In Sterling, Hans Fex raises $750,000 in eight days to build his ‘Mini Museum’ dream

Hans Fex of Sterling holding the large version of his Mini Museum, containing 33 specimens of ancient rocks, bones and other stuff from Earth and beyond. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
Hans Fex of Sterling holding the large version of his Mini Museum, containing 33 specimens of ancient rocks, bones and other stuff from Earth and beyond. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

It was 33 years in the making, so Hans Fex didn’t know how the world would react to his brainstorm from second grade: A portable museum of tiny specimens from dinosaurs, space, and everything in between, all encased in a small block of clear resin. He labored over his prototypes, and last week he nervously released his lifelong dream to Kickstarter, in hopes of raising $38,000 to fund the making of a few hundred versions of the “Mini Museum.”

To say it took off would be an understatement. Kickstarter made the Mini Museum a “Staff Pick” on its homepage and in three days more than $100,000 in purchases had been pledged. Then it REALLY took off, and by Wednesday night of this week, eight days in, Fex had raised more than $750,000 in pledges to make three different versions of the Mini Museum.  Now he must really crank up the production process in his modest Sterling home to mold more than 3,000 Mini Museums for a suddenly, surprisingly enthusiastic public — for which he makes each one by hand.

And there are still three weeks left in the Kickstarter project, a popular Web site which enables people to solicit contributions for new projects which need funding to reach fruition. In late March, Kickstarter will actually charge the credit cards of the 3,000 people who have pledged to buy Fex’s Mini Museum (or spend a day with the esteemed inventor in person), then release the funds to Fex, who is thrilled but cautious. “Although I have friends and family who are very excited and invite me to toast to the success of Mini Museum popularity,” he said, “I myself don’t feel like truly celebrating until everyone who ordered one, and myself, have our own Mini Museums. I’m not being poetic, I’m serious.”

Fex, now 44, has been collecting cool stuff — ancient meteorites, mummy wrap, a T-Rex tooth, foil from Apollo 11 — for this project since he was 11, always with the idea that he would break off small chunks of his collection and encase them in clear resin. He is quite devoted to verifying the authenticity of each piece, whether it’s a triceratops horn or a rock from Mount Everest, and this involves meeting with museum curators, handing his items over to experts for examination, or in the case of dirt from Dracula’s castle, traveling to Romania and scooping up a jar full from the grounds of Vlad the Impaler’s castle.

Hans Fex reviews his table of specimens at his home in Sterling, before cutting them into chunks and encasing them in Mini Museums. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
Hans Fex holds a sauropod (dinosaur) vertebra from his table of specimens at his home in Sterling, before cutting them into chunks and encasing them in Mini Museums. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

Fex estimates he’s spent more than $300,000 on this over the years, and for the last year and a half he’s done nothing but work on the Mini Museum, after leaving his job as a toy designer at ThinkGeek in Fairfax. He said ThinkGeek was interested in buying it themselves, but it wasn’t ready. He needed more research, more practice at pouring the resin into smooth, bubble-free blocks. “It’s gotta be fantastic,” he told me the other day. “People who want these are really interested in this stuff. This involves theories of life, how we got here. I don’t want to give them something that’s not fully baked, that doesn’t meet their expectations.”

The seeds for the Mini Museum were sown by Fex’s parents. His father was a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health and his mother was an anesthesiologist. Fex’s own goal in life, from an early age, was to design and build toys. While growing up in Bethesda, his parents would take him to the various Smithsonian museums in the city. “My dad would say, ‘I really would love it,’” Fex recalled, “‘when you’re a toymaker, if you would buy me one of those,’ and point to a T-Rex tooth. Or a triceratops horn. He did it for his whole life.”

His father also traveled as an auditory researcher, and after one trip he decided to take a snailshell he’d found in Malta and encase it in clear resin. Fex still has that piece. And he remembers the moment, when he was in second grade, when “I’m walking down the stairs, listening to my dad, and in three steps, the whole thing — I saw it. The clear thing, the labels, the pieces. I saw it clearly in my mind, the whole picture. And I saw it for what it is now, everything except the logo.”

Part of the collection of Hans Fex of Sterling, with certificates of authenticity. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
Part of the collection of Hans Fex of Sterling, with certificates of authenticity. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

With the help of his father and his scientist friends, some of them quite accomplished in their fields, Fex began making a list of things he would want in his Mini Museum, such as dinosaur bones, meteorites and something from the moon. The scientists even began slipping the kid items they’d picked up in their own travels, and at age 11 Fex told his parents he was ready to make his first Mini Museum. But his parents felt that many of the items obtained by their scientist friends probably shouldn’t be used publicly, so Fex had to start over. Which he did.

Meanwhile, Fex actually realized his career dream of becoming a toy maker. But he spent his spare time tracking down items for his Mini Museum, calling curators, showing up at an event with Astronaut Buzz Aldrin and later buying foil used on Apollo 11. “It takes time,” Fex said. “I wanted to meet these people. I waited until Buzz Aldrin started selling things.” For items he couldn’t buy firsthand, “I have to have these things tested and looked at.” For Baltic amber, ancient pieces of amber with insects inside, “I took that to scientists to verify, to check with an ultraviolet light, a chemical rub, a burn.”

In the photo above, Fex is holding a sauropod (dinosaur) vertebra, which he said was found “between a more complete apatosaurus and diplodocus at the western edge of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. I acquired it directly from the team of paleontologists and assistants who dug it up.” He said the names and contact information  of about half of the suppliers of the Mini Museum specimens would be given in an accompanying booklet. “The other half of the 33 specimens were either gathered by me or scientists, usually my friends, or specialists who do not want me to make their names or contact information public because they do not normally provide specimens for the public.”

Fex decided to create three sizes of Mini Museums: a small one, three inches high with 11 specimens, for $99; a medium one, 4.5 inches high with 22 speciments for $179; and a large one, five inches high with 33 specimens for $239. All three museums will contain chunks from what Fex says is the oldest matter humans have collected so far, carbonaceous chondrite, from a 4.6 billion-year-old meteorite, as well as a moon rock, part of a dinosaur egg and some coal from the Titanic. The larger museums will contain part of a meteorite from Mars, brick from Abraham Lincoln’s house in Illinois, and a piece of human brain.

The “backers” posting comments on Kickstarter are just ecstatic at the whole concept. “I find the awe that this project inspires in my inner child to be enough for me to back a Large MM without question,” one person posted. “It’s a fantastic idea!” wrote another. “Thank you for bringing the passion of science back to me, I’m so excited by the project, and very happy to be a part of it.

Ty Liotta, a longtime friend of Fex and former coworker at ThinkGeek, watched Fex work on the project for many years. “The amount of effort he went to get the stuff was crazy,” Liotta said. Fex sometimes stored specimens in Liotta’s basement and would take out a moon rock or dinosaur dung to amaze Liotta’s children. “It’s been fascinating. He’s a very charismatic guy with a lot of amazing ideas, but sometimes he never finishes. I’m so happy he finished this and was so successful.”

As of Thursday, the Mini Museum was already the 72nd most funded project in Kickstarter’s history, and still climbing.

Fex has ample documentation of authenticity for each item. High-resolution photos of the full, intact items are available online, and he is also offering a booklet to accompany each Mini Museum. “The success of this is,” Fex said. “that now we get to carry these things around in our pocket, or look at it on our desk, and have great fun with it.” He hopes to have completed his production by the fall, and that the Mini Museum will be “setting the groundwork so I can make a living with some other project.”

The list of all the specimens is here. And here is the video Fex placed on Kickstarter which helped boost his project to full funding in three days:

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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