New Hall of Gems Opening This Fall; Will It Inspire the Same Love as the Old One?

A rendering of the new Halls of Gems and Minerals. Via AMNH. Click to enlarge.

The Museum of Natural History offered a sneak peek on Tuesday of the design for the new Halls of Gems and Minerals now under construction inside the museum. The new exhibit area has a high bar to hurdle — it’s replacing a space that was beloved by generations of New Yorkers as a dark, calm oasis in the middle of the city.

The new hall, named for volunteers and donors Allison and Roberto Mignone, will have 11,000 square feet of space. It will showcase two new enormous amethyst geodes, along with museum fan favorites like the legendary 563-carat “Star of India” sapphire and 632-carat Patricia emerald.

The displays will be interactive, and people will be able to touch some of the specimens.

“Highlights will include a luminous gallery featuring a wall-sized panel of rock glowing fluorescently in shades of orange and green; a pair of exquisite amethyst geodes from Uruguay that tower to a height of 12 feet and 9 feet; and the 9-pound almandine “subway” garnet discovered under Manhattan’s 35th Street in 1885. Jewelry in animal forms featured in the temporary exhibition gallery will include pieces by Cartier, Bulgari, and Tiffany & Co., as well as by contemporary designers such as Bina Goenka.”

The museum is also building a temporary exhibit space, so it can show a rotating series of exhibitions on minerals and gems. The first one will be Beautiful Creatures, “a celebration of exquisite historic and contemporary jewelry inspired by animals.”

In an essay for West Side Rag that she wrote after the original hall closed, Sophia Hollander explained why she would lament the change.

“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.”

Read the whole essay here.

NEWS | 6 comments | permalink
    1. Bob says:

      What made the old space so great wasn’t just the carpeting on literally every surface (though that did create a wild romper room feeling) — it was the feeling that the place was full of nooks and crannies and weird ramps and random rooms and odd levels and such. For a kid, it was like walking into some weird spaceship, with the rocks and the gems and the film from 1978 playing in the lonely back room like alien worlds yet to be discovered. This was a jungle gym for science, a geology bouncy house. It was weird, it was dark, that carpet was… slowly dying a miserable death. But it was a special place.

      I hope the new one will be as well. But if the new version is just a pretty space with open layouts and lots of flashing screens (goodness knows kids see plenty of those), I’ll be a bit saddened.

      • Steph says:

        kids used to think it was the “gym room.” Seriously. I think part of the museum’s motivation was to discourage the level of physical activity that went on there.

        Interesting fact: there was a big piece of jade that the kids used to slide down on. The guards were constantly running over to stop them. However, it was actually originally designed as a slide!

        The museum’s attitude towards its visitors has really changed. Who remembers when you could climb on the meteorite?

      • Ladybug says:

        I echo your sentiment, which you beautifully expresses.

    2. Bill says:

      It’s a travesty that they got rid of the old space. And it adds insult to injury that they’re replacing it with generic display cases. They destroyed something truly special.

      • UWSHebrew says:

        This is part of a growing trend of museums to re-design what was a great space, to be more “21st century”. The best example of this is the Jewish Museum of New York, which was wonderful, and is now a sterile, confusing, barely “Jewish” museum.

    3. Peter says:

      Don’t get the comments. The old Gem room was one of my favorite places in the museum. The thing that was really bad though was how dark , dreary and worn out it was for many years.
      Can’t wait to see the new gem room!