Our New Gem Hall is a Jewel, Indeed
An article in this month's Smithsonian celebrates the opening of the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals at the National Museum of Natural History, a striking new setting for one of the Smithsonian's most-visited collections. The hall represents the most ambitious exhibition renovation on the Mall in decades. It also reflects the Institution's success in finding ways to support innovative programs, through the generosity of donors and partnerships with the private sector. In fact, the new hall is being created almost entirely with private funds.
Janet Annenberg Hooker's relationship with the Smithsonian is longstanding and goes beyond her gift of $5 million toward building the new hall. Some of the finest jewels in the National Gem collection were donated by Mrs. Hooker, including the spectacular yellow starburst diamonds that recently dazzled visitors to "America's Smithsonian." The Harry Winston Gallery, the main entrance to the new hall, honors another of the museum's historic patrons, the renowned jeweler who in 1958 presented the Smithsonian with the Hope Diamond. Harry Winston envisioned the institution assembling a gem collection to rival the royal treasuries of Europe -- "crown jewels" that would belong to the American public. Today, the National Gem Collection is one of the things people are sure to remember about a visit to the new hall.
The old hall was memorable, too, for the great number and quality of the gems and minerals on display. Specimens were arranged according to classifications devised in the mid-19th century by mineralogist James Dwight Dana, in conscious imitation of biological taxonomy. Dana grouped stones by their chemical composition and atomic structure, beginning with native elements--gold, copper, silver--and ending with silicates. Most museums continue to exhibit mineral specimens this way--in row upon row, even room upon room, of cases whose order is determined by technical criteria. These traditional halls are wonderfully meaningful to devoted rock hounds. But what about the majority of the six million people who come to the National Museum of Natural History each year--people whose knowledge of the many different sciences spans a wide range?
In creating the new exhibition, the project team wanted visitors to appreciate that ours is a vast collection and includes many rare and beautiful things. But more than that, we'd like to tell people about the important insights the collection offers into the earth's origins and its resources. And we hope to convey what our scientists find fascinating about their fields of research, in the belief that nonscientists will share their excitement at seeing a gem pocket in a vein of rock or understanding how geological forces continue to shape the world.
I don't want to diminish the thrill of discovery people will feel upon visiting the new hall for the first time, but I would like to describe how one of the seven galleries, Minerals and Gems,achieves the museum's goals. "Treasure cases" down the gallery's center aisle display some of the most extraordinary minerals in the collection in order to present key themes, such as what minerals are, where they come from and why they exist in so many forms. Alcoves along the wall contain photographs, videos, interactive computer programs and additional mineral specimens that expand on these subjects. For example, the focus of one treasure case is mineral shapes, illustrated by columnar crystals of smoky-citrine quartz, pyrite cubes, sword-shaped stibnite and a scolecite cluster that looks like a mineral porcupine. In a nearby alcove, visitors can step inside a crystal magnified more than a billion times and observe the cubic arrangement of sodium and chlorine atoms that plays itself out in grains of table salt. At other points of interest, visitors can touch a large quartz crystal and compare the balanced forces of its structure with those that provide strength and stability to bridges, learn why minerals have such fantastic colors, and explore the phenomenon of crystal growth.
The Minerals and Gems Gallery leads to the Mine Gallery, an exhibition that depicts four actual American mines (and which was supported, financially and through gifts of mineral specimens, mining equipment and research access to mines, by the member companies of the National Mining Association). Other galleries are devoted to research on volcanism, plate tectonics and the geology of moon rocks and meteorites--including our latest star, the Mars meteorite.
Overall, I am struck not only by the commitment of scientists throughout the National Museum of Natural History to pursue research that extends the boundaries of their disciplines, but also by their extensive efforts to communicate their work, in all its complexity, to a wide audience.