Q&A with Joel A. Bartsch
Our city offers so many enriching cultural experiences, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science is one of our top attractions, with 2 to 3 million visitors a year. We can attribute much of that success to the work of HMNS President Joel A. Bartsch. He took the helm in 2004, but not before the native Texan worked his way up from security guard—his first paid position with the museum nearly 30 years ago. As Bartsch and his team put the finishing touches on the museum’s newest piece of real estate, Paleontology Hall, John A. Daugherty, Jr. had a word with the president
Q: Which piece in the museum is your baby–the one that speaks to you?
A: Well, there are thousands of pieces in our repertoire, but the one that gives me that warm and fuzzy feeling is the Diplodocus. It gave me the ‘gee-golly-wow’ moment of my childhood, and it’s also hugely scientifically important. Nicknamed “Dipsy,” it’s the most important piece of museum history because it is one of the largest and most intact dinosaur fossils. We’ve had it since 1962, and it was actually the museum logo in the 1960s. So it has always been a part of my life.
Q. What piece would you most like to have in your home?
A. Well, the 78-foot-long Diplodocus couldn’t fit in my house…unless you can find me a new one that will!
Q. If you could procure any artifact for the museum, what would it be?
A. We need a huge diamond. It’s sort of at the top of our shopping list! We need some super killer giant, Texas-sized yellow diamond. It would be perfect for Texas because we could call it the yellow rose. But in order to do Texas justice, it would have to be more than a hundred carats, which could run $5 to 10 million. Hopefully the museum will buy one, or someone will buy one for us.
Q. What are your three favorite museums around the world, aside from Houston’s, of course?
A. Ah, you’re going to get me in trouble! Houston Museum of Natural Science is one of the top three museums in the country, but some of my other favorites are, obviously, the Smithsonian, the British Museum, Shanghai Art Museum and the Louvre is a classic.
Q. What is something special that sets ours apart?
A. Our involvement in education. Half-a-million kids come here each year on school trips. We think we put the ‘gee-golly-wow’ in learning—the awe in the beauty of nature. We’re not hitting them over the head with textbooks. We want them to have a personal moment of awe. That is the gateway to learning. Free admission on Tuesdays after 2:00 p.m. offers many that would not otherwise have it the opportunity to visit the museum.
Q. The advertising campaign for the Civil War exhibition is brilliant, resonating with all ages. I especially like the tag line ‘What were we thinking?’ Who came up with this?
A. We did. We do it all in-house, and ask each other ‘What do you think about this?’ and ‘What do you think about that?’ We personalize it.
Q. Wow, how many are on your staff?
A: Five in marketing, but we have 415 total for the museum.
Q. What is something special about HMNS, something people may not realize?
A. What people don’t know is the enormity of the new dinosaur hall. And they don’t know because it’s not open yet! We haven’t really done much press on it yet, but it’s two stories and bigger than a football field. There are 22 major skeletons and giant early mammals, plus 1,000 more fossils.
Q. Including the grand new space, which we look forward to seeing later in the summer, how much real estate does the museum encompass?
A. It’s 6.7 acres.
Q. What is your favorite HMNS exhibition of all time?
A. It’s the one we did with the Kremlin in Moscow right after the Soviet Union had broken up. No one had been exposed to those pieces in 100 years. That was in the early 1990s, and I went with [then-President] Truett Latimer. As the curator, I got to pick out all the treasures to bring back.
Q. What is your dream exhibition?
A. I’ve thought about this for four decades! I would show iconic artifacts—both real and mythological. All the things you’ve heard about throughout time, like the Hope Diamond, the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant and Excalibur.
Q. What’s the next blockbuster Houstonians should mark on their calendars?
A. We have two major exhibits coming back: Terra Cotta Warriors part two is coming in March with new things like gold and precious stones that have never left China. And the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic [sinking] is coming up. We’ll have artifacts from the bottom of the ocean on exhibit.
Q. How much are tickets for general admission to HMNS?
A. Ticket prices vary for special exhibitions and each venue at HMNS. For more information, visit the museum’s web site at www.hmns.org. Admission to the Permanent Exhibits is free from 2 – 8 p.m. on Tuesdays! And there are some wonderful benefits for those who become members of HMNS.
For more information on HMNS please visit their website at www.hmns.org