Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Disappointment at the California Academy of Sciences

The Gems and Minerals Unearthed  exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences opened to the public on September 30, 2016. Just over six years earlier, we had quoted San Francisco's world class collector Jack Halpern when he lamented  that this renowned museum's wonderful mineral collection was not on display.  Upon questioning the museum by telephone, a spokesperson had informed me coldly that environmentally controlled cases would have to be constructed before any minerals were shown.  Having just viewed Jack's amazing collection, we predicted in our  post  of  Sept. 19, 2010, 
the likelihood that any future mineral display at this institution would prove to be anticlimactic. 

A recent visit on September 14, 2016, showed our prognostication from  six years ago to have been prophetic. We admit to having learned upon paying the $35.00 price of admission that for an extra $15, the museum sometimes offered a special behind the scenes tour providing an opportunity to see "some of the museum's most valuable minerals."  Despite a limited window of time during an all too quick trip west to visit family, we nevertheless expected this major public exhibit to feature a multitude of great mineral specimens.  

Gems and Minerals Unearthed consists of about a dozen cases of various minerals and some gems. They are at the end of a wide hallway on the museum's third floor. Each case has a given theme. One theme is to establish that certain mineral species are rare, and that others are common. The blue and white specimen shown at left features several balls of blue cavansite on white stilbite collected in India. Is this the best the museum could do to showcase as a rarity this wildly popular and showy combination of species?  And couldn't the curators have come up with a more attention-grabbing orthoclase specimen than the small crystal just below the cavansite to exemplify one of the more common species? The magnificent and enormous South African sugilite crystal to the left of the cavansite is more in line with what we had expected to see.  But why distract from its amazing purple color with that deep blue background?

The theme in one of the other cases related to colorful minerals displayed with numbers corresponding to written identifications explaining  their color. Once again, few of the specimens boasted the level of aesthetic qualities to be expected at a well-known museum like the California Academy of Sciences. In this case, we even noticed  two similar specimens of dull massive orpiment with identical explanations of "color due to energy gaps in
molecules."  How much thought went into this display?

While the mineral collections in other top tier museums aspire to dazzle the sensibilities of mineral aficionados, it is clear that most of the specimens in this exhibit bespeak no such intention. Clearly, the purpose is to educate the unknowing about a few very basic tenets of mineralogy.

Aside from teaching, the displays could surely do more to generate the interest of  the viewers they seek to educate. To the contrary, some themes seemingly sought  to discourage viewers from the most obvious means of putting their newly acquired knowledge to use. That means, of course, would be to take up collecting minerals as a hobby. The theme in one case deliberately points out the environmental hazards of mining. In another of the cases, it is noted how certain species that collectors prize, linarite for example, are actually poisonous.

Had timing allowed for a behind the scenes visit, the tone of this post almost certainly would be more positive.  Those who visit the California Academy of Sciences  for the primary purpose of seeing minerals will obviously wish to view  the best the museum has. In our opinion, they should be able to do so without having to pay an extra $15.