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Mineraux remarquables de la collection UPMC-La Sorbonne.

("Remarkable Minerals from the Collection of the University Pierre and Marie Curie--The Sorbonne") by Jean-Claude Boulliard with photographs by Orso Martinelli. Published (2009), with parallel text in French and English, for UPMC, Paris, by Editions Le Pommier; hardcover with dust jacket, 12 X 13 inches, 252 pages; price: [euro]69 (about $94 plus shipping. ISBN 2746504510.

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The Sorbonne collection in Paris is one of the world's great mineral collections, and has been the subject of numerous past articles and books, mostly by now-retired curator Pierre Bariand and his photographer/wife Nelly Bariand. (See, for example, their 1982 article on the collection in vol. 13, n. 1.) The current work, with text by their successor, Jean-Claude Boulliard, has the great advantages of duplicate text in French and English, a large-format page size and high-quality paper. Orso Martinelli's photography of the specimens is quite good; the choice to depict each one on a coal-black background is a valid alternative, eliminating potentially distracting background colors and shadows, though inevitably not every specimen looks good on black.

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After a Foreword by Steve Smale and a Preface by the authors, an introductory essay discusses the Sorbonne (UPMC) collection and the difficulties involved in specimen preservation. The next 205 pages are devoted to a photo album of specimens, organized in chapters based on chemistry (native elements, sulfides, halides, oxides, etc.), similar to the way the minerals are presented in the museum. The short introductory text with each chapter is so rudimentary as to apparently be aimed at non-collectors. Boulliard's commentary on each piece, though brief (usually one paragraph), provides interesting background notes on history, rarity and other collector aspects.

The book concludes wth a series of short unillustrated essays. Martinelli's insufferably pompous philosophical reflection on the nature of art vs. specimen aesthetics and specimen photography has a few good observations toward the end but is mostly arguable and over-reaching. The essay on the history of the Sorbonne collection (by Boulliard, as are the rest) is interesting and informative. The essay on the history of mineral collecting is a cogent and readable summary; the second half, in particular, contains many interesting comments and observations on the evolution of attitudes toward collecting among private collectors, scientists and museums during the last century. The final essay is an excellent commentary on collecting criteria which is reminiscent of the Ikons supplement published in this journal but with more emphasis on museum aspects and philosophy; the Sorbonne criteria for ranking mineral specimens is included. At the end are a short bibliography and an index.

The book suffers from three serious flaws. The pale, metallic gold ink chosen for the text is difficult to read. Whether the text is in gold letters on a white background, or white letters on a gold background, lighting from the wrong angle causes the whole page to go white and become unreadable. Gold letters on a black background are also difficult to read.

Secondly, although the color printing is of reasonable (though not first-rate) quality, the matte finish of the pages, the dust jacket and the hardcover reduces the contrast in the images--the blacks appear gray--and it also seems to accentuate milky overall reflections from any angle which make the specimen photos seem dull and lifeless.

The aspect most objectionable to me, however, is the choice to depict all of the specimens actual-size. Martinelli and Boulliard's expressed rationale for this choice is to appeal to the "uninitiated majority," and to allow "collectors to compare their acquisitions directly with the specimens on the pages" while giving the reader "the same impression he would have in visiting the collection." But the flaw in this thinking is that specimens of different sizes demand to be viewed from different distances, as one would do in the museum. Pictures in a book do not permit that freedom. Attempting a close examination of a one-inch printed specimen image (as one would of the real specimen) just shows a lot of dots of ink from the half-toning process. The actual-size depiction is good for specimens that are full-page size, but what is the point of showing a 0.8-inch image of a phosphophyllite crystal or a 1.4-inch image of an andalusite crystal, each sitting totally alone (except for some caption text) on big black 12 X 13-inch pages? The 11 cumengites pictured on one page are individually as small as 0.7 inches, floating in a huge sea of black, without even text to help fill the void. Some pages contain no photo at all, and just a couple of paragraphs of caption text occupying a corner of the otherwise blank black page. "Negative space" has its place in graphic design, but in this book so much page space is wasted in this way that the reader begins to calculate in his mind how many dollars he has paid for all that black area. The "uninitiated majority" will certainly not be impressed, and the experienced collector will yearn for a much closer look at the smaller specimens. In consequence, the book becomes a tribute to large cabinet specimens, and the species that occur in that size, while the smaller specimens and rarer crystals become progressively harder to appreciate and study.
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Title Annotation:Remarkable Minerals from the Collection of the University Pierre and Marie Curie: The Sorbonne
Author:Wilson, Wendell
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2010
Words:872
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