Mike the Mad Biologist

One of the things that has puzzled me about natural history/science museums are the mineralogy exhibits. They really don’t seem to be about anything other than “OOH! SHINY PEBBLE!” Mind you, they often have some very cool and shiny pebbles, but contrast them to paleontology exhibits.

Sure, museums try to get a big, scary looking dinosaur posed in some sort of fierce type of way. But somewhere in the exhibit you can usually learn something about evolution, ecology, or biomechanics. But I never see that with mineralogy exhibits. For once, I would like to see an exhibit that tells me what these shiny pebbles mean for our understanding of geology. If you’ve ever been on a walk around with a field geologist, it’s pretty amazing what information they can glean from a few rocks, but you would never know it from the mineralogy exhibit.

So, two questions:

  1. Am I missing something–maybe it’s right there in front me.
  2. What do you think should be covered in a ‘better’ mineralogy exhibit?

Discuss.

Comments

  1. #1 Kim
    October 28, 2008

    The geology exhibit at the Smithsonian is a good example of one that’s done in a different way.

    I suspect the problem is that the displays aren’t designed by people who know rocks and minerals (or that the displays are old, and haven’t been reorganized). Intro geology classes (and grade school classes) focus more on identifying minerals than about telling stories with them. It’s a difficult educational step to interpret the shiny pebbles – I try to get my intro students to do it, but it may take an intense focus to break through the unfamiliarity.

  2. #2 Dr. Kate
    October 28, 2008

    The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh is also pretty good–it gives information about mineral structure, where they’re found, economic value, etc.

    In that exhibit, the “shiny pebbles” are there mainly to attract people into the exhibit–the prettiest and rarest samples are along the outside of the exhibit. Once you get inside, there is more information about how different rocks and minerals form, etc. Although there are a lot of displays, too. But there are also a lot of exhibits that are exactly what you describe: basically cool specimens behind glass.

  3. #3 BrianR
    October 28, 2008

    Mike, you are right … as a geologist I would enjoy the mineral displays for their beauty but walk away dissatisfied. But, as both Kim and Dr. Kate mention above, museums are getting better. While gemologists and mineralogists probably find the jewelry-store like presentation beautiful, I would like to see them organized by different plate tectonic environments, different pressure-temp regimes, and so on. I think one issue is that many of minerals on display can be quite rare … not the kind of thing one comes across walking through the mountains. Perhaps that is another hurdle to jump in making these better.

  4. #4 mark
    October 28, 2008

    Shiny stuff attracts, and lures in the non-specialist. Another type of display that can be popular is the roadside stop (especially if it has the only toilets for 350 miles). If there is a good combination of outcrops and landforms, these can be a source of education as well as of bladder relief. You can’t get that in a museum, except for scale models.

  5. #5 NJ
    October 28, 2008

    You’ve hit on a particular sore spot with me. As someone with expertise in very strange shiny pebbles, I personally can take great pleasure in noting the odd minerals or unusual crystal forms (“Geez, look at the diploid on that pyrite!”). But I’ll be the first to admit that is a pretty thin gruel for most.

    I once tried a more explanatory display, dragging crystal chemistry into the explanation of why these three different minerals (andalusite, kyanite and sillimanite) had identical chemical formulas. This ought to work well tied in a la BrianR’s suggestion to a tectonic display, but we were limited in space and budget, so it was trimmed to mineral samples and color diagrams of the crystal structures.

  6. #6 Joshua
    October 28, 2008

    Particularly bizarre is the AMNH in New York. When I went, they had a really cool earth science exhibit that included samples of various kinds of rocks and gems next to displays that explained how they were formed and how that fit into the bigger picture of the structure of the earth. And then, in a completely different wing the museum, just beyond the human origins exhibit they had a bunch of shiny rocks with no explanations in sight.

    I feel the same way about the taxidermy wings that a lot of natural history museums seem to have. One of the most disappointing museums I’ve ever seen was Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, which was nothing but a collection of random taxidermied animals next to a collection of random rocks and gems. What a waste of time that trip was.

  7. #7 speedwell
    October 29, 2008

    I’m in Dubai on business, and I just went to the “new” gold souk the other day. I’m a small collector of semiprecious stone spheres, and in several years of EBay shopping, I learned enough gemology to impress a colored-stone specialist in one of the little shops. He had a few really spectacular pieces, princesses among loose cut stones… a gorgeous ladylike padparaschah, a proudly bright chrysoberyl, a rare flawless single-color cut teal tourmaline, and so forth. Really good stuff.

    But the best part of it all was that I got to carefully handle and examine the stones with a penlight. I touched them and held them. I think I all but smelled and tasted them. It was awesome.

    I’m spoiled now. You would have to have samples I could see up close and touch to satisfy me with a geological exhibit. Good samples, not a bunch of well-thumbed inferior pieces meant to impress grade school students. Oh, well :)

  8. #8 wesele
    November 1, 2008

    He had a few really spectacular pieces, princesses among loose cut stones… a gorgeous ladylike padparaschah, a proudly bright chrysoberyl, a rare flawless single-color cut teal tourmaline, and so forth. Really good stuff.w

  9. #9 meksika biberi
    August 24, 2009

    meksika biberi