Saturday, January 6, 2018

World's Largest Toy Museum


The World's Largest Toy Museum is in Branson, Missouri


    When in Branson, MO, last fall I visited The World's Largest Toy Museum with over a million items from the19th century to the present time.  My mind was flooded with memories about my childhood. I remembered the toys I had and the ones I would like to have had if we had had the money.       

    This is obviously a common response, and parents and grandparents bringing children will see a lot things that will trigger memories that can be shared.

    There were toys for every age group.  I could see, however, that some of the kids walking around with an  iPhone in their hands were wondering how anyone could have found some objects interesting enough to spend time with.

    My first strong response was to the National BB Gun Collection, with over 500 guns.  I would have loved to have had a grandchild or two with me so I could tell them about the BB gun wars of my childhood.  

There were 500 BB guns in their collection

    I would tell about my dissatisfaction with my Buck Jones pump and my envy of those who had a Red Ryder lever action.  Those were the days of little parental supervision. and I'm not sure my mother and dad knew the hazards the guns created.

    In the checker museum I could have bragged about winning the nine-year-old checker championship in Jamestown, N.D.

    The Lone Ranger section took me back to lying on the floor in the dark listening to him and his faithful companion Tonto on the radio.

    Dolls play a large role in many people's childhood memories, and the museum has a wide range of them.  My wife Carla especially enjoyed the displays. Our daughter Jerilyn has added several hundred of similar ones in her collection at home.   

    I found a number of special displays. The first group was labeled Vintage Store Front Mechanical Dolls.  Here I saw James Cagney, John Wayne and Jack Kennedy standing with a group of realistic dolls dressed in outfits appropriate to who they were.  They didn't appear to me to be something a child would want, rather something an adult would keep for display.

    The second large display had GI Joe boxes in the exhibits, but the figures were dressed and armed German, Russian and other participants in World War II.  Again I didn't see them as children's toys but as collectables for adults interested in fine details of uniforms and weapons.

    The last group was again GI Joe labels, but were Civil War figures, finely detailed with individualized faces.  More likely again for adult collectors.

    The owners, Tom and Wendy Beck. started the museum in Texas in 1998 and moved to Branson in 2001with a mission "to build a toy museum that would bring people back to their childhoods, bring forgotten memories back to life, and offer opportunities for sharing those recollections with family and friends."  I feel that they accomplished that goal very well.

    As toys have been added, more building has been added and museum now covers three buildings, with 26,000 feet of exhibits.

    It is not all toys.  Space has been given to Harold Bell Wright who wrote "Shepherd of the Hills," a novel that sold millions and became a play that was part of the start of Branson as a tourist center. 

    We watched a movie on Wright's life and saw a copy of the letter written by President Ronald Reagan about the positive influence of Wright's novel on his life.

    In the last building we visited there were several large railroad displays, unlike anything I knew about as a child.  Finely detailed buildings, tracks that intersected and trails built on a special scale.  My contact with this sort of thing was as an adult with friends who had turned their basements into train stations fulfilling a childhood dream.

    For adults this is a very pleasant drop back into our past and for children to have fun  exploring .

My wife, Carla in startled by a masked manikin

A Civil War GI Joe collection

The Museum has a special section on checkers

U-Boat 505 and the Enigma Coding Machine

Capturing the U-505 German Submarine in World War II

    It turned out to be a real adventure when we visited the Museum of Science+Industry in Chicago to explore  the capture of the U-505 German Submarine during World War II.

    Would we find a way to stop the devastation the U-Boats were creating on our supply ships crossing the Atlantic?  Would we capture a U-Boat before its crew could blow it up?  What would be find that would help us end the war? 

    No expense has been spared to provide answers to those and other questions by the use of a remarkable collection of archival film footage, 200 artifacts and interviews and testimony from the survivors, including the German captain of the sub.

    We started down a hallway covered with newspaper headlines about the start of the war and the ongoing battles.  Charts indicated the number of merchant ships sunk each year, peaking in 1942 with 1,150 ships sent to the bottom of the Atlantic.  The subs were working in wolf packs. England was on the verge of starvation.  The subs had to be stopped.

A diorama of survivors of a ship sunk by a German U-Boat

    The Allies had to coordinate their various forces and a central office was developed that took messages from the air, the ground and naval forces.

     With antisubmarine intelligence, electronic tracking and attack aircraft we set up our own Hunter-Killer Task Groups. 

    One of the visuals is a life- sized hologram of six people in a central control center gathering details and putting together an organized approach that led them to a sub off the coast of Africa that destroyers and attack planes surrounded.   

    The wolf pack hunters had now become the hunted.

    Another large display with two ships' officers watching a large screen that shows the film taken at that time of the subs capture.  We see the dropping of a special explosive that will damage but not sink a sub but would bring it to the surface.  

    It works and later we get to watch the members of the destroyer's crew go aboard the sub to get papers, maps and anything else that will tell us about Germany's war plans.

    There is considerable danger because of the 14 timed explosives that should have been set.  Fortunately for the American sailors it had all happened so quickly there was not time to set them to explode. Instead a sea strainer cover had been opened and water was rushing in. The cover was put back on.

The sailors who went about the sinking U-Boat 505 and rescued the Enigma coding machine

    Sacks of materials were taken off, but most important was the capture of the German M4 enigma coding machine.   This was to be a gift without price, since now the Allies could decode German messages.  

    To do this we needed to keep secret the capture of U-Boat and lead the Germans to believe it had been sunk and all of the crew killed. 

    Only one German died, the others were all taken to a secret prison camp in Louisiana.  The boat itself was towed to  Bermuda without being discovered by the Germans.

    One display shows how the captured German crew tried to send messages out that they were still alive, but fortunately failed.

     At the end of the tour a film showed these sailors meeting with their families who had believed they were dead . Being captured probably kept them from being killed because once the Allied forces got its act together, 70% of the German subs were sunk.

The U-505 has been reconditioned and is in great condition.  Tours can be taken through it.

    The U-505 has been reconditioned and looks in marvelous condition.   Tours are available for an extra charge, but so much is going on around the boat that the interior tour is not really necessary.  We had taken the interior tour shortly after the boat was moved to Chicago.

    The children visitors were getting a real thrill using the material on exhibition.   Enigma machines were on display along with a screen on which the visitor could code and decode messages.  The living quarters were there to see what the sleeping and eating arrangements were on board.  Periscopes were available to use.

    Toward the end of the exhibition a film from 1964 is shown of interviews with the German Captain Harald Lange of the U-Boat and Admiral Dan Gallery who had captured him.   They had become friends in the interim. 

    So much more can be seen.   If you are interested in World War II, this is a must see for the vast archives and artifacts that have been drawn on to make this excellent exhibition.

Visitors can operate some of the submarine equipment

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum


A statue at the entrance of the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum in Branson, Missouri

    At the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum at the Top of the Rock in Branson, MO, many of the artifacts are the result of taking advantage of the creation of the Table Rock Reservoir.  Hundreds of thousands of acres were to be flooded over an area that included hundreds of prehistoric Native American sites. 

    Dr. Carl Chapman, from the University of Missouri,  set himself the task of locating, digging out as many of the artifacts as possible  and recording them. Starting in 1950 he had seven years before the dam was built and the sites were flooded. 

    He found almost 900 prehistoric sites, most of them rock shelters along with thousands of stone artifacts.  While many of them were projectile points, and are on display, I was familiar with them from many of the other Native American museums I have visited.   What made this exhibition different was the emphasis on some other stone items that gave a feel for the introduction of agriculture and a more settled life that was established after 10,000 years of being hunter-gatherers. 

    Michael O'Brien, professor of anthropology, at the University of Missouri, is also credited with finding and organizing the artifacts in this museum.

    Maize (corn) quickly spread from Mexico about 800 A.D. bringing about a major lifestyle shift that required the development of new tools for the new way of life.  If I hadn't been told, I would not have recognized that the large, flat pieces of flint filling numerous display cases was  "the tool that make agriculture possible--the spade."  

    With wooden handles they could dig the ground for planting, cut the weeds, and harvest the new food supply.  The sign on one of the cases says, "mastering the spade production and the cultivation of maize was one of the single most important events over man's 14,000 year prehistory in America."

The invention of the hoe (spade) allowed Native Americans to develop field crops like corn

These early spades allowed the digging and planting of crops

    The spade became one of the most traded items over the central part of the country including what are now Wisconsin, Illinois and Alabama.  Being a trader in those days would have required a very strong person since these spades are not light-weight trading goods.

    Even heavier was another tool that needed to be used to process the corn--large mortars (metates).  A large variety line the walls of several of the exhibition areas along with the pestles to grind the various foods.  Many of the mortars here show wear that indicates decades of usage.  The display case notes suggest that the village usually had one main mortar for everyone in the village to use.

Stone mortars were used for processing food

    Native American clothing has been acquired from other collections and plays a colorful role in the museum. Galley 21 is the War Shirt Galley and a quote from Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne, introduced me to a new concept.  "The idea of full dress in preparation for a battle comes not from a belief that it will add to the fighting ability. The preparation is for death, in case that should be the result of the conflict.  Every Indian wants to look his best when he goes o meet the Great Spirit, so dressing up is done whether in imminent danger in an oncoming battle, or a sickness or injury at times of peace."

    The shirts in the Galley are highly individualized and much thought has been taken in their design.  The warrior would fast and contemplate the design, then consult a female bead worker to help create the design he imagined.  Numerous women's dresses are also on display.

    Galley 27 focuses on the Battle of Little Big Horn and includes the account of the battle by Black Elk, who was twelve when he witnessed the decimated Custer's army.  It also includes Galleys on Buffalo Bill's Wild West, the Civil War and a Hall of Presidents.

    Johnny Morris, owner of the Bass Pro Shop, some years ago placed his collection of Indian artifacts with the museum. He had based his work on the outstanding collection of  the Native American artifacts in the Field Museum in Chicago,. The Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum has one of the finest collection of Indian artifacts I have seen.

A shirt for a Native American warrior to die in


Top of The Rock: Giant Animals of America


    A lion four feet high at the shoulder, a short faced bear weighting 2,250 pounds and a Hell Pig as big as a rhino, how in the world did the Native Americans who faced them 13,000 years ago survive? 

    This was the question raised in our minds as we examined the giant skeletons of these prehistoric animals, and others that had existed in the Ozark region at the end of  the last ice age.  Most of these carnivorous giants went extinct 11,000 years ago. 

    Johnny Morris, who made his billions starting with the Bass Pro Shop, decided some years ago that he wanted to share his collection of artifacts with the public.

     After consultation with the Field Museum in Chicago has built one of the most remarkable displays of Pleistocene Mammals at the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum at Top of the Rock, seven miles south of Branson, Missouri.

    In the entrance area we were introduced to the Woolly Mammoth skeleton the size of a modern elephant, that is, about eight feet high at the shoulder.

    Nearby was the skeleton of the American Lion, at four feet at the shoulder and 1000 pounds, was the largest cat of all time. Facing the lion was a short faced bear skeleton who could run 30 miles an hour and when standing was eight feet tall.

    His thin legs meant he couldn't make sharp turns when chasing prey and probably used his large size to take kills away from other large predators.  His bones showed his diet was purely meat based.

    The actual museum was under ground and included 41 exhibition areas that curved around taking us through the Pleistocene age, through the different stages of Native Americans, to the arrival of the whites, and through the Civil War.

    The first section we visited below the surface was about the giant animals of the past.  One of the fossils was of the giant beaver who at seven feet long was the largest rodent of the ice age.  With a very large head that lacked teeth for gnawing on wood--it probably did not make dams.  It is suggested they died out because of the changing nature of the plants they ate.

A Bear Dog, the size of bear, attacks a Hell Pig

    Fun to view were the dioramas that showed animals rebuilt to scale interacting (attacking) each other.  One shows a bear dog attacking a Hell Pig.  The bear dogs were dogs that were the size of modern bears who traveled in packs and had bone crushing teeth. 

    Seeing these animals on the attack, the question again comes up, "How could humans have been competitors?

One of the Giant Short Faced Bears attacks a Native American

    This becomes even more of a question at a later diorama with an enormous short-faced bear attacking a Native American who had just killed a small deer.  The bear stands over him arms raised, claws out, jaws wide open.  The man leans back a small spear in his hand overwhelmed by the attack.  But humans survived most of the violent carnivorous animals are long gone.

    Why did these animals go extinct.  Did the mammoths' go extinct due to over hunting by humans and animals?  Did the carnivorous giants die out because humans were better competitors for the animals they both hunted for food.  Several scientific reports I checked suggested two other factors.

    Mega animals may have had a difficult time adjusting to the heating up of the atmosphere as the ice age ended.  In addition a long period of drought around 10,500 years ago may cut down numbers and made animals easier to hunt by humans as they gathered at water holes.

    We were left with questions, but were pleased to have been introduced to new animals that been previously unknown to us.  We have another story about Top Of The Rock about their marvelous collection of the many ways Native Americans developed to make their way in the world.

Some Terror Birds of the time were 10 feet tall and attacked the small horses who lived in those days

12,000 years ago America's midlands had giant elk and giant cats

Giant Ground Sloths existed in the American midlands 13,000 years ago

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Evolution is clear at the KU Natural History Museum


    In Lawrence, Kan., on the fifth floor of the Kansas University Natural History Museum, we had an interesting time exploring a series of exhibits about different approaches to understanding various evolutions and how they happen. 

     We approached a mirror that had the images of two life-sized chimpanzees on it and were asked to compare our human characterizes to theirs and then to move to the other side. 

     On the other side were the letters of our DNA and that of chimpanzees, and we were asked to find the differences in the thousands of letters.  To help us they had placed a small figure between those letters that differed.   We found  only five figures showing us that chimps are biologically very close relatives to we humans.

    How sexual selection has shaped the evolution of flies in Hawaii shows that the power of who females chose to mate with is a powerful influence on what happens to a species.

     Male attractiveness has gone in three major subdivisions.  In one division the females preferred  males who have attractive colorful wings. A second group of females were  attracted to the males' songs and a third group favored how the males danced. 

    Given that females choose to pair off with the one who is most attractive to them, each group developed their own somewhat different characteristics.  Eventually it turned out that 30 percent of the males produced  100 percent of the offspring.   

    As the females continue to select males for certain characteristics those characteristics will become more definitive of the species. 

    A number of displays show how two very different species evolved from a common ancestor 55 million years ago. The early mammal was an artiodactyls.   In one direction it went through many forms to end up as a rhinoceros and in the other it evolved into  whales.

Evolution produced some very different animals from the same original

    Since Darwin’s stop at the Galapagos Islands the islands have continued to serve as a laboratory to study the effects of environment on evolution.  In this case they show the effect of rainfall on plants on one of the islands and how this results in the nature of the beaks of the finches.

     Wet years the finches with the broad strong beak survive at a higher rate, while in years of drought the smaller thin beaked finch offspring survive.

    A more complex evolution is coevolution where a number of different species relied on each other for survival.  One interactive display shows how farming ants, fungus crop, a crop pest and bacteria have all evolved together, each relying on the other for existence..

    The museum has an impressive collection from all ages of the world’s history, but we took special interest in the remains of animals that existed in Kansas around 14,000 years ago before they disappeared from history. 

Two early camels face a big toothed cat

    Some of the remains on display were from the La Brea tar pits in California:  the dire wolf, the saber tooth, and ground sloth.    At other displays we found: a giant buffalo, short legged rhino, middle horse, small camel, and a mastodon.

    The day we were there we  watched groups of children enjoying some of the interaction displays. We were impressed with the level of education that this museum provides and felt that more students around the country should have the opportunity to learn from exhibits such as these. 

    We expect that in the future museums of this quality will be put into a 3D experience so students can cruise the displays from their class rooms. 

    We suspect with the progress being made in media that this may not be too long in the future.

A short legged rhino roamed the Ozarks thousands of years ago

A Major Natural History Museum in Kansas

University of Kansas Natural History Museum

   When we were in Laurence, Kansas at the KU Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum, ranked No. 1 among public programs, we were impressed by the focus on life on the earth.  This museum has the largest university collection in the world of specimens  of  plants, animals, fossils and the archeological.     

    Walking into the Natural History Panorama of North American mammals was a wow experience.   We felt we had been dropped into an alternate reality where all of the mammals of North America were suddenly there in front of us in their natural settings.

The University of Kansas Natural History Museum has a marvelous collection of taxidermied animals.

    Each area had its appropriate vegetation, water, rocks and background so cleverly integrated that you couldn’t see where the picture background began.

    In 1886 William T. Hornaday went on what he called, “The Last Buffalo Hunt,” to get specimens for what could be an animal headed for extinction.

    One of the men he taught his methods to for preparing animals for display was Lewis Lindsay Dyche.  Hornaday later pushed for the government to protect bison and the numbers have gone up so there is no chance of their extinction.

    Hornaday helped prepare the animals for a panorama of North American Wildlife to be shown at the Kansas Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

     Many of these animals became part of the present exhibition when Dyche's methods of taxidermy mounting and exhibition caught the public’s eye at a time when neither the media nor the nature programs had shown much interest. The State of Kansas dedicated Dyche hall for a permanent home.


Animals from all parts of North America are on display at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum

    Seeing the animals on display it was hard to believe that they had been mounted over 125 years ago.   The panorama is arranged by areas with the first one being the rainforest.  This and the Polar section were added later so visitors could have a complete North American experience.

    The positions and faces of the animals convey much about them.  In the forest scene two wolves face off with a skunk.  The skunk is defiant and the male wolf is threatening while the female wolf is watching patiently as if being more aware of the skunk's power than her companion.  

   At the mountainside covered with several dozen mountain animals we got a lesson in the evolution of the mountain sheep hooves that not only have sharp edges to hold on to the stones but a suction cup feature that gives it added advantages. 

    The plains area has buffalo, deer, badgers, ground hogs, and other animals so complete that you could study North American animals by just studying what is in the gigantic Panorma.

    At one point in the exhibition is a display with five different animal furs for the visitor to touch to see the different ways fur has evolved to meet the living conditions of that particular animal: Warmth in water, warmth in cold air, snag resistant, underground movement, and change with the seasons.

    From a higher floor we viewed the mountain scene as if we were standing on a high crag.

    On another floor there were naturalist displays in boxes of mammals in scenes doing what they do.  A Red Fox carefully stalks a prairie vole in a snowy scene.

    On the main floor in a separate section taxidermy horse Comanche stands alone in the semi dark to protect his hide from light damage.  He was the sole survivor of the Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn.

    Despite being badly shot up he survived and lived another 15 years.  When he died his hide was preserved and later turned into a monument of the battle.

    The museum's section on the results of evolution was so interesting in itself that I will write a separate story about it for next week's Venture Bound.

Two wolves confront a skunk.

Carla faces off with fierce taxidermied bear.


Monday, September 18, 2017



Robo Thespian greeted us at the entrance to Robot Revolution Exhibition

    The Robot Revolution exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry is back from a national tour and will be at the museum until February 4, 2018. and then the exhibit will be touring  across North America through 2020. 

    Robo Thespian, a human-size robot,  greeted us at the entrance to the exhibit and answered such pre-prepared questions as, How Smart are  robots? and Can we work together?  He said his goal is to work cooperatively with us to solve many of the world's problems.  Since his answers were preprogrammed, I was impressed with him but not as much as I am with Cortana on my own computer.

    Never-the-less there was much to be impressed with inside this special exhibition as considerable progress has been made in the development of robots such as three types of robots who will be life changing for medical patients.

    First was the exhibition on how invasive surgery is possible for the surgeon on a computer screen.   I took the two rods that controlled items on a screen and was asked to separate them into appropriate boxes.  I quickly learned that the two had to work cooperatively. I had already been exposed to this in more detail at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where it is already a part of their practice of surgery. The explanatory material said, "With a 3-D high definition vision system, special instruments and computer software, surgeons can operate with enhanced vision, precision and control."

    Second was the exoskeleton that can be used for people who work with heavy loads or probably more importantly with physically handicaps in helping them walk and move around.   A video alongside the powered exoskeleton device demonstrated a number of ways it could be used by the handicapped.  

    Social robots can be used for healing.  Some are capable of talking to patients who are lonely and for those with dementia who cannot communicate they can have soft animal robots whose heads, eyes and mouths move and who can be petted.  While it was not discussed here, I am aware of Japanese men buying female robots as lovers and sexual companions.

    Game playing was very attractive to the children present.  When I played a robot in the O-X game, he always let me move first and we always ended in a tie.   When  a robot dealer was working a casino table for blackjack,  he beat me two hands and then asked me to give my seat to a new player.

A game playing robot could be tied but not beaten.


After my two losses the Robot asked me to let someone else play.

    A robot with only a head demonstrated eight different emotions, including disgust, anger, and happiness showing the progress being made in making robots more human.
    I sat in the seat of a mockup of a driverless car that gave an excellent demonstration of the many things a car must be tuned into to safely navigate the streets.
     Drones appear to be much further along than cars and a continuous demonstration of a drone was going on with help of children from the audience.  Drones are being used for farming, fire control, police work, military tasks and a variety of other situations.
    Some robots were working to show how they could play sports like soccer, climb stairs and avoid hazards.   I was aware of the usefulness of robots in the military and had a grandson who while in Iraq used them as part of his work on bomb deactivation and discovery.
    The robot exhibition area is so active that visitors need to get a time card allowing entry for a limited number of people at a time.  When paying for my ticket on a computer I had to get a staff member to work the screen for me.  It only took her three tries to get the program to work.   Maybe some of us don't have the necessary skills for working with robots.
    This is a popular exhibition opening our minds to many ways that this technology is going to change our lives.