Another one bites the dust: Goodbye to the American Museum of Natural History's gem and mineral gallery

existing gallery AMNH
© American Museum of Natural History

Understanding rocks, minerals and geology is critical to understanding the environment.

TreeHugger gives a lot of space to architectural preservation and prefers restoration and revitalization to demolition. But sometimes, change is inevitable. Take the American Museum of Natural History's Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals, which closes today.

Most kids going to natural history museums head straight for the dinosaurs. I personally loved rocks and minerals, and still check them out in every museum, in every city I visit. But they are a huge challenge for museum curators and designers; how do you make them interesting? They are often classified by chemical composition or crystal shape, which can be hard concepts to grasp. They are not cute or weird -- they're rocks. But an understanding of geology is key to an understanding of today's environmental issues -- how the world formed, what it's made of.

I first went to the Morgan Hall in the late seventies just after it opened, and it was so seventies, all brown carpet on the floors and walls. It was dark, soft and womb-like with corners and dead ends. I loved it.

I took my kids there about a decade ago and looked at it very differently; it was truly stuck in the seventies. The carpet was worn and, with all its stairs and ramps, it clearly broke every rule under the Americans with Disabilities Act* -- so many ups and downs and arounds. Jaya Saxena writes in the Village Voice and sees it much as I did:

Last weekend, I revisited the gem room, both to say goodbye and in an attempt to quantify what felt so heartbreaking about a room in a 148-year-old museum getting remodeled. It was darker than even I remembered. There were endless corners in which to hide, and no screens blaring educational videos or bright facts. Descriptions of the gems and minerals were in small green boxes with white text, or sometimes gray text on beige walls, all the better to ignore that this was meant to be an endeavor in learning at all.

It was very much the old style of gallery: "In a museum designed for interaction and socializing, it was a literal crystal fortress of solitude." You had to work at it to understand it.

New gallery © American Museum of Natural History/ new gallery opening in 2019

Museum exhibits are not built like that anymore. There have to be buttons to push and videos to run; it has to be interactive. No doubt the remodelled gallery will have all of that, and it will all be on one level so that it is universally accessible, and it will be really, really bright.

Carnegie MuseumLloyd Alter/ Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh/CC BY 2.0

And if I want an old-fashioned glass case display of rocks and gems in a dark room, I will have to go back to Pittsburgh.

*UPDATE: I am informed that it did not break every ADA rule. I enclose a few tweets from Theodore Grunewald, an architectural historian.

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