New York Museum staple gets a makeover
This article is part of our last special report on museums, which emphasizes reopening, reinvention and resilience.
When most of us hear the word “evolution” we think of Charles Darwin or the Lucy skeleton. We don’t usually think about non-living things, like rocks.
But in recent years, scientists have begun to apply the concept of evolution to a non-living – but ubiquitous – object: minerals. This new perspective allows for a different kind of storytelling both about minerals, which are often found as sparkling and colorful crystals in rock, and about the history of the planet.
As the American Museum of Natural History in New York preparing to reopen its redesigned Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals on June 12, evolution is in the foreground.
George Harlow, a geologist who has been the curator of gems and minerals at the museum for almost 45 years, said that when scientists talk about the evolution of inanimate things, they are referring to changes that occur over time. time. “This is an answer to the question of why, as life on Earth has changed over the past 4.5 billion years, non-living minerals have also changed.”
Today there are more than 5,000 species of minerals – more than triple the number since their initial development – and over time their chemical composition and color have diversified. The story of how it happened, this evolution, is new to the museum, Dr Harlow said. “For the first time in this gallery, we examine the impact of life on the mineral kingdom.”
The incorporation of this new science (it entered the scientific mainstream around 2008) is evident in all of the galleries, which have been redesigned for the first time since 1976, by Ralph Appelbaum Associated in collaboration with the museum’s exhibits department, headed by Lauri Halderman, vice-president of museum exhibits.
The old iteration of the exhibit hall was dark and had a layout reminiscent of falls and ladders: winding stairs and passageways filled with interactive exhibits and palpable rocks. But all that has changed. Space is much less of a maze now, Ms. Halderman said. “And less mysterious.”
The redesign looks spacious, brighter, and intentional, with taller ceilings and a neutral gray palette; even the lighting inside the enclosures was meticulously planned and executed.
Upon entering the new space, visitors are greeted by a pair of towering amethyst geodes, one 12 feet high and the other nine. Their massive interiors look a bit like the universe itself, with dots of white light scattered among glittering dark purple crystals.
In each display case, the minerals are displayed using handmade stands – a specialty of the museum – so that each specimen appears to float. In fact, the entire gallery is designed to let minerals and gems take center stage, with little distraction.
“It’s very conscious of us,” Ms. Halderman said. “We want the room to recede when you’re here. Although this is a beautiful space, that is not the goal. “
Touch screens in galleries will remain untouchable monitors for now, although one has been adapted so that visitors can see information on their phones.
One of the earliest exhibits is a spiral timeline. A tiny dot of light in the center signifies the Big Bang (although Dr Harlow noted that the light did not actually exist at the time) and moves outward, with lines marking the events that made it possible the birth of minerals, including the formation of the solar system, the development of the earth’s crust, and the emergence of life.
And then there are the colors. One of the most compelling events was “the great oxygenation”, a period when the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans first experienced an increase in oxygen, between 2 billion and 2.5 billion ago. years, which resulted in an explosion of color in the minerals, a feature that did not exist before. The exhibition includes spectacular examples, such as an intense blue-green chrysocolla; a dark orange, pockmarked crocoite; and a piece of shimmering, blood-red rhodochrosite.
Storytelling plays a big role in these exhibits, whether it is about the displacement of continental plates, the movement of water, or the history of a particular mine. “Today’s science standards focus on big ideas that connect across disciplines, such as patterns in nature, cause and effect, structure and function,” said Ms. Halderman. “These help you understand how minerals are formed, but also how everything is formed.”
In the Hall of Gems, approximately 2,000 of the museum’s collection of over 4,700 gemstones are displayed in warmly lit display cases bordering a three-sided room. Gems are also minerals that have been cut, ground, and polished to improve their appearance.
Old favorites are still here, but presented in an entirely new light (literally), like the luminous 563-carat Star of India Sapphire and the 632-carat Patricia Emerald. A new addition to the collection, offered by New York jeweler Siegelson, is the Organdie necklace, designed by Michelle Ong, with over 110 carats of diamonds set in platinum and made to look like a delicately woven lace necklace. (The necklace was worn by singer Rihanna on recent coverage from Essence magazine.)
Here, too, the emphasis is on storytelling (for now, small monitors will display a scannable QR code that allows visitors to see credentials on their phones). “We made the decision to use our labels to tell visitors global stories,” said Ms. Halderman. These include stories about where gemstones are found, how they are cut, their unique colors and properties, chemical composition, industrial uses, cultural uses, and significance.
The Minerals and Light Room stands out in the redesigned rooms, with screens that aim to show how light illuminates and interacts with gems and minerals, including those hidden deep in rock.
The room looks a bit like a small theater, but in place of a movie screen is a giant slab of rock covered in glass – 19 feet long and nine feet high, weighing nearly 10 tons – taken from the Sterling Hill mine, a formerly active zinc mine in New Jersey that is now an ore and mining operation Museum.
In daylight this towering boulder is just a dull brown, but when struck by ultraviolet light, its appearance is transformed as layers of minerals light up in fluorescent colors. As the wavelength of light changes, so do the colors, from magenta and pale green stripes to an almost blinding orange and lime green.
Throughout this redesigned gallery there are reminders of the importance of both scale and time, and reminders that the living and the non-living – life and rocks – may appear on the surface to be opposites. but are in reality deeply and deeply linked.