Weekend History: A New Mother Laments the Loss of a Fairyland, and The Rise of ‘Infobytes’

The original Hall of Gems offered dark nooks amid the shiny rocks.

By Sophia Hollander

For generations of New York City children the mineral and gem room at the American Museum of Natural History was better than a cardboard box. It was one of the city’s great strange secret places, a dimly-lit labyrinth built like a kind of subterranean fairyland, darkened mounds of tiered carpet rising like shadowed hills encircled by twisting paths, each new bend twinkling with glints of real treasure.

It was better than the big whale, which may still host daredevil games of tag under its vast weighted belly. The whale is wonderful. But it is big, obvious, a clear communal space — the Great Lawn of city museums. The gem room was different, a weird hidden glen.

Growing up, we raced through the dusky landscape, learning to spot and sort gems like the magnificent signposts of a wealthy ancient kingdom. We hunted each other through moon dust and diamonds, past towers of gold, sometimes distracted from our prey by glimpses of brilliant opal veins coursing with colors, the spiky maw of rare purple crystals, the slab of cool green jade. We hid in the film room and learned about gold, despite ourselves. I crouched hiding in that room so many times, head snapping between the screen and the doors, filled with a growing dread of the silhouette that might appear in the entryways at any moment, the shadow searching for me, but still caught up in the film so that to this day I can see the scientists sifting glowing nuggets from the river.

It’s all gone now, or will be shortly. They’re leveling the rooms and smoothing them out, straightening the paths and cranking up the lights. Oct. 26 was the final day before the renovation begins, New York’s latest institutional urban renewal project.

One might say, it is a serious history museum, not a playground. They did not amass one of the world’s finest collections of precious gems to see them become a backdrop for giggling games of hide and go seek. They have every right to showcase these jewels with the sleek, slick grandeur they deserve. There will probably be some interactive screens that have some games. It will be fun.

It depends, I suppose, on your definition of a natural history museum and what you consider success. It will be easier to see more of the gems in better light. That cannot be argued. But if you are shooting for inspiration, if your goal is wonder and to slowly, subtly form connections to the artifacts, so that the child and the gems become friends – so that kids searching for canny hiding spots learn the intricacy of the jewels, their heft and hues, study their shifting tones and luminous colors, linger over their odd names and glittering winks, return endlessly and form favorites, relationships, fondnesses for one shape, or history, or spectacular streak of color, then the museum has made a bad mistake.

It’s the difference between lifelong affection and a stroll past some cool stuff in cases.

In the renderings from the press release the floor gleams. Everything is obvious and out in the open (although the release promises a “stunning crystalline path” linking the rooms). There appears to be no discovery, no hidden corners, no mystery. Or to put it another way, no room for magic, which is the fundamental allure of gems with their gorgeous, improbable eruption from rock.

I wouldn’t say the old room tricked children into learning. It welcomed them, sheltered them, slyly and gently offered chances to connect. As a new mother I was counting the years until I could bring my daughter to this room and watch her waddle in wonder down the poorly lit paths sparkling with stones, then scramble up the carpeted hills as she grew older and stronger, finding her own moments and will to defy authority, in this case the guards who yelled at children in a dance performed and restaged over decades. I imagined her discovering her secret hiding spots and favorite jeweled corners.

Instead, if we go, she will encounter a room with tidy packaged infobytes. She will squint in the blast of light that shines across the colors, showcasing them with absolute clarity. She will trudge among the crowds of people who will surely come to gawk at the valuable collection and as she walks down the clearly marked pathways of gems something precious will be lost.

To read other entries in our weekend history series, click here.

COLUMNS, HISTORY | 14 comments | permalink
    1. geoff says:

      the degree of sensitivity you showed as a child, and its artifacts in you as an adult, in a way describe what is missing in the design world.

      if the gem room needed anything (in my opinion, perhaps yours) was a top to bottom cleaning. that’s it.

      in contrast, it was everything you describe and was the source of yours, and my continued interest.

      there is one other, romantic and telling space—the northwest coast native gallery. it too is dark (and i always think of bob dylan’s lyric “it’s getting dark, too dark to see”) but with patience, everything becomes visible. it is also a time capsule revealing the thieving practices of earlier scavengers and collectors from the museum and (also in my opinion) rightly so. all that stuff, squirrelled away in such a dark room, off the beaten path, but so enlightening.

      see it while you can.

      • UWSK says:

        The gem room had serious handicap accessibility problems, which I am sure is one reason they are renovating it. Just look at the picture above. The gem/stone on display is in no way wheelchair accessible.

        The northwest coast gallery is also problematic as it is one of the many rooms the museum is trying to overhaul because of longstanding problems with insensitive portrayals of peoples from around the world.

        The change might bruise nostalgia, but from my experiences working with the curators and fellows there, the AMNH is well aware of many of the corrections it needs to make and is making them for reasons that are connected to improving our understanding of natural and human history. It’s not just about appeasing donors as many people have cynically stated about many of the AMNH’s decisions lately.

        The museum is also not awash in cash as many people seem to think, which is why many of these longstanding problems have not been changed despite people being aware of them for decades.

    2. Jean Mensing says:

      I agree. The museum was much more of a place of mystery inviting one to both imagine and search out information frequently on one’s own. That was a long time ago and I loved it. I ca’t believe the present museum curators are so sterile.
      Another wonderful New York icon gone…….

    3. Kathleen Treat says:

      Oh, rats! If one can love a room I did, too, when I was a child. I have been looking forward
      to taking my grandchildren there when they are
      old enough. Another nostalgic experience destroyed.

      • lynn says:

        But you’ll be making a wonderful new experience for them which will then become their own nostalgic experience when they’re older.

    4. mark koppel says:

      Along with the destruction of Theodore Roosevelt Park, another example of the total insensitivity of AMNH to anyone but rich donors.

      Looking at you, Koch and Gilder.

      • Dr. Cary Goodman says:

        Don’t forget Trustee Mercer, a climate-crisis denier and major donor.

        Wonder who the other denier-donors are on the museum’s board?

      • Rob G. says:

        What a nutty thing to say. The Gilder expansion is going to benefit everyone, not only the rich donors that are help fund it.

    5. EricaC says:

      I think this is a reflection of trying to attract the social media generation, more than rich donors, but I also dislike it. It is a broader problem. I eagerly went to their exhibit about the Silk Road, looking forward to a real examination of the region, and was disappointed that there was so little information there. It was like Dora the Explorer – and something I’d expect to see in a “children’s museum”. I hadn’t realized it until I read this, but I haven’t actually been back. I wonder whether museums generally are becoming so shallow and unreflective.

      • UWSHebrew says:

        Unfortunately, some museums are run by “media savvy” people who think they know what is best because it “looks cool”. What once was one of the best museums in NYC, the American Folk Art Museum, is now the worst. Better to have no museum than what they have now; their gift shop is larger than the exhibit space!

    6. tailfins says:

      “Back in my day” in its finest form. Same goes for the comments.

    7. Chris says:

      As a local kid back in the bad old days of the upper west side, the AMNH was one of the very few safe places for my friend and me to go on our own. After haggling with the admission people (why can’t two of us get in for 1 penny?) we would eventually find our way to the gems and minerals exhibit where we spent many a weekend plotting how to steal the various gems after closing. That exhibit captured my imagination more than any other at the museum! Hope they find another way to make a bunch of boiled/compressed dirt interesting.

    8. MFS says:

      My 8 year was so sad that they are overhauling this room. For all of its funk, it is such a magical place where your imagination guides you more than anything else.I am sure it will be lovely and my budding geologist will enjoy it but we will miss the “secret cave” atmosphere.