This article is a part of our newest special report on Museums, which focuses on reopening, reinvention and resilience.
When most of us hear the phrase “evolution” we consider Charles Darwin or the Lucy skeleton. We usually don’t take into consideration nonliving issues, like rocks.
But in recent times, scientists have begun making use of the idea of evolution to a particular nonliving — however ubiquitous — object: minerals. This new perspective permits for a special sort of storytelling about each minerals, which are sometimes discovered as sparkly, colourful crystals inside rock, and the historical past of the planet.
As the American Museum of Natural History in New York City prepares to reopen its redesigned Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals on June 12, evolution is entrance and middle.
George Harlow, a geologist who has been the curator of gems and minerals on the museum for almost 45 years, mentioned when scientists speak in regards to the evolution of inanimate issues, they’re referring to modifications that occur over time. “It’s an answer to the question of why, as life on Earth has changed over the last 4.5 billion years, have nonliving minerals changed too.”
Today, there are greater than 5,000 species of minerals — over triple the quantity from after they first developed — and over time they’ve diversified in chemical composition and colour. The story of how that occurred, that evolution, is a brand new one for the museum, Dr. Harlow mentioned. “For the first time in this gallery, we are looking at life’s impact on the mineral kingdom.”
The incorporation of this new science (it entered the scientific mainstream round 2008) is clear all through the galleries, which have been redesigned for the primary time since 1976, by Ralph Appelbaum Associates in collaboration with the museum’s exhibition division, led by Lauri Halderman, vice chairman for exhibitions on the museum.
The outdated iteration of the exhibit corridor was darkish and had a structure paying homage to Chutes and Ladders: stairs and winding passages crammed with interactive reveals and touchable rocks. But all that has modified. The area is far much less of a labyrinth now, Ms. Halderman mentioned. “And less mysterious.”
The redesign feels spacious, brighter and intentional, with larger ceilings and a palette of impartial grays; even the lighting contained in the instances has been meticulously deliberate and executed.
Entering the brand new area, guests are greeted by a pair of towering amethyst geodes, one 12 toes excessive and the opposite 9. Their huge interiors look a bit just like the universe itself, with pinpoints of white mild scattered amongst glittering, darkish purple crystals.
In every glass case, minerals are displayed with the assistance of customized handmade mounts — a specialty of the museum — so that every specimen seems to be floating. In truth, the entire gallery is designed to let the minerals and gems take middle stage, with little distraction.
“This is very conscious on our part,” Ms. Halderman mentioned. “We want the room to recede when you’re here. Although it’s a beautiful space, it’s not the focus.”
Touch screens within the galleries will stay untouchable displays for now, though one has been tailored in order that guests can see the data on their telephones.
One of the primary reveals is a spiraling timeline. A tiny dot of sunshine at middle signifies the Big Bang (though Dr. Harlow famous mild didn’t really exist then) and strikes outward, with strains marking occasions that made attainable the start of minerals, together with the formation of the photo voltaic system, the event of the Earth’s crust and the emergence of life.
And then there are the colours. One of the extra compelling of these occasions was “the great oxygenation,” a interval when the Earth’s environment and oceans first skilled an increase in oxygen, between 2 billion and a couple of.5 billion years in the past, which resulted in a burst of colour in minerals, a attribute that hadn’t existed earlier than. The exhibit consists of some spectacular examples, like an intense blue-green chrysocolla; a pockmarked, deep orange crocoite; and a glittery, blood-red chunk of rhodochrosite.
Storytelling performs a giant function in these reveals, whether or not about shifting continental plates, the motion of water or the historical past of a selected mine. “Science standards today emphasize big ideas that connect across disciplines, such as patterns in nature, cause and effect, structure and function,” Ms. Halderman mentioned. “Those help you understand how minerals form, but also how everything forms.”
In the Gem Hall, about 2,000 of the museum’s assortment of greater than 4,700 gems are displayed in warmly lit instances lining a three-sided room. Gems are minerals, too, ones which have been reduce, floor and polished to reinforce their look.
Old favorites are nonetheless right here however proven in a wholly new mild (fairly actually), just like the luminous 563-carat Star of India Sapphire and the 632-carat Patricia Emerald. A brand new addition to the gathering, donated by the New York jewellery seller Siegelson, is the Organdie Necklace, designed by Michelle Ong, with greater than 110 carats of diamonds set in platinum and made to resemble a gently woven lace collar. (The necklace was worn by the singer Rihanna on a recent cover of Essence journal.)
Here, too, the main focus is on storytelling (for now, small displays will show a scannable QR code that permits guests to see identification data on their telephones). “We made a decision to use our labels to tell visitors global stories,” Ms. Halderman mentioned. Those embrace tales of the locations the place gems are discovered, how they’re reduce, their colours and distinctive properties, chemical composition, industrial makes use of, cultural makes use of and significance.
A standout within the redesigned Halls is the Minerals and Light room, with shows that goal to indicate how mild illuminates and interacts with gems and minerals, together with these hidden deep inside rock.
The room feels a bit like a small theater, however within the place of a film display is a huge, glass-encased slab of rock — 19 toes lengthy and 9 toes excessive, weighing almost 10 tons — taken from the Sterling Hill Mine, a once-active zinc mine in New Jersey that’s now a mineral and mining museum.
In daylight, this hulking rock is only a drab brown, however when hit with ultraviolet mild its look is remodeled, as layers of minerals mild up in fluorescent colours. When the wavelength of sunshine modifications so do the colours, from stripes of magenta and pale inexperienced to an virtually blinding orange and lime inexperienced.
Everywhere on this redesigned gallery are reminders of the significance of each scale and time, and reminders that the residing and the nonliving — life and rocks — could seem on the floor to be opposites however are literally deeply and profoundly linked.