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Museums and their gems | Apollo Review

Everywhere the room features spectacular and exemplary stand-alone specimens, including a giant block of labradorite with exceptionally large crystals; the massively psychedelic, azurite and malachite Singing Stone from Bisbee, Arizona; cranberry-colored Tarugo elbaite tourmaline from Minas Gerais (“one of the largest intact mineral crystals ever found”); and a stunning stibnite resembling a huge metallic bird’s nest. Surrounding these are large cases with independent displays on key geological forms and processes (igneous, metamorphic, hydrothermal, pegmatitic, weathering, fluorescence) and on geology specific to the New York City area. These also include important objects such as the dark blue Newmont azurite from the Tsumeb mine in northern Namibia, considered by many collectors to be one of the finest mineral specimens in the world, as well as the famous jewelry and precious stones (star sapphires!) which, in the end, are likely to be the main attraction of the halls.

There are the stones that you collect on the beach or in the woods or in the park and there are those that you can place on graves or offer to a friend. Maybe we are drawn to them by individual details – something idiosyncratic, mimetic, or associative about shape, surface, or color; something that tells about how they hold or reflect the light; just something. These stones could speak of a place, a time of meeting, maybe a larger cosmic story of personal connection, maybe endurance or change. For many of us, these instinctive, impulsive objects become archives of experiences, perhaps trips, days remembered – or forgotten. But the Museum draws a clear geological line between these memorabilia and the specialized objects in its collection. They are minerals, distinct from rocks and stones, crystals and fossils. Rather, they are the basis of the composition of rocks, stones and fossils, each “a natural solid with a regularly repeating crystal structure and a defined chemical composition”. There is no allusion here to the controversies over what is counted among the 5,700 minerals recognized by the International Mineralogical Association. (Should distinct biomineral scores created by living organisms be included, for example? And if not, why?) Yet the taxonomic wall that this definition generates is so impressive that the simplification seems warranted – even if it gives the impression of science as a realm of certainty rather than exploration, experimentation and speculation.

Across the Atlantic, in Paris, the Gallery of Mineralogy and Geology on the Jardin des Plantes site of the National Museum of Natural History has also been renovated over the past decade. But here, rather than a massive amethyst, visitors are greeted by shiny specimens from the collection of surrealist writer Roger Caillois (1913-1978). Many of them are polished slices – of agate, chalcedony, jasper, onyx – and, as Caillois reveals in The Writing of the Stones, his guide to the collection, each is an opportunity to a philosophical reflection. “The vision that the eye registers is always impoverished and uncertain,” he writes. “The imagination fills him with the treasures of memory and knowledge. Caillois was the representative of what he called “diagonal science”, a method of taxonomy based on associative, often morphological connections between animals, plants and objects, and he was particularly drawn to the pictorial qualities of stones. – the often strange resemblances between seemingly unrelated phenomena – and the way in which they stimulated his associative faculties, prompting his research into the sources of culture, the meaning of symbolism and the nature of dreams. While browsing his collection, Caillois stops in front of a striking black Brazilian onyx with angular white veins, now included on the middle shelf of the Parisian exhibition: “Suddenly you wonder if this is not really writing. instead of images of a thousand other things.

Within the Parisian gallery, the Caillois collection is followed by a smaller geological presentation but otherwise similar in quality and style to that of the AMNH. She, too, wants the stones to serve as a gateway to science. But the tone of the reflective philosophical inquiry is already established and the definitions invite contemplation: “A mineral is a natural solid, generally organic, resulting from geological processes. It is defined by its chemical composition and ordered crystal structure, that is, by the repetitive and intermittent arrangement of its constituent atoms in three-dimensional space. As always, there are exceptions: native mercury is a liquid; opals do not have an ordered atomic structure… ‘

Geological specimens from the Roger Caillois collection (1913-1978). National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Photo: Hugh Raffles

Caillois’ relationship with his collection has been shaped by Chinese and Japanese traditions of stone appreciation. He came to believe that certain rocks and stones “reduce space, they condense time”, and that the geological explanation only partially explains their meaning and power. Classical and contemporary East Asian collectors and scholars might draw inspiration from Confucianism to describe how a stone provides a model of righteous living, unyielding in the face of winds of political change, as well as Taoism, which also offers the self-cultivation but in the pursuit of transcendence, self-dissolution through meditation and other techniques of spiritual discipline. Rocks, stones and minerals from a Chinese or Japanese museum, classical garden, private collection, or auction house are likely to be valued for their shape, texture, patina, their color, their energy and, of course, their likeness – a range of graduated shades. and overlapping criteria that can deepen the connection between a particular stone and its sympathetic and informed viewer.

If you are in Manhattan, you can bridge these epistemological and aesthetic divisions in an afternoon. The new gem and mineral rooms at the American Museum of Natural History contain outstanding examples of some of Caillois’ favorite stones – “ruined marble” from Tuscany, Mexican and Brazilian agates, jasper from the United States – objects from which we could all develop our geological knowledge and also evoke an unexpected association and meaning. Across the park, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Astor Court is a meticulous recreation of a Ming garden courtyard from Suzhou, China, which includes several tall, tapered Taihu limestone rocks with their characteristic perforations, creators and conduits of energy which between biological life and mineral life, marking and eroding at the same time the distinction.

Among the specimens currently on display at AMNH is a large muscovite book that I used to visit in the old Guggenheim exhibit. To me, even in its newly bright surroundings, the dull colored object seems to ruminate and throb. This is because every time I see muscovite I think about the year my great aunt spent as a forced laborer in the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt, using a razor to cut blocks like this in incredibly thin slices for use in the production of airplanes. The seemingly heavy object concentrates the story with a dark power that resonates through the glass of the display case. I wonder how and where the museum acquired it and how many other people react like me when they see it. I wonder how many other objects here with different stories have a comparable resonance to other visitors. It is without a doubt a formidable geological specimen and it is interesting to learn more about its pegmatitic origins and the qualities that made it so essential to the Luftwaffe. But it is, of course, also more than that. And this surplus, which manifests itself in many ways, is part of the power of the collection – the ability of these objects to open up to disparate interpretations, not always superimposed, to go beyond explanation, and to constrain and reward encounters. prolonged and repeated.

Extract from the October 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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