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.