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Factors in Assessing a Museum Gallery.

Everyone will look at a mineral/gem gallery differently. Each person has preconceptions as to what should be found there, and those preconceptions greatly influence assessment of the success of the gallery. Mineral collectors do not enter such a gallery without expectations, as they tend to know something of the museum's reputation beforehand. Nevertheless, they must be ever mindful of the fact that the exhibits are not created and designed solely for mineral collectors; they are, or should be, designed primarily for the general public. This does not mean that collectors cannot expect to find very satisfying items in the exhibit. Whatever the theme (if there is one), a museum will always try to illustrate that theme with the very best examples in its collections. Therefore, the biggest and wealthiest collections will exhibit the finest specimens; the poorer ones will have to be satisfied with less, even if the themes of their exhibits are similar.


Formerly, virtually all major museums (and these were usually institutionally connected, as in universities), followed the same basic configuration with respect to the arrangement and content of their mineral exhibition. There were introductory cases illustrating what minerals are, illustrating most of the physical properties of minerals, something about crystallography, and perhaps something about how minerals are studied and identified. Inevitably this would be followed by a "systematic" arrangement of the minerals (native elements, sulfides, sulfosalts, oxides, etc.), with perhaps some token exhibits devoted to mineral paragenesis; that is, how some of the more common minerals formed. This arrangement has been standard throughout much of the history of museums and no one ever seemed to challenge the wisdom or assess the effectiveness of doing it this way.

Those museums affiliated with universities may have been better able to justify this approach because their principal focus was, after all, education; but it is not so easy to excuse municipal and state museums for adopting the same "classical" format. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate that this arrangement has been at all effective in increasing the general public's appreciation of minerals and what they represent. This is hardly surprising since a "systematic" arrangement is usually based upon mineral chemistry, and the public's familiarity with chemistry ranks well below that of nuclear physics. It is ludicrous to think that this approach could have been successful--if, in fact, anyone even thought about it at all. Fortunately, people today have been thinking about it and, as a result, systematic mineral exhibits are almost a thing of the past, at least in the more progressive museums.


It is all well and good to recognize that "systematics" is inscrutable to the general public. What, then, should museums offer in place of systematics? The extreme opposite would be simply placing on exhibit all of the best specimens in the collection, randomly, without any sort of ordering whatsoever. This, in my view, is just as bad an idea as is a systematic arrangement. It would be a shame to display fine mineral specimens without at least putting forth a small effort to help make them better understood. I am not advocating a textbook approach, with text-heavy labels that few visitors will take the time to read and comprehend. This doesn't work either. Suffice it to say, however, there are alternatives and some can be very effective. Detailing these is not the purpose of this discourse, so that will have to be saved for another discussion.

Assuming, therefore, that a museum has chosen an overall display theme, it is the task of the reviewer to identify that theme and then judge how effectively it has been carried out by use of the exhibits. A simple task, really: does it work well or not? Do the specimens support the message? Can it be expected that most visitors will depart with some knowledge of minerals, based upon the effectiveness of the overall display?


A good review need not begin by addressing the theme (or the absence of one!) that has been adopted by the museum. One's first impression of a mineral/gem gallery is the atmosphere which it creates and that might very well be the most appropriate topic with which to start a review. Is the gallery more or less dark and uninviting, or is it bright and welcoming? Do the various exhibit cases draw the viewer to them or must one impel oneself forward to view each successive case? Is there sufficient ambient lighting in the hall or does one have to wait for a short while for the eyes to accommodate themselves to extreme darkness?


Are the cases brightly lit but without excessive glare? Are the minerals within well-lighted so that all of their special features can be fully appreciated? Do strong shadows interfere with the way in which the crystals and gems are exhibited? Do shadows or glare interfere with reading the labels?

The labels are critically important. Essential data, in my opinion, should include mineral name, relationships to a group (if appropriate), varietal name (if appropriate, and it should be secondary to the species name), some chemistry and crystallography, and, of course, locality. A state name is not a locality; this information should be as detailed as possible. Are the labels positioned such that there is no ambiguity with respect to which specimen goes with which label? Where labels are grouped on a single panel, is it clear which information applies to which specimen? Does every specimen have a label? If the label gives the name of a secondary mineral, is it clear which is the primary one?

Lighting of the labels is as important as lighting the specimens. Do the lights reflect off of the labels, creating an annoying glare which makes them difficult to read? Is the size of the type adequate? Is the typeface a reader-friendly one? Dark type on a light background generally is far easier to read than light type on a dark background or medium-dark type on a similar, but lighter colored, background, especially if the latter is highly reflective.


Are the cases designed so that small children, as well as adults, may see into them? Are they more or less sealed so that dust does not accumulate rapidly within them? Are the lights accessible for replacement, or are they within the cases so that the cases must be opened (thereby exposing the specimens to theft or damage) when replacing bulbs? What of maintenance?

All too often when a new gallery is opened it is only then discovered that frequent entry into the cases is required for bulb replacement, light realignment, and dust removal. At first this task is usually taken on by someone involved with the mineral collection, someone experienced in handling minerals and who is considered trustworthy. Inevitably, this task becomes a burden and is passed on to someone on the maintenance staff, at which point the minerals and gems are very much at risk, and the prospect of this work being done regularly as needed becomes less likely.


Is the gallery noisy? Do the sounds of visitors echo off the walls and create a background of clatter that is annoying? Are there videos and other modem devices all running continually that add to the general noise pollution?


Are there films in little offset galleries within the mail gallery? Are their inter-active videos? If so, these need to be appraised as well. How long does each last? Can lots of users be accommodated at one time, if the hall is busy? Do they interfere with traffic flow? Could they perhaps be relocated somewhere else?

Finally, and I have yet to find this in any museum, is there a contact phone number or address provided within the gallery which one may use if one would like to make an inquiry about something seen there, unseen there, or would simply like more information about minerals?
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Author:White, John S.
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
Next Article:Munich Show 1999.

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