Gallery Evolution: Q&A with Curator, Dr. George Harlow

Set alongside Central Park, 11,000 square feet of galleries feature over 5,000 gem and mineral specimens from over 95 countries. The dawn of a post-pandemic world has aligned with one of the most highly anticipated industry openings—the Allison and Roberto Mignone Hall of Gems and Minerals at The American Museum of Natural History. Included with general admission, the redesigned spaces thoughtfully flow through themes, exploring local and global geology.
In addition, a new temporary exhibition space, the Melissa and Keith Meister Gallery, is the first of its kind built into a museum hall. On display is Beautiful Creatures, with animal-inspired jewels curated by Marion Fasel on through September 19, 2021. The exhibition has sparkling cases devoted to butterfly, dragonfly, snake, bird, and starfish jewelry, celebrating animals observed in air, water, and on land. From contemporary masters to the world’s greatest jewelry houses, the space offers a delightfully playful introduction to wearing spectacular gems.
Organized by Curator George E. Harlow, of the Museum’s Division of Physical Sciences, the halls document the evolution and diversity of minerals. Created as an educational resource, we spoke to Dr. Harlow about the inspiration behind the layout and featured pieces…

When it comes to planning a renovated hall about gems and minerals, there are many ways to classify and organize. We love that you made each case accessible and organized—by locale, optical properties, type, chemical composition and more. Can you speak about what your thought process was, of when organizing this massive collection of specimens?

GH: The Mineral Hall was organized around a few large thematic areas: What is a Mineral; Crystals and Crystal Symmetry; Mineral Properties; Mineral Evolution; Minerals and Life in the four corners of the mineral hall; Classification of Minerals along an entire wall; and then 5 areas of Mineral Forming Environments:  Igneous environment, Weathering environment, Hydrothermal environment, Metamorphic environment and Pegmatitic environment. In each environment area there about 8 vitrines dealing with different aspects of the environment or specific examples/places. There are additional cases for a few species or families of minerals or localities, such as New York City and the Mogok Stone Tract. So, with the topic of the cases defined, then it was a matter of populating them with specimens from the collection to manifest the content and stories.

You honor the legacy of George Frederick Kunz, a mineral collector and mineralogist that had a special connection to the museum and gems. Can you speak a bit about him and why it was personally important for you to make him a prominent figure throughout the cases?

GH: George F. Kunz had a fundamentally important role in the building of the mineral and gem collections through his employment at Tiffany & Co. and relationship with J.P. Morgan and Jack Morgan. Kunz supplied Morgan with specimens to give to the Museum to build our collection. Fully 40% of the specimens in the gem hall came through this relationship. Kunz was somewhat a renaissance man who wrote prodigious amounts on gems and minerals, providing a lot of content to the geoscience community.

On the right wall, when one first walks in, are the and the minerals of Mogok and New York City. Why did you choose these two locations to start the introduction to minerals for visitors?

GH: New York City was a no-brainer; we are in New York City and have the specimens to illustrate the mineral wealth and diversity, plus the signature “Subway Garnet.” I had known of Mogok as a gem capital before I got the chance to visit in 1998. That visit blew my mind with its amazing mineralogical wealth (and curiosities) of both specimens and gems. I have built up a collection from there as part of studying it; I still have work to do after a second visit in 2013.

We also noticed a New Jersey mineral wall within, as well as many cases featuring American minerals throughout. Why did you want to emphasize the local and national connection to minerals? What do you hope visitors get out of seeing important and rare rocks so close to home?

GH: There are a few cases that feature minerals from a well-known mineral area in New Jersey: The zeolites from the Watchung basalts and the minerals of Franklin and the Sterling Hill mine are well-known, well-represented in the collection, and in our back yard. As a regional museum as well as a world museum it behooves us to show these localities and their mineral wealth. We also have a case in the iron mines of the Jersey and Hudson Highlands.

We loved how you explained rotational symmetry using pasta shapes. It is relatable, and an easy way to explain the concept to children and adults alike. How did this idea come about? What other features of the hall were planned out with educating children in mind?

GH: We were looking for a way to present these somewhat abstract concepts and one of our exhibition team members came up with the pasta shapes. We all agree that works well. All of the halls is aimed at educating children of all ages, mostly with specimens having interesting stories, whether historical or scientific. Having touchable specimens is also important.

Throughout the hall there are a lot of statement rocks, with incredible stories, featured as standalones. Which is your personal favorite and why?

GH: Sorry, but favorite is not fair. I guess the one I use as a concept quiz is the Miscona (mine, in Asturias, Spain) which demonstrates the “snow on the roof effect” in which all of the yellow fluorite crystals facing up are coated with tiny, brilliant crystals of pyrite, but not the fluorite crystals in cavities. Then there are two calcite crystals on top of fluorite, without pyrite. How is that? But then most of the signature specimens tell stories to be deciphered by careful observation and reasoning.

The renovation of the gem and mineral halls is part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the American Museum of Natural History, which was founded in 1869. The capstone of the anniversary events will be the opening of the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, a 230,000 square foot facility with a theatre, library, classrooms, and which will ultimately link to the Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals. To learn more about the American Museum of Natural History, visit https://www.amnh.org/.

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