adventures in museum-going

Day 2: The rocks, they resonate

| posted by: phiden


The last thing I expected from a lecture in this course was a story about cows, but that’s what we got today — a story about Jersey cows at Winterthur. Stephanie was relating a story in which she, somewhat frustrated with what amounted to a field trip to the area, was made to care about it because of the Jersey cows that once resided there. Turns out, her family used to raise cows.

She told us this story in order to make the point that in order to get visitors to care about your museum or exhibit, you need to give them something that resonates personally. For her, it was Winterthur’s cows. For me, it’s minerals.

We went to the NMNH‘s new Q?rius space, which opened in December 2013 — not all that long ago, and it shows. It’s bright and shiny and new, and best of all, filled with lovely objects from the museum’s collections. There’s a whole area where you can open drawer after drawer of specimens, and actually touch them. Mind, blown.


Set loose in the collection, I came across a chalky grey mineral that looked strikingly familiar. My father is a geologist, and his father was before him — and a well-known one (pdf), at that. My grandfather spent a good portion of his life collecting minerals, which my father inherited. It’s now proudly displayed in his living room, backlit on specially-built shelves.

So for Christmas, I gave Dad a stibnite specimen I’d found at the AGU meeting in San Francisco. That chalky grey specimen in Q?rius? An amazing piece of stibnite, with big crystal formations and a lovely iridescence.

I can spend time in art museums and appreciate the work, but they’re not my favorites. However, put me in a natural history or science museum and I’m 100% in especially if I can handle the objects.

So, basically, the rock resonated — and imagine my delight when I found out that my team was considering using a mineral as the primary object for our exhibit!

We chose this piece of tourmaline:

Not only does tourmaline hit home for me because it’s a mineral, but also because this particular stone has significance for me — a few years before he died, my grandfather gifted his four granddaughters and his wife each with a lovely, deep-green tourmaline ring. You may notice that our specimen is deep green!


We put it under the microscope to get a better look at the crystals and the matrix and found that our object has a bunch of tiny little crystals around the larger ones, and also a luminescence when viewed in the proper light — it turns amber-colored.

Because I knew that tourmaline is used as a gemstone in jewelry, and also that it comes in a ton of different colors (my jeweler side definitely kicked in today as well), I suggested that we visit the gem exhibit in the museum, where we discovered case after case after case of gorgeous mineral specimens, both in their raw and cut forms.


Would I have had a similarly strong response to Q?rius and this museum without Stephanie’s lecture, and emphasis on resonance? Yes, absolutely — this is the stuff I love. But I don’t think I would have been thinking about it with the same frame of mind. I was keenly aware of how I was reacting to the objects at hand, and I think if we remember that idea of resonance as we work these two weeks that our final project will be much stronger.

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