Comment: The mineralogical museum contains beautiful minerals, but science has a lot to digest

Aidan Fraser/THE REVIEW
Sharon Fitzgerald leads her speech at the Penny Hall Mineralogical Museum on March 16.

BY
Senior Reporter

Do you find beauty in natural crystal formations? Do you channel your energy into colored crystals? Are you a geological science major? If so, you might want to visit the university’s mineralogical museum located in Penny Hall. The museum features over 3,000 crystal specimens that have been donated to the university and, lucky for you, is open to the public throughout the semester.

The Curator of the Mineralogical Museum is Sharon Fitzgerald. On March 16, Fitzgerald hosted a conservation lecture on the Gemstone Exhibit titled “Faces and Facets – Crystals to Gemstones” where she discussed many misconceptions in gemology, which is a branch of mineralogy.

One of the misconceptions Fitzgerald made clear throughout his speech is that the color of a gemstone does not determine its name. The reason this is a common myth is that gemology was not always considered a scientific field. Until the 1800s, there were five recognized categories of gemstone: ruby, sapphire, diamond, emerald and pearl.

“The problem was that anything green was called an emerald and anything red was called a ruby, anything blue was a sapphire, anything clear was a diamond,” Fitzgerald said.

George Kunz is considered one of the first gemologists to travel the world to collect minerals, identify them and sell them to a donor. The donor would then donate Kunz’s collection to museums or universities. Based on Fitzgerald’s research, the university holds the last of Kunz’s 12 mineral collections.

“He was really the one who applied science to gemstones and separated some of that mess that was just color related,” Fitzgerald said.

Aidan Fraser/THE REVIEW
Topaz on Quartz, Wulfenit and Elbaite and Quartz.

Since the event was open to the public, there was a small crowd of people with varying levels of basic gemological knowledge. Due to my limited background in gemology, I found the content of the talk particularly complex and had to do more research after the event to decode the words and phrases used by Fitzgerald.

For example, Fitzgerald began his speech with the meaning of “Faces and facets”. She has used the terms “minerals”, “crystals”, and “gemstones” almost interchangeably, but in mineralogy there are clear differences between these three terms. From my understanding of the research I conducted after the event, a mineral is an inorganic, naturally occurring substance that has crystalline structures. Artificial crystals, however, are not minerals because they are unnatural. When minerals are cut and polished, they are then considered gemstones.

I personally believe that if she had started with a succinct explanation of the basic facts about mineralogy, the talk would have been easier to follow for someone with limited prior knowledge in the field.

Aidan Fraser/THE REVIEW
Vesuvianite, which is the gemstone on which Sharon Fitzgerald completed her thesis and is a favorite gemstone in collections

In addition to pointing out these facts, I also think that if Fitzgerald showed the crowd which gemstone was under discussion, it would have been a more interactive experience. Much of the conversation was stationary, with most people remaining in one place as they listened to Fitzgerald speak. Some guests who had the advantage of already knowing the gemstone that Fitzgerald was talking about casually walked over to the stone being described. Instead of mentioning the name of the gemstone, indicating the exposed gemstone would have made the conversation clearer.

As a journalist with minimal training in gemology, I didn’t like the curator’s speech. The way the crystals are displayed in the museum is beautiful. I could tell by the thoughtful way Fitzgerald spoke about the exhibit, as well as the care taken in the display, that she is very proud of the mineralogical museum.

Although the science of gemology is complex, the history of the field is quite intriguing. If the Mineralogical Museum offered more information about its collections as if its audience had no pre-existing knowledge of what a mineral is, I think there would be a better overall understanding of the history of the field, the anatomy of a mineral and how science is easily misunderstood.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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