Archive for February, 2010

New museum update: Take the tour

by Jason Wolvington, Associate Director

Have you seen the exhibit in the Museum’s lobby about our new museum project? If not, stop by and check out preliminary sketches of the new building, renderings of some of the new exhibit spaces, and the beginnings of our layout on the new site! Every day sees changes to the project, so we’ll be continually updating the exhibit to reflect current designs and sketches.

And don’t forget:  we’re on track to break ground on our new building this summer! Stay updated on our progress with this blog and on our website at


Death of a dinosaur

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Damaged dinosaur sculpture (photo from the Coloradoan)

Such a bummer of a headline in the Coloradoan this morning: the Swetsville metal dinosaur sculpture that has stood watch over cars traveling I-25 for 20 years was crushed in an accident overnight.

My daughter and I pass the dino daily on our way into Fort Collins, her for school and me for work. My daughter is three, so the conversation as we pass the sculpture generally goes as follows:

“Look Mommy! I see a dinosaur!”

“Wow! That’s so cool! What does a dinosaur say?”

“Roar! Roar!” (said with clawing hand motions).

I imagine this same conversation repeated over and over in any number of cars by any number of kids and parents. This simple moment will not be repeated again. One of the Swets family members was quoted in the paper saying that the dinosaur can’t be repaired.

That makes me sad.

The other part of me is mad. The Swets have maintained the Swetsville Zoo on their property for decades. Open to the public for FREE, it’s a wonderland of fantasy and whimsy created from iron scraps. Bill Swets, the creator, was a farmer with imaginative eyes and able hands, an artist whose medium was metal.

One of his creations, “Tiny,” had a home in Old Town Fort Collins before it became a much-loved fixture at the old Discovery Science Center on Prospect. When Discovery Science Center moved to the Fort Collins Museum building in the summer of 2009, Tiny returned home to the Swetsville Zoo. In recent years, some other sculptures have been moved and remaining parts of the zoo consolidated to make way for improvements to Harmony Road. Now comes this additional loss.

Reportedly, the Swets family will be selling the farm at some point in the future. We will be losing this unique part of the artistic landscape of Fort Collins. We’ve already lost pieces of it to progress and reckless driving (the driver admitted to speeding). Happily, the town of Timnath has purchased some of the sculptures for their park areas but they can’t preserve the zoo as in its entirety as it is now.

It’s a reminder to our community to appreciate what we have now – before, like “Dino,” it becomes just a memory.

Science at Home: Plankton on Display

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Sardine Eggs

Have you ever wondered where that characteristic smell of the ocean comes from (somewhat harder to experience in Colorado, but trust me, it’s distinct)? Or what the White Cliffs of Dover are made out of? Or perhaps you’ve always been curious about what that crab you dipped in butter sauce last night for dinner looked like when it hatched out of its egg.

All those questions and more get answered in the most beautiful photographs of plankton I’ve ever seen.  The photographs are on exhibit at the London Zoo to commemorate the 350th anniversary of The Royal Society, but if you can’t hop the pond to England, have no fear. The BBC has a slide show of the photos, plus a fascinating narration by the photographer, Dr. Richard Kirby. Enjoy!

Crab Megalop Larva, Spider Crab Larva, Starfish Larva

P.S. How cool is the photograph of the starfish juvenile developing on the starfish larva starting at 4:43 on the slide show?

Great Backyard Bird Count results

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

I’ve been having a great time roaming the results website for this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count.  If you have a chance, check it out at  I’m very proud of Fort Collins: we increased our total number of checklists submitted this year.  Now, I confess that our checklist total only went up by two (80 in 2009, 82 in 2010), but it was enough to rank us #2 in cities in Colorado submitting lists (Colorado Springs turned in a whopping 158 lists).  The good new is that lists can be submitted until March 1.  I know for a fact that our number will go up because I still need to enter my count from Monday, February 15.

In a disappointment, the Red-shouldered Hawk that’s been spotted west of Windsor did not show up on anyone’s list.  However, someone did spot a Great Blue Heron (I’ve seen them here in January in past years, so it’s good to know someone got one documented with the GBBC).

Great Blue Heron at Prospect Pond, Fort Collins

Someone else saw a pygmy nuthatch.  This is a cute little, social bird that can walk down tree trunks headfirst!  Fort Collins is a little east of its normal range, so it’s neat that someone captured its presence here in a checklist.

Pygmy Nuthatch

Next year, I think we need to aim to break 100 checklists submitted from Fort Collins.  Anyone else on board for that goal?

From the Archive: Bringing the Olympics home

by Lesley Drayton, Curator, Fort Collins Local History Archive

Fort Collins had a personal share of Olympic glory in the 1960s and 70s when local resident Peter J. Lahdenpera competed in the first Olympic biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship, which debuted during the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California. He was also on the U.S. Nordic team, and went on to be a member of both U.S. Biathlon and Nordic teams during the Winter Olympics in 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria and the 1972 games in Sapporo, Japan.

Born in Finland, Peter came to the United States at age 13. He moved to Fort Collins in 1961 and owned the Alpine Haus, a ski and sports shop once located at 628 South College Avenue. Business was so brisk at the Alpine Haus that Lahdenpera was prevented from trying out in the 1968 Olympics held in Grenoble, France. Perhaps Fort Collins customers were hoping some of Peter’s Olympic charm would carry over to their ski purchases?

Peter went on to serve as team leader for the U.S. Biathlon squad for several years, including the 1976 Winter Olympics held once again in Innsbruck. You can view Peter’s official Olympics results here.

Alpine Haus at 628 South College Avenue

Peter Lahdenpera in 1976

From left to right: 1st Lt. Dexter Morse of Aspen (member of the Biathlon team), Olympic Ski Coach James Shea, and Peter Lahdenpera look through clippings from 1964 Olympic Games in this photo from 1972.

The Planets and “The Planets,” Part Two

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

Last month we had a look, and hopefully a listen, both to the planets visible in the night sky and to those same planets featured in Gustav Holst’s The Planets. This month, we finish off the night sky and the musical movements (except for Pluto, which wasn’t a planet when Holst composed his piece, and isn’t a planet anymore).

JUPITER, which was visible the last two months, is almost completely swallowed up in the glare of the just-set sun now. The planet is just above the horizon and almost impossible to spot, although on February 16th it appeared to be next to the planet VENUS, a “conjunction,” and the two planets gave the optical illusion of appearing to pass one another while going in opposite directions. While they didn’t literally pass by one another, they are moving in opposite directions across the sky. Jupiter will vanish from our evening skies soon, only to reemerge as a pre-dawn planet later in the spring. Venus, on the other hand, appears to be slowly climbing higher into the sky each night after sunset. As February ends and March begins, Venus will be brighter and higher each night, but it’s still a hard planet to spot.

The movement of The Planets, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” is heard immediately after the brutal orchestral roars that conclude “Mars, the Bringer of War.” In complete contrast to the harsh and mechanical sounds of “Mars,” “Venus” is cool, calm, and, above all, peaceful. The subtitle for The Planets is “Suite for Large Orchestra,” and this largeness is demonstrated imaginatively in the opening of “Venus.” Holst wrote parts for extra flutes, more than were usually found in orchestras of the time. Their sound offers a coolness that comes as a relief after the fire, smoke and pain of “Mars.”

The planet MARS is well up in the northeast at sunset, high overhead by midnight, and setting in the west (if you happen to be up before dawn) by night’s end.  Look for it now, though, while Mars still is bright. Its brightness will quickly fade during March as the earth’s smaller, swifter orbit pulls away from the planet.

Next to be seen is the planet SATURN.  At this time of year, Saturn is passing “through,” or in front of, the constellation Virgo.  Virgo is a large constellation, but not as easily spotted as some others like Leo, the Lion (immediately to the right, or west, of Virgo), or Scorpio, the Scorpion (low to the left, or east, and with faint Libra between it and Virgo). Leo and Scorpio have distinctive shapes, especially Scorpio.  Virgo…well, it just sort of sprawls above the southern horizon, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere.  It is the largest of the Zodiacal constellations and Saturn, a slow mover, will be “in” Virgo for a long time.

Saturn’s most famous feature is its rings. For many years, scientists thought it was the only planet that had rings, but we now know that the three other “gas giants” of our Solar System: Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, also have rings. While Saturn’s rings ordinarily make for a spectacular sight, we’re out of luck for the next few years. During each of Saturn’s orbits around the sun (approximately 29.5 of our years), there are times when our view of its rings is edge-on, making them largely disappear from view. Sadly, the rings won’t be really visible for another few years.

These nights, Saturn looks like a golden-colored star in western Virgo, somewhat below the “tail” of Leo. It will rise in the southeast at about 7:30 PM by the end of February, and then will rise progressively earlier each night after that. The difference is hard to notice, but it adds up to a 2-hour change during a month, and by the end of March, Saturn will rise at 5:30 (6:30, Daylight Savings Time, by then).

In The Planets, Saturn is “The Bringer of Old Age.” This title makes sense, for one of the names the ancient peoples gave the planet Saturn was “Chronos,” or Time. Of the visible planets, Saturn is the most distant from the sun and seems to move the slowest of all, taking almost 30 years to make one revolution around the sun.

A quiet and slow musical tick-tock marks the passage of time as the movement “Saturn” opens. The music has almost a heartless and indifferent quality to it as it slowly and steadily counts off “…the Days of Our Lives”, as the announcer for the soap opera used to say. This tick-tock suddenly ends as a slow procession begins in the trombones. Then, the flutes that were so cool and peaceful flutes in “Venus” appear again.  It’s hard to imagine any sort of flute sound as being menacing, but that’s exactly what happens here as the flutes slowly and inexorably come closer…and closer. Chimes sounding like a clock striking the hour give something close to a feeling of despair, but the music ends peacefully, with a resignation that nevertheless isn’t devoid of hope.

Finally, the planet MERCURY. Mercury is closest to the sun of all the planets, and so can only been seen from earth for a short time before sunrise or after sunset. Right now, Mercury is too close to the rising sun to be easily spotted, but later in springtime it will be visible briefly above the sunset. We’ll talk more about Mercury in a later blog post.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” is the third (and shortest) movement of The Planets. Where “Mars” was relentless and “Venus” placid, “Mercury” is a masterpiece of musical restlessness. The element Mercury often is called “Quicksilver,” and the music matches this quality well: darting, swooping, dancing, and never staying in one place for long. In fact, at one point in the movement, Holst gives the instruction senza misura – “without a measure” – meaning that for a time there is no sense of rhythmic pulse or beat, but just notes scurrying about gaily. A short burst of a quiet chord, almost like seeing distant fireworks, ends the movement.

And that brings an end to this examination of both planets and The Planets. As mentioned before, the music is easily found online and elsewhere, and is one of several works that, for musicians and non-musicians alike, is unforgettable after first being heard. I hope you’ll enjoy both the planets and The Planets.

As always, good seeing (and listening)!

Science at home: The Story of King Tut continues

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

King Tut’s Mask

In a study released on Tuesday, February 16th, researchers reveal the results of their “molecular Egpytology” – an analysis of DNA extracted from the bones of 11 Egyptian mummies, including King Tutankhamen.

King Tutankhamen (“Tut,” for short), ruled Egypt from 1333 B.C. to 1324 B.C as part of the 18th Dynasty. He became King when he was only nine, and ruled for approximately ten years.  Tutankhamen is arguably the best-known of the Egyptian pharaohs, largely because his tomb was one of the few not vandalized by grave robbers before being excavated in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter. Artifacts from his tomb have been exhibited all over the world.

While Tutankhamen may be the best-known pharaoh, there’s still a lot about him that remains unknown. One of the biggest questions has always been: how did he die? Several theories have been proposed over the years, including skull trauma, a gangrene infection, and even murder. The molecular findings released yesterday point to a combination of malaria and avascular bone necrosis, a condition in which areas of bone are weakened because they don’t get enough blood, as the cause of Tutankhamen’s death.

In addition, the DNA analysis challenges a theory about the Egyptian royal family’s appearance. Wall paintings and statues of royals from the 18th Dynasty depict Tutankhamen and his relatives with often feminized or androgynous appearances. This lead scientists to suspect that genetic abnormalities such as Marfan syndrome were common within the heavily inbred family. However, the latest research shows no evidence of syndromes that would cause those physical appearances. It’s seems more likely that the members of the Egyptian royal family were simply having themselves portrayed in an idealized fashion.

Back to the future

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

As someone that works in the field of history, it’s perhaps no secret that a time machine would come in handy every now and then. Looking through the Local History Archive, I saw headlines from 1985 that dealt with the economy, and terrorists in the Middle East that could have just as easily been printed last week. More telling perhaps were the ads for appliances and cars and how the prices had changed in the last 25 years; some going up, while others had come down. Automobile prices were noticeably lower with a new Honda Civic, four-door Sedan costing under $8,000, while a Ford Ranger pickup truck was just over $6,000.

Food prices were strangely similar, but microwave ovens – something new – were expensive, as even basic units cost more than $200, with some of the larger devices coming in at over $500.

Home entertainment was also costly, with new Video Cassette Recorders ranging between $375 and $800. The higher end models could be programmed up to two weeks in advance and would record as many as four different television programs. Video rental services were something new and many of the local electronic stores offered you rentals if you purchased your VCR from them. National chains like Blockbuster were just getting started and wouldn’t come to Fort Collins for a few years yet. A 40-inch, big screen television would take up a lot of real-estate in your living room with a depth of about two and half feet.

If music was more to your liking, you could purchase a new compact disk player for $200. The disks were comparable to today’s pricing, falling somewhere between $10 and $20 apiece. Of course in 1985 CDs were only for music and wouldn’t be used for computer data storage for quite some time. Home computing was still in its infancy in 1985, and your storage options were strictly magnetic, including cassette tapes and floppy disks. I remember loading up a computer game onto my Texas Instruments TI 99/4A, off of an old cassette recorder. The process usually started before dinner, with one half of the program loading while I ate; afterward, a quick flip of the cassette would see the other half of the program load up while the dishes were being done. If all went according to plan, the rest of the evening would be spent playing an exciting text-based adventure; at the time, graphics were still pretty rudimentary.

That would also begin to change in 1985 with the introduction of the Amiga home computer from Commodore. 1985 also saw the first Nintendo Entertainment System introduced to American households, a big improvement over the blocky images of the Atari 2600. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the old Atari games especially Adventure, although I’m still pretty sure that dragon was really just a big duck.

Microsoft’s first version of a Windows-based interface for IBM PC compatible computers became a reality in 1985. Apple also unveiled its first Macintosh Computer System and the notion of desktop publishing. How new was the notion of being able to do the things that many of us take for granted these days? Here’s a sample of a local newspaper ad, “Of the 23 million people living in America, only a fraction know how to use a computer. Which is why Apple invented Macintosh. A personal computer so powerful, it’s incredibly simple to use. Because you control everything just by pointing a palm-sized controller called a “mouse”. Whether you’re working with numbers, words or pictures. If you know how to point, you already know how to use Macintosh.” Interestingly enough, the price point for a Mac in 1985 was a little over $2000, while a copy of Microsoft windows retailed for about a $100. Both pretty close to the asking price of an Apple iMac, or a copy of Windows7, today.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Hearts and hankies: A Valentine’s Day combo that’s sure to please

by Leigh Westphal, Museum Coordinator

Handkerchief from the Museum's collection

OK, folks, would you like a little gift giving advice for the upcoming holiday? Here’s one hint: chocolate and flowers may be yummy and beautiful, but they probably won’t succeed in making your loved one feel unique or special. Why not hearken back to a time of sheer romance and courtship? Yes, I’m talking about the Victorian Era, and, no, I’m not talking about the corset (I think we are all happy to leave that one in the past)!

The Victorian Era was a period in this country’s history with very strict codes of conduct. Therefore, a ritual took place with every activity and love was no exception. Handkerchiefs happened to have played a very vital role in these rituals of love.

Similar to the fan, handkerchiefs became popular fashion accessories for women during the mid-late nineteenth century and, as such, became tools for women to communicate with men. For example, drawing a handkerchief across one’s cheek signaled “I love you,” while twirling it in one’s right hand meant “I love another.”

Handkerchiefs were also given to women to signify a man’s love for her. This was especially common among sailors who often brought back embroidered silk squares from their travels abroad for the one they adored.

Children, too, were aware of the power of the handkerchief. Similar to the modern-day version of “Spin the Bottle,” Victorian children liked to play a game called “Drop the Hanky.” In this cat and mouse-like game, a girl walked behind a circle of friends and dropped her handkerchief behind a boy. The boy then picked up the hanky and tried to catch her before she made it back to his spot. Of course, if he was able to do so, then the girl owed him a kiss. Quite risqué for a time when children were to be seen and not heard, don’t you think?

So, why not break the mold yourselves this year and find the perfect neck scarf to match your lady love’s eyes, or a sharp handkerchief to accent your handsome beau’s favorite suit? And now you can also impress that special someone in your life with your knowledge of the handkerchief and why you thought it would make the perfect gift for your one and only. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Another handkerchief from the Museum's collection

For the birds!

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Photo from

One of my favorite annual events is happening this weekend (and no, I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day, although that event has its merits, too). I’m excited for the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). The GBBC is a continent-wide count of birds – each and every bird in North American that a volunteer spots is counted! The event helps ornithologists plot trends in bird populations and ranges. For example, the GBBC helped ornithologists realize the massive impact West Nile Virus had on American Crow populations about 7 or 8 years ago. In the last two years, they discovered a change in the overwintering habits of Pine Siskin, cute little birds that are common feeder birds here in Colorado but which are slowly pushing their winter range further south in winter time.

There are so many cool things about this event that it’s almost too many to name: anyone can participate, even if you aren’t a bird watcher; the information collected informs a real scientific research project; everyone who submits a checklist is entered into drawing for prizes; you can watch online as maps and birds counts are updated in real time during the four days of the count … as I said, very cool.

It’s really easy to join this very cool thing, too. All you have to do is count birds for 15 minutes in one place during one of four days, Friday, February 12 through Monday, February 15. As best you can, identify what bird species you are seeing. Log onto, complete the online checklist form and hit submit. That’s it. Of course, if you want to, you can count longer than 15 minutes, count on more than one day, and count in multiple locations.

If you are new to watching birds, the website has a photo gallery to help you with species identification. Even better, on your checklist, you can tell the ornithologists your level of confidence in your identification skills. They review everything – if you’ve submitted a bird that does not live in Colorado and you’ve checked “beginner bird watcher” on your form, they’ll be able to figure out what bird you likely DID see based on their knowledge of birds and their ranges.

That said, sometimes rare birds do show up on the count outside their normal ranges. For example, there’s a Red-shouldered Hawk living at the Poudre River Walk trailhead west of Windsor right now. That species of bird is just not found here in winter, except this year, we have one! When the count receives multiple checklists with this bird from a bunch of us marking “experienced bird watcher,” the ornithologists have greater confidence that is bizarre sighting is real. It will be fun to see if other Red-shouldered Hawks show up in the count outside their normal range.

The Museum is an official ambassador for the coordinators of this event, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and Bird Canada.  We have information packets available for free at our front desk, now through Sunday, February 14. Stop by during business hours to pick one up! If you are interested in participating but unsure of the process, we are hosting “practice counts” in our Courtyard each day at 2 pm, Friday, February 12 through Sunday, February 14. Please join us.  It’s fun, it’s easy and it’s for the birds!

February 2010

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