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The Smithsonian's Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals.

This quite new mineral and gem gallery (opened September 1997) merits many compliments. Before proceeding with those, however, an admission is in order, in the interests of full disclosure. The reader must be told that I have long been associated with the Smithsonian and was, in fact, curator-in-charge of its mineral and gem collections when I retired in 1991. All I can say against the possible charge of bias is that I have done my best to produce a review that is fair and balanced. In fact, it is not based solely upon my own reactions. I have purposely invited comments from numerous friends who have also critically assessed this gallery; most, but not all, of them are involved with minerals either professionally or as collectors. With the exception of a relatively minor number of specific criticisms, the overall reaction has been enthusiastically positive.

Conflicts having been addressed, let us now enter the Janet Annenberg Hooker Halls, named for a philanthropist who had earlier donated many exceptional pieces of jewelry featuring extraordinary gemstones, and who more recently contributed major financial support for the creation of this exhibit. The first room off of the rotunda is the Harry Winston Gallery, named for the famous New York gem dealer whose research foundation also contributed funds toward its construction. This large room was designed to accommodate the immense crowds which come primarily to see the Hope Diamond. It is a light and airy room, and I found it welcoming, although others found it a waste of space. The world's most famous diamond sits in an elegant freestanding display case near the center of this large space, enabling far more visitors to view it at one time than was possible before. The Hope shares this room with four very large and mostly dramatic natural history objects that are decorative (three out of the four, at least) and i ntended to be suggestive of what lies beyond. These are the "Tucson Ring" meteorite, a sandstone concretion from France which is quite wonderful, an immense sheet of natural copper from Michigan, and a perfectly meaningless large group of mediocre, badly damaged quartz crystals from near Karibib, Namibia, for which the museum is alleged to have paid approximately $60,000! Vastly superior quartz specimens can be obtained in Brazil for as little as a few thousand dollars. A minor design problem made itself apparent here and that is the labeling of all five objects. The labels are made of highly reflective ceramic (designed to resist wear) of a light tan color upon which the information is printed in coffee (with cream)-colored type so there is not enough contrast. With spotlights reflecting off of these labels, they are difficult to read.

From this area the visitor may venture either left, thus entering the geology and meteorites gallery, or right, where one finds a roomful of gems, beyond which begins the mineral gallery. I chose the course to the right; the geology and meteorites portion will not be covered in this review, even though after a cursory examination it appears excellent.

The gems room, or "Treasures from the National Collection," is an inviting, relatively large and square space done up very much like an upscale jewelry store, and most effective it is, except that the very first pair of objects encountered, a necklace and a bracelet, hardly qualify as "treasures," at least by Smithsonian standards. Their presence in this exhibit presents a riddle, the answer to which is likely more political than pertinent. Next to these anomalies, however, we see the real stuff: in squarish wall case after squarish wall case, some ten in all, are wonderful gemstones, mostly set in exquisite jewelry. The cases are appropriately uncrowded, each having only a small number of objects in it. This is made possible because the greater part of the faceted gems in the collection is distributed among the minerals in the next room. Especially gratifying is the fiber-optic lighting used for these cases: the best lighting of gems that I can ever recall seeing in a museum. The ends of the light fixtures are visible to the viewer because they are very close to the objects, but what they do for the beauty of the gems is so astounding that one appreciates, rather than objects to, their presence. They are in no way offensive, to me, at least. Here, superb lighting is accompanied by excellent labeling, very easy to read and not overly wordy. Each case is titled, with names like: Celebrity Gems, Rubies and Sapphires, Stars and Cat's Eyes, Jade (just four exquisite pieces), Emeralds and Aquamarines, Diamonds, and Janet Annenberg Hooker Gems (the latter all donated by the woman for whom the gallery has been named). In the center of the room is a large peninsula-case containing two immense gem-quality topaz crystals, some interesting and very large faceted topaz objects, and the Smithsonian's exceptional flawless quartz sphere (12.9 inches or 32.7 cm in diameter). These few oversized objects provide a fine contrast to the jewelry and gems.

Buoyed-up from the sheer grandeur of the "Treasures" room one turns with high expectations to the next portion of the gallery, the minerals. No one is apt to be disappointed, at least so far as the visual impact upon entering this, the largest and longest continuous section, is concerned. On the left is a large floor-to-ceiling three-dimensional hologram of the crystal structure of halite, a very effective device for giving the visitor a sense of looking inside an immensely magnified crystal. To the right are a modest number of introductory crystallography cases with explanations of crystal structure and symmetry--just about the right amount. The subject is introduced, but not belabored.

From this point on are primarily mineral specimens and cut stones upon which to feast one's eyes. Down the center are a series of island cases, the largest of which is floor-to-ceiling. The others are clusters of simple geometric bases with glass tops in which are displayed small numbers of mostly large, mostly flashy specimens. Along the sides of this long corridor are continuous floor-to-ceiling cases containing a higher density of specimens grouped according to some particular common thread or theme. These wall cases are divided into a series of "alcoves" by angular cases which break up the monotony, providing distinct units for separating different topics. The overall strategy in this part of the gallery is to offer the visitor something like a "fast track" and a "slower track." The former occupies the center of the corridor and focuses on larger, more spectacular specimens with little or no text to slow anyone down. This was done with the folks in mind who just breeze through the place, glancing here and there at specimens that may happen to catch their eye. The slower track on either side is intended for those who wish to stay longer and perhaps learn more. One can debate the effectiveness of this scheme, but I feel that it probably works better than any other I have observed. Overall the Smithsonian has done a very good job in developing it.

For those who take the time to notice, the slightly didactic cases down either side of the hall are arranged as follows. On the right are a series of displays relating to crystal shapes; and on the left a series relating to mineral colors. These are nicely done and include such groupings as: The Many Faces of Crystals, One Mineral/ Many Shapes (pyrite, then calcite, then wulfenite), Mineral Rainbow, Colored by Copper, Colored by Impurities, One Mineral/ Different Impurities (beryl, then fluorite), and One Family Many Colors (garnets).

Next, on the right side, one finds a series of alcoves given over to mineral chemistry, at least in that the minerals are grouped as (1) silicates, (2) phosphates, arsenates, vanadates, sulfates and halides, (3) carbonates, borates and oxides, and (4) sulfides, sulfosalts and native elements. I think I would have reversed the order. The large island case in the middle of the floor relates to the side cases and contains much of the same sort of thematic presentation, first From Two Elements, referring to the diversity of minerals that contain the elements silicon and oxygen. This is, unfortunately, a bit misleading because all of the examples are silicate minerals containing other elements in addition to silicon and oxygen and therefore are composed of three or more elements. The rest of the case is filled with quartz and silicate minerals, grouped under the headings All One Mineral (quartz), Silicate Family, and Diversity--Quartz.

On the opposite wall the next set of alcoves deals with specific mineral groupings, the names of which are: Multicolored Minerals (trichroic minerals such as the kunzite variety of spodumene and tanzanite, the gem zoisite), Amazing Gems (feldspars, then optical effects in agate, then "alexandrite"), then Stars and Cat's Eyes, then Opal, then Diamond, then Calcite, and then Rare Minerals. Other individual units include groups of specimens selected to illustrate topics such as the minerals of Tsumeb, the traprock minerals of India, geodes, inclusions in crystals, crystal growth, pegmatite minerals and new acquisitions. There are others, but those mentioned are probably sufficient to allow the reader of this review to derive some sense of how the whole thing is organized.

At the very end of this particular segment of the exhibit one finds a high concentration of crystals of what are largely gem minerals, with many faceted gems of the same species dispersed among them, plus a reconstructed Herkimer (New York) quartz pocket (representing an extraordinary collecting effort by John Medici and his sons and an outstanding reassembly by the Smithsonian, but positioned too low for most viewers), and a reconstructed and somewhat idealized pegmatite gem pocket (the best of these that I have seen). Off to the side, appearing almost as an afterthought and in far too much darkness, are three of the finest gem elbaite matrix specimens one could ever hope to see, two from California and one from Brazil, all lined up in a row. These really should have greater prominence, as they are truly stunning specimens.

Midway through the hall is a video screen that displays a continuous short narrated film explaining why rubies are red. It is well-done and relatively unobtrusive, and is the only such audiovisual device employed in the entire gallery, thank you! There are, however, three computer-interactive stations in the new hall, two in the mineral section and another further along (plus some more in the unreviewed geology hall). On one of these you can manipulate virtual mineral crystals in three dimensions to learn about symmetry elements. Another deals with pegmatites and includes an animation about how pegmatites form, a video on pegmatite mining, and a virtual image of the recreated pegmatite pocket in the hall, which can be explored in detail. The third one, called "Mining a Car," is in the last section and allows the visitor to discover the many minerals needed to produce the materials used in building a typical automobile. Reaction from the non-collector of minerals is that the first two are pretty weak and coul d easily have been omitted. But they probably do not tie up traffic too much as they are not all that captivating, so they won't detain visitors for very long. "Mining a Car" is better. On the downside for all of them is that they tend to break down from time and time and appear to represent a maintenance problem for the audio-visual people. My own philosophy with respect to the use of interactives is that their number should be inversely proportional to the excellence of the collection drawn upon for the exhibit. In other words, they are a reasonable substitute when fine specimens are lacking.

For my taste, the minerals portion of the hall is breathtaking. The lighting, with a few exceptions, is excellent. The hall itself is a bit on the dark side but there are so many display cases that the ambient light on the floor is just about right. I do not like halls that are too dark. Most of the specimens are quite adequately illuminated through the use of unobtrusive spotlights in the ceiling for the island cases, while the wall cases are lighted internally, using a combination of spot and projector-type tungsten metal halide lights and filtered fluorescent tubes "for uniform case wash." I was never aware of any unfortunate "shadowing" where I came between the spotlights and the objects in the island cases. Some fiber optics are used for special effects but they are minimal in number.

The extraordinary richness of the collection is never in doubt for, apart from the spectaculars in the small island cases, there are 60 individual thematic display units in this section over a length of 133 feet, and each is filled with unbelievable crystals and gemstones; some sparsely occupied, but most containing just about the right number of specimens so that they do not appear too crowded. Most of the minerals simply sit on flat surfaces. Those that need support are held up by unobtrusive metal claws attached to rods inserted into holes in the base. The lateral cases have groups of tiered blocks of different elevations. A specimen sits on top of each of these and its label information is printed onto the block nearby. Those on the right are painted a light off-white color and the label type is dark, making it very easy to read. Unfortunately, this has been reversed on the other side: dark gray base-paint with light-colored type, making these much more difficult to read.

There is still another room beyond this one. Here, in the Mines Gallery, the museum has attempted to create a sense of being underground in a mine, complete with the sound of dripping water. Financial support for this gallery was provided by "Member Companies of the National Mining Association," as stated on a mounted plaque. Within the various tunnel branches are window display cases featuring suites of superb minerals that have been found in the United States mines represented here, which are: the Fletcher mine, Vibernum, Missouri; the Morefield mine, Amelia County, Virginia; the Copper Queen mine, Bisbee, Arizona; and the Sterling Hill mine, Ogdensburg, New Jersey. The minerals for the latter mine, as might be expected, are the remarkably fluorescent ones for which this mine is famous, and this display well-satisfies the needs of those who expect to find fluorescence illustrated in a museum. The museum's exceptional gold specimens are also found here, all in one case, but somewhat underlit. Their brillian ce seems diminished, as they do not appear as spectacular now as in their former home, a large and brightly-lit vaultlike display case. Just the same, this final portion of the mineral gallery is most effective and admirably executed.

The visitor may then continue on in essentially the same direction to enter the Rocks Gallery, the beginning of the geology hall but not, as mentioned, covered in this review.

Let me be unequivocal about this: I really love this mineral gallery! I can think of no other that I have seen that I would rank close to it, with the possible exception of the American Museum in New York, but I have not been back there for a very long time so it is difficult to compare them. One might well argue that, with such a superb collection as the Smithsonian has, it would be hard for the gallery to fail, and there is some truth in that idea. However, fine minerals or not, the educational level of the not too ambitious script is exactly where I feel it should be. Throughout the gallery there are lots of teasers, little educational "sound bites," but no long and tedious, overly esoteric, text. Therefore, from just about every perspective that matters (themes, specimen selection, labeling, lighting and dramatics) the gallery is an overwhelming success. Merely standing at the beginning of the minerals section and letting your eyes take in as much of the hall as you can see, is a stimulating experience. Colorful and sparkly crystals beckon to you the entire length of the hail. They invite you in and promise visual gratification. It is a little like one's fantasy of what a crystal-lined cavity in rock might look like.

All of this is not to say that there are not some unfortunate problems. I wish this were not so, but it is; yet all should be easily correctable. I hope that the museum will be able to attend to many of these shortcomings in due course. One terrible reality about large institutions is that they usually do not have the flexibility to instantly (by that I mean in a few months) revise newly opened galleries when problems are first identified. Perhaps this is something that should be anticipated when new galleries are being planned, and should be budgeted for. In this case, those who can attend to these matters are now committed to other projects and will not be available for change-making in the mineral gallery for quite a while, probably years.

The most serious problems are maintenance ones: excessive dust entering unsealed cases and the frequent burning out of light bulbs, plus overcrowding of the hall by visitors. The maintenance problems demand daily attention and, due to the extreme value of the objects displayed and the fact that the cases must be opened in order to service the lights, the responsibility for maintenance must, therefore, fall to mineralogy staff members who can be trusted to enter the cases. A very real fear is that sometime in the future this regular attention will diminish or, worse, will be delegated to museum maintenance staff who should not be given access to the objects in the exhibit. It is indeed unfortunate that the design did not do more to minimize the development of this potentially disastrous situation.

Overattendance is also a big nuisance. The mixed blessing that the Smithsonian lives with is that its great popularity brings in huge numbers of visitors, something that museums welcome, but the big crowds are not easily accommodated in the narrow and linear exhibition halls. There is nothing, really, that can be done about this short of replacing the building, and that is unlikely to happen. If you want to be able to fully appreciate the most that this gallery has to offer, plan to arrive as early as possible (10:00 a.m.) before the place fills up.

Lesser problems observed include such things as objects in some display cases, and even entire cases that are not adequately lighted. In particular I noted the trichroic spodumene (kunzite) from Brazil wherein, regrettably, only two of its exceptional three colors can be discerned, and the trichroic gem zoisites (tanzanites) which are so abominably lighted that their rich colors cannot even be guessed at. The "What's New" case, with six specimens that are supposed to be newly acquired, suffers from poor lighting as well. Actually the pieces aren't all that new and they are, with perhaps one exception, so mediocre that it is probably just as well that they are sitting in semi-darkness. It seems to me that new acquisitions ought to be showcased; they should be considered "bragging pieces" and ought to be especially well-illuminated, and they should also truly be current. If a museum decides to incorporate a "New Acquisitions" display unit in its gallery, then it should be prepared to update it regularly. One o f the Smithsonian's "new" acquisitions in this case is an indifferent calcite twin from the prolific Rudnyy (or Rudnii), Kazakhstan, locality. There must be a thousand collectors who own better examples!

Another problem for the average viewer is that many specimens feature two or more quite prominent minerals, yet the labels will name just one. If both are named, such as the blue topaz crystal under a blanket of lepidolite, the viewer has no way of knowing which is topaz and which is lepidolite. A slab of charoite, for example, contains four prominent minerals, so how does the viewer know that charoite is the purple one? This problem occurs with far too many specimens and should have been anticipated. In the cases along the sides of the gallery where minerals are on rows of blocks of varying heights, there is no break of any kind to help one to distinguish various chemical groupings, so there is a lot of spillover. Thus, one finds arsenopyrite, kermesite, krennerite and others under the heading Native Elements. This same sort of spillover problem arises with the halides/sulfates/phosphates and vanadates, where species that do not belong to a certain chemical group are positioned under that group's label. In the quartz varieties case the sardonyx cabochons are obviously dyed, yet the label does not so state. One freestanding case contains two superb spodumene crystals, a green one from Brazil and a pink one from California. The identifying information for both has been printed on one label, but there is no way the visitor can match these with the appropriate crystals.

The artist who did sketches to supplement some topics could have used closer supervision. There are, for example, a number of drawings of basic crystal forms, but these are often so distorted that at least one-third of them do not closely resemble the forms they are supposed to represent. The worst is a hexagonal tablet, very thin, that is labeled a "trigonal prism"! The natural crystals that are intended to accompany this drawing are vanadinite, a mineral that does not produce trigonal forms. The drawing of a "tetragonal prism," which is actually the combination of a prism plus the pinacoid, looks exactly like a gypsum crystal which is, of course, monoclinic. I also found a drawing of a pair of Japan-law twinned quartz crystals but, for some reason, the pair are enantiomorphs; that is, one is a left-handed crystal and the other is a right-handed crystal. Now, this is not impossible, but it is an extremely rare phenomenon and one which I am certain the artist did not intend to draw. Further, the angle of the twin is shown as 84[degrees], while the actual Japan-law twin angle is 84[degrees]33' which is enough of a difference to matter. In the same case about twinning, there is a quartz "gwendel" [sic] and a pair of microcline specimens, one of which is a Carlsbad twin and the other a Manebach twin, yet the labels state that they are both Carlsbad. The purpose, I am quite sure, for selecting this pair was to illustrate the two common twinlaws of feldspar. Still another mistake in this case: there is a label which reads "the calcite specimen below," yet there are eight calcite specimens beneath this label.

There is a case dealing with inclusions of one mineral in another, and among the examples is a section of a quartz crystal from Brazil with black inclusions of "elbaite." Actually they are schorl. Another quartz crystal, this from Mexico, is stated to contain rutile; but the inclusions are hematite. Opposite this is a matrix specimen of topaz that has been repaired so sloppily that great gobs of glue are visible at the base of one topaz and some red material is incorporated into the glue, looking like the most amateurish repair job I have ever seen.

There are altogether too many errors; but many of these are, admittedly, often of a more technical nature and most are problems that the "great unwashed" will be totally unaware of, or indifferent to. Still, I think they should be mentioned because they do detract from an otherwise extraordinary effort--some credit for which must, in all fairness, be given to the excellence of the Smithsonian's remarkable mineral and gem collection.

Comparison with the Former Gallery

Just a few comments here will note some of the things that have changed and others that have not since the minerals and gems exhibit was redesigned. Of course, the character of the new gallery and the lighting are altogether different, and vastly better, in my opinion. The older one, like almost every other everywhere in the world, followed a very sterile format, the meaning of which was largely lost on the public. The minerals were arranged by chemistry throughout, beginning with the native elements, then sulfides, etc. This meant absolutely nothing to most of the visitors, and today you will see that the more progressive institutions have abandoned this format altogether. This arrangement did lead to the display of a greater diversity of species, however, because it created space that had to be filled and there were only so many specimens of the more dramatic crystallized minerals that could be used. The elimination of many of the rarer species from the current exhibit is something that nettles some minera l collectors, mostly locals, but they must remember that the exhibit was not created with them in mind. They constitute an infinitesimal portion of the target population so their desire to find specimens of minerals that simply are not very interesting to look at cannot be allowed to dictate specimen selection.

In the old gallery there were approximately 3,300 specimens on display, including 2,300 minerals and 1,000 gems. Included in the former were more different species than we see now, but there is no count of how many there actually were. Today, there are 2,450 specimens, including 548 gems. Approximately 600 species are represented, which is quite good coverage.

The area of the new gallery is almost exactly the same as the old, approximately 9,000 sq. feet. Its configuration is dictated by the long and narrow space it occupies and that, of course, has not changed either, except for the Winston Gallery where the Hope Diamond now sits. This is new floor space created through innovative reconstruction of what used to be open space between galleries.

Estimating costs is always difficult and the usual practice is to include only those that would not otherwise be incurred, such as staff salaries, which includes all of those people permanently employed by the museum who participated in the effort in some capacity. There are usually modifications to the building as well, and these probably ought not to be included either. A pared-down estimate for just the mineral, gem and mine portions of the new gallery cannot be established but the entire Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals is estimated to have cost about $18 million, some $11 million having been raised from donations and another $3 million representing "gifts in kind," such as computer interaction with accompanying hardware and software.

Compromises

Any effort of this magnitude requires extensive compromise. It would be ludicrous to believe that the curator, or the director, can get everything that he or she wants. Working within a budget is just one of the many limitations imposed on any such enterprise. In addition, there may be severe restrictions on the inventive use of space when the space, from the start, is long and narrow and cannot be changed. With many museums, weak collections impose harsh compromises. Happily, this is not the case at the Smithsonian.

Today museums must be mindful of concessions that must be made for handicapped visitors. These can force all sorts of limitations on innovation. The elevation of cases and positioning of labels, along with type-size on labels, are all pretty much dictated by the access requirements of the handicapped. When type-size is increased, labels either must be made larger or the information placed on them abbreviated.

Footnote

Finally, one thing that I did not find anywhere in the new gallery, and this is not surprising because I don't recall seeing it in any other mineral/gem gallery either, are prominently posted signs telling interested visitors how they might obtain additional information about minerals, essentially a "hot line" for the curious. How nice and how reasonable it would be if, after having been stimulated by what was just seen in the displays, a fired-up visitor could find an address or a telephone number or a website that could be used to obtain some information about (1) literature, (2) hobby organizations, (3) collecting, or otherwise acquiring specimens, and such. Responding to such inquiries could be a very worthwhile task for a museum volunteer, so that this activity need not become a time-devouring nightmare for the professional staff. At the very least, the responses could be supplied via recorded messages.
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Author:White, John S.
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
Words:4747
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