Four years ago, the Halls of Gems and Minerals at New York’s American Museum of Natural History closed for long-overdue renovations. The cavelike space, deliberately designed to evoke the feeling of the mines where many of the specimens on display had been excavated, had been essentially untouched since 1976.
This week, it reopens to the public and features some 5,500 objects, from polished diamonds to rough-hewn sandstone.
“I think it’s fair to say that no space, no gallery is quite as glittering as these new halls,” museum president Ellen Futter said at the press preview.
The 11,000-square-foot hall has traditionally been one of the museum’s most beloved attractions, and the museum is predicting that it will be a major draw for tourists returning to the city.
“There is something truly elemental and visceral about our connection to the minerals and materials of the earth on which we live,” Futter said. “Didn’t we all collect rocks as children?… And who among us doesn’t appreciate a spectacular gem?”
Remade by exhibition design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates courtesy of benefactors and new namesakes Roberto and Allison Mignone, the hall is virtually unrecognizable from the dark gallery with carpeted steps and floor-level display cases it used to be.
“I called [it] the jungle gym and the nanny-dom,” George Harlow, the museum’s curator of the department of earth and planetary sciences, said at the press preview.
New explanations about the evolution of minerals also reflect the latest scientific research.
Today, the most widely accepted theory is that most minerals evolved in tandem with life. (The Earth has 10 times more minerals than anywhere else in the Solar System.)
The hypotheses, introduced in 2008, holds that there was an explosion in mineral diversification during the Great Oxidation Event that began some 3 billion years ago, introducing oxygen into the atmosphere and leading to boldly colorful minerals.
“Without minerals, there really isn’t life,” Harlow said. “Getting people to understand that we have a relationship with minerals makes them more approachable beyond the fact that they can be gobsmackingly beautiful.”
All minerals are naturally occurring solids with crystalline structures, but they can form in different ways, leading to dramatically different appearances.
Amethyst, citrine, agate, and jasper are all varieties of quartz. And rocks can contain several different minerals. Granite, for instance, is typically a mix of quartz, feldspar, and mica.
New additions to the collection include the diamond and platinum Organdie Necklace, worn by Rihanna on the cover of and donated by the New York jewelry dealer Siegelson.
The cream of the crop is perhaps the 563-carat Star of India sapphire, the world’s largest-known gem-quality blue star sapphire. The most famous piece in the museum’s gem and mineral collection, it was stolen in a 1964 jewelry heist and later recovered in a Florida bus terminal locker.
Part of the fun of exploring the hall is discovering all the unfamiliar mineral names: Wulfenite, Almandine, Cubanite, Proustite, and Tantalite, to name just a few.
Then there are the showstoppers, like the Singing Stone, a massive block of bright blue azurite and green malachite from Arizona shown at 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, It emits a high-pitched sound when the humidity changes. (An effect sadly not in evidence in the climate-controlled museum.)
But perhaps the most memorable are the two monumental amethyst geodes in the “Crystal Garden” display that greet visitors at the hall’s entrance. Striking in their otherworldly beauty, they measure nine and 13 feet tall and weigh in at over 12,000 and 9,000 pounds, respectively.
The 135-million-year-old specimens are from the Bolsa Mine in Artigas, Uruguay, and were created when gas bubbles in magma-formed cavities. As groundwater flowed in, dissolved silica turned into quartz, creating the stunning purple crystals.
“This is a piece of art,” Futter said. “It’s nature’s sculpture.”