If you love things that sparkle with all the colours of the rainbow, glow in the dark, and seem to defy any definition of the term rock, you’ve got to visit the new Halls of Gems and Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I recently got a preview of the new space, and as someone who grew up visiting the old halls, I can assure you it’s a major upgrade worthy of the museum’s spectacular collection.
The Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals are set to open on June 12, the culmination of a four-year renovation on the dated Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals and the J.P. Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems, the public repository of some of the museum’s 200,000 gems and minerals. Unlike the old halls, which were a bit too dark, musty, and lacking in easy-to-read science, the new halls feature tall ceilings and long lines-of-sight that allow you to take in many towering, colourful specimens at once. Informational placards are understandable to kids without being too simplistic for adults.
The new exhibition halls buttress the old collection with some recent acquisitions, like two massive amethyst geodes (3.66 m and 2.74 m tall), which welcome visitors into the space. A stupefyingly glitzy temporary exhibit, Beautiful Creatures, features jewellery from the last 150 years (a nod to the museum’s 150-year history) modelled after creatures in the natural world, like a starfish designed by Salvador Dalí. In total, the galleries are 1,022 sq km and contain 5,000 specimens from nearly 100 countries.
But the biggest achievement is how well scientific facts about the gems and minerals have been integrated with geographic and historical contexts. The stories of these objects — from the “Subway Garnet,” a huge geometry of a mineral found during a sewer excavation near Manhattan’s Herald Square, to the “Singing Stone,” a hulking, 3,266 kg block of blue azurite and green malachite that featured in the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 — are partnered with spectroscopic images and crystal lattice models, in a way that makes the physics of stone formation approachable and exciting. Viewers can travel through the gallery using the circumstances of the objects’ formation (igneous, metamorphic, pegmatitic, hydrothermal, or weathering), their geographic findspots, or the stories of their time in human hands as a guide.
Curator George Harlow said that not too much had changed about the science since the old halls were in place, but some ideas had developed further, and the new halls do a better job of telling the story of our understanding of elements and their importance in mineralogy and crystallography.
“Forty-plus years ago, when the current galleries were designed, scientists had not yet begun to explore the concept of mineral evolution,” said Harlow in a museum press release. “Today, we work within a different framework, where much of the diversity of minerals on our dynamic planet is directly connected to the evolution of life. Our new exhibits will allow us to tell how the story of minerals is linked with their natural environment and biology on the one hand and with culture and technology on the other.”
A large wall-mounted diagram of different minerals puts that evolution on display, reminding you that diamonds are more ancient than gold, and certainly far more ancient than any turquoise. An animated periodic table reveals the scarcity and plentitude of different elements by morphing the size of each one to represent how much of it can be found on Earth. Of course, if you want to skip all the reading and just lose yourself in the bizarre, enthralling beauty of the specimens, that’s a valid choice, too. A grape agate from Sulawesi, Indonesia resembles a cascade of lavender fish eggs. Velvet malachite nearly convinces the viewer of its soft texture — though a nearby panel notes that its perceived softness is actually a devious assemblage of minuscule, needle-like crystals. A large glob of calcite and aragonite from Bisbee, Arizona looks like an Antarctic glacier that remains frozen at room temperature. Elsewhere, minerals look like bloated green Cheetos, stacks of communion wafers, moldy cheese, and fuzzy spores. In the halls, familiar physics seem to be suspended, as vividly colourful minerals appear both soft and indestructible at once.
Not all of the objects on display have a comprehensive provenance history, which is an unfortunate reality of many museums with such old collections. But the labels are still a vast improvement over the previous cards, which made it difficult to draw connections between specimens and the geologic processes that forged them.
And the work isn’t done. Rather than being a stuffy dead-end, the new halls will open directly (via a “Crystalline Pass,” as the museum puts it) into the new 218,000-square-foot Richard Gilder Centre for Science, Education and Innovation, itself an architecturally marvellous structure that will have gallery spaces, classrooms, a theatre, and the widely adored butterfly vivarium, all set to open in late 2022.
It’s a challenge to steal the spotlight in a museum like AMNH, which contains such wonders as a life-size, ceiling-mounted blue whale (currently sporting a vaccine band-aid). But the new halls practically bring the periodic table to life, flipping the script on anyone who thought of geology as boring.