concentrations of contaminants.

In partnership with T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services), The Natural History Museum will co-host monthly “Toxic Tours” of East Houston’s petrochemical plants and refineries.

The Natural History Museum explores the socio-political forces that shape nature, yet are excluded from traditional natural history museums.

The dinosaur figurines on the map correspond to the locations where the community air-monitoring project, Operation Dinosaur, takes place.

Living in close proximity to industry, "fence line communities" face some of the worst, under-reported environmental injustices and toxic conditions.

Unlike other large cities, Houston has no zoning regulations. As a result, many homes in East Houston fall directly in the shadow of refineries and other polluting industries and bear the brunt of environmental toxins and hazards.

Operation Dinosaur is an extensive air quality monitoring operation led by The Natural History Museum and T.E.J.A.S., in partnership with scientists from Texas Southern University.

Dinosaurs outfitted with OVM (Organic Vapor Monitor) badges are placed on porches, playgrounds, and in parks to measure the levels of pollutants local residents are exposed to.

The data collected will be used by TEJAS in their campaigns to educate and empower local community members with knowledge about what’s in the air they breathe.

The air quality monitoring badges used in Operation Dinosaur are the same worn by workers inside polluting plants as part of their safety protocol.

Air quality monitoring badges placed outside homes in the community of Manchester, ground zero for toxic pollution in East Houston.

In this hologram installation, members of TEJAS offer one of their "toxic tours" within a miniature diorama depicting a scene in East Houston.

This hologram video is projected inside a miniature diorama of the HMNS dinosaur wing. One of The Natural History Museum's museum anthropologists acts as a tour guide of the HMNS, exploring what we see, how we see, and what remains excluded from our seeing.

“Peppers Ghost” Hologram Tours in Mini-Dioramas


Over the months while the exhibition was up, we collaborated with local environmental justice group T.E.J.A.S. and scientists from Texas Southern University on a series of monthly “toxic tours” and a citizen science air quality monitoring study in the neighborhoods abutting the world’s largest petrochemical hub. Dubbed “Operation Dinosaur”, it approximated the conditions of a landmark study conducted by the Houston Chronicle a little over 10 years ago which revealed high concentrations of several cancer-causing chemicals in the air of East Houston’s fence-line communities.

Given that the EPA’s Clean Power Plan–which would have mandated fence-line community monitoring–is in limbo (thanks to a lawsuit led by the state of Texas), it’s our hope this independent study may serve to highlight the need for fence-line monitoring.


Already it seems it has — the Houston Chronicle ran a sympathetic editorial that highlights the influence of fossil fuel companies in Houston and persistent air quality concerns in low-income communities of color living in proximity to industry:

“The exhibit focuses a skeptical and irreverent magnifying glass on the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The provocative question that this exhibit poses is whether the HMNS is a “pr front for the fossil fuel industry?”

“There’s an academic truth in this criticism of fossil-fueled donations – you won’t find much about global warming or benzene pollution in the HMNS’ Weiss Energy Hall.”

“Money can breed influence, even unconsciously. Oil has done a lot of good for Houston, but there is no check big enough to buy someone the right to make risky chemical alterations to air they don’t own and others must breathe. Ten years ago, that was the message from City Hall. We’re waiting to hear it echoed from a new administration.”

The environmental news blog Triple Pundit gave a shout-out to the international movement for #FossilFreeCulture, and applauded our critique of the influence of oil and gas money in science museums:

“Now the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), one of the most visited museums in the U.S., finds itself coming under scrutiny. A coalition of non-profits is suggesting that the HMNS is a front for oil and gas companies. The instigator is The Natural History Museum, a mobile museum that seeks to “highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature.” Insisting that corporate money has perverted the pursuit of science, the organization that runs The Natural History Museum accuses corporations of funding museums and exhibitions with the ulterior motive to enhance their agenda.”

“Hence this group, which includes the journalist Naomi Klein and co-founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (a 1985 Nobel Peace Prize Winner), Eric Chivian, is trying to take science back for all of society, not just for the well-funded few.”