Mineralogy in the Science Museum?

I found that I hadn’t even opened my latest issue of The Mineralogical Record when the new one turned up in my mailbox this afternoon. As may be evident from the infrequency of blogging here, it’s been that sort of season. I wanted to take a moment, though, to review a couple of – admittedly quite minor – points which occurred to me in light of the most recent issue.

The Mineralogical Record, November/December 2011The first thing that struck me was how nicely this issue fell in with a number of my own recent activities. The cover features a red beryl from the Wah Wah Mountains, Beaver County, Utah. While I didn’t quite make it that far in my own travels last July hunting trilobites west of Delta, UT, I did get to the Topaz Mountain Rockhounding Site, in Juab County, which was beautiful, rugged, and, unfortunately, entirely beyond the hand tools that I had brought with me. Having already dragged my family that far out into the desert (and to nine year olds, an hour’s drive seemingly into nowhere is a long way, I have it on good authority), I elected to turn back, and made certain to get a pretty topaz and a nice little red beryl from the rockshop in Delta instead. Not as satisfying, but sufficient, especially considering the number of trilobites which we had come away with. Aside from which, it was either that or miss Moab and Arches National Park on the way back toward Colorado, and I had really set my hopes on that (by the way, I can’t recommend Arches National Park enough: it is amazing and awe-inspiring, whether you have geological inclinations or just like gorgeous, unexpected scenery which seems almost otherworldly).

Specimens from the California Academy of Sciences

Specimens of Kunzite and Rose Quartz from the California Academy of Sciences, April, 2010

Then, immediately inside, in the Notes from the Editors column, was a piece about the newly refitted California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco, which I had visited in April. The letter was not exactly a favourable one, lamenting a note published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 3 September 2010, regarding the recent remodelling of the Academy. The updating of the facility saw the removal of its “fabled gem and mineral hall” (I’ve searched, but I haven’t yet located any images of the former mineral hall; if you have one, feel free to drop me a line), which has – and here I entirely agree with the author’s point – wrong-footed a lot of collectors who have donated what are, judging from what I saw, some remarkable mineral specimens. The article further claims, inaccurately, that the mineral collection is secreted “in the basement” (it is actually positioned on the second level, among what appeared to be administrative offices, next to a very impressive set of megalodon jaws). Unfortunately, this particular room on the second level is only accessible to guests of the Academy who spring for the – pretty expensive – VIP Tour. Essentially, the point of contention is between the mineralogy community, and donors like San Franciscan Jack Halpern, against the Academy, is that all of these donated specimens should be out for public viewing, a point with which I would agree.

During my visit last April, my wife and I were fortunate enough to go on the VIP tour, which included the mineral room on the second level. I’m assuming that this is only a small part of the Academy’s collection, but, for what was there, it was impressive. As this was my first visit, I had nothing against which to compare the relative success or failure except for other science museums that I’ve visited in Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota.

There was a very important point made in the article cited, which was that the California Academy of Sciences is focused, among other things, on evolution education. “Our message is the evolution and sustainability of life on Earth,” according to Academy spokeswoman Stephanie Stone, who went on to say that there simply wasn’t room for everything.

What the Academy does, they do very well. The Morrison Planetarium is phenomenal, even though during our visit some of the experimental presentations did not perform entirely as expected. The exhibits of ocean life were incredible, and my wife, who has some experience with marine life, was very impressed. The evolution and sustainability components are also competently and well-represented, and knowing the poor state of evolution education as I do, I must applaud the Academy’s efforts to counter the lunacy of endeavours like the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Benitoite in the California Academy of Sciences, April, 2010

Benitoite in the California Academy of Sciences, April, 2010

Does that mean that I don’t want to see more mineralogy represented, for public viewing? Absolutely not. I would hope that the academy can utilise the vast space available to them to find a home for at least some of their collection. Mineralogy should fit into the sustainability message quite well: there are questions of the availability of mineral resources, the environmental impact of their extraction, and their use and re-use as we move further into the 21st century – it will only take a creative mind to work out the best way to make the link.
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