On the old Morgan Hall, American Museum of Natural History, New York City.
N.B.: This article appeared in Mineralogical Record, volume 18, November-December, 1987. Revised 1997.
I lived, as a young boy, on East 75th Street in New York City, and if I could scrape up a nickel for bus fare, I would get to the American Museum of Natural History at Central Park West and 79th Street in a few minutes; otherwise the trip on foot took about an hour. In either case, when I arrived I would find myself walking past the stuffed lions, the elephants and even the dinosaurs to get to the Morgan Memorial Hall of Minerals.
This mineral (and gem) hall, as well as the pink gemstone variety of beryl termed morganite, was named for John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), better known in his day as J.P. Morgan. He was one of America's great financiers and bankers, the third richest man in the country in his day (only John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie surpassed him), and he was a philanthropist on a grand scale. It has been said that, at their peak, the Morgan and Rockefeller interests controlled some $20 billion in corporate assets, about one-fifth of the total national wealth! So, when Mr. Morgan purchased the mineral collection of Clarence Sweet Bement (1846-1923) in 1900 for the sum of $100,000 (a huge amount for ordinary people of those days) it was "small change" for him. He then, through the efforts of George Frederick Kunz (1856-1932), another friend of the museum, donated "the finest collection of minerals ever made"1. to the American Museum of Natural History; and this, it must be remembered, all happened before the days of serious levels of income tax and tax-deductible gifts! It is interesting to note that there was then no department of mineralogy at the museum; minerals were under the care of the Department of Geology. A new Department of Mineralogy was immediately set up and Louis Pope Gratacap (1851-1917) was named curator. Gratacap announced in a paper read before the New York Mineralogical Club on April 26, 1902, that all former collection pieces had been placed in storage and that all specimens on display, some 12,300 items, were from the Bement collection. It was, essentially, this collection, virtually undisturbed from its original display setting, that I spent so much time admiring some 40 years later.
The displays were full of wonder for a young boy and he could learn so much from them too! One day I would concentrate on the study of pyrite and, perhaps, another day, on galena (still labeled galenite). If I were studying quartz I could look down on, perhaps, a hundred or or more specimens in one of those old, flat, glazed-top cases, lean over and, with my breath hot on the glass, get my nose to within inches of each piece. I could then study them and make comparisons as to varieties, localities, crystallizations, colors, etc., etc., learning much in the process. Today, of course, this cannot be done. I do not intend a criticism of the new display in any way; it serves these times well, these times of high-tech and micro-probe analysis, but one simply cannot learn visual, comparative, sight identification of minerals by viewing it; of course it was not designed for that purpose. Neither was the old hall, but with its thousands of specimens on display, all arranged according to "Dana's System," 2. the magnificent specimens alongside the ordinary, it was a natural setting for serious study. One thing the new hall (perhaps gallery is a better designation) was designed to do, is to bring in casual traffic and to introducethe general public to the world of minerals. With that as a goal, it is eminently successful.
From its early beginnings in the year 1900 the collection has grown to a staggering number in excess of 130,000 specimens, and is one of the largest such holdings in the world. Indeed, the American Museum of Natural History, with its 19 interconnected buildings and 23 acres of floor space, is, according to The Guiness Book of World Records (1983), the largest single museum in the world! In 1986 the mineral hall had more than 700,000 visitors; quite an increase over 1945.
Today the serious student of mineralogy must be content with studying only 6,000 specimens on public exhibit3., and this includes gemstones. However, each specimen is displayed to its maximum visual potential and each is beautifully lighted. There were days when I need a small flashlight to really observe the minerals clearly, especially on cloudy days. Nevertheless, it should not be thought that aesthetics were ignored in those times because they were not. Curator Gratacap painted (or directed the painting of) small black arrows on the bottom of each and every specimen. This was done to guide his staff and future staffs in what he believed was the correct visual orientation for the proper display of the specimens. The arrow was to point directly to the viewer. Over the years I have seen hundreds or even, perhaps, thousands of these arrow designated specimens and always agree with the suggested orientation.
In a conversation with an old friend and fellow mineral-enthusiast, Louis D'Alonzo, a collector from Nutley, New Jersey, I asked him about his early visits to the Morgan Hall. He first viewed the Bement collection as a boy of ten in 1932, a year before I was born. Ehen pressed for his recollections, the first thing he mentioned was the elegantly handwritten labels that accompanied each specimen. I had completely forgotten about them, and I wonder if the new labels (typed or engraved on plastic) are really an improvement. Lou visited the Morgan Hall for the first time in the company of his 5th grade class and soon found himself returning on his own. Was this percentage (one in thirty or so) typical of those who become infected with the passion to collect minerals? I fear not- it seems quite high. The round trip cost Lou 54 cents. His favorite case for comparative study was calcite and calcites remain his favorite mineral today. He recalls once meeting mineral specimen dealer, John Albanese at the museum when Albanese was about 30 years old. Although Lou was smitten with the mineral- and gem-carvings he never tried to collect them. He remembers that the chemical arrangement of the collection seemed of particular importance to him.
Peter Schneirla, former senior gemologist and vice-president of Tiffany & Company, specifically remembers seeing, as a boy, a very large, faceted, oval-shaped aquamarine that sat on a custom-made mirrored base. (That stone, from Minas Geraes, Brazil, weighing 737 carats, was on long-term loan from David Impasto and was the largest faceted aquamarine in the collection at the time. It became a gift to the museum in 1959.) Peter proceeded with his education, got degrees in physiological psychology and anthropology, but he is certain that it was the influence of the gem collection of the American Museum and, especially the Impasto aquamarine, impressed in his memory as a child, that led him ultimately to his career in gemology. Today Peter, who always dreamed of being an entrepreneur, deals only in the finest of natural and un-enhanced precious stones for his own account.
There were times when I would put in a "full day" at the American, arriving about 10 a.m. and leaving by 4 or 5 p.m. I knew the security guards always observed me out of the corners of their eyes, and I am sure that they got used to seeing me, but not once did a gesture of recognition pass between them and me. Perhaps I, who was often the sole occupant of the hall, kept them at attention so they could not sit down and relax.
One of my long-term favorite specimens, one that I made sure to see on every vist to the hall, is a very large blue crystal of topaz from Alabaschka in the Ural Mountains, Russia. It measures approximately 3-1/4 x 3-1/4 x 4 inches and, with its excellent basal cleavage, sits up perfectly. Its museum number is G(em)42236 and it currently resides in the vault. Clarence Bement purchased it in Berlin from C.F. Pech between the years 1870 and 1880 for the sum of 1500 marks or about $375. If I apply my well researched and well documented rule-of-thumb for the dollar of those days, the equivalent today would be around $37,500. I believe that most who know this specimen (it has been placed on display at several mineral shows in recent years), myself included, would consider that price to be quite low for today. So, perhaps Bement got one of his rare bargains. It is my opinion that fine mineral specimens were tremendously more expensive in Bement's time, on an absolute basis, than they are today, but that is another story. In his original cataloging of the Bement collection, Gratacap wrote on the index card of this specimen- "A colossus." Not much more need be said.
Another old favorite of mine was a very large Chinese cinnabar matrix piece with many huge twinned crystals on it, a treasure of the collection of William Boyce Thompson (1869-1930). I wonder what I would have thought had I known (as was later discovered) that this great object of my attention was actually a fake! It was eventually, and properly, reduced to several very fine small cabinet-sized matrix specimens that had been skilfully joined with the help of plaster of paris! Thompson, who founded the Newmont Mining Corporation in 1921, had a special fondness for very large mineral specimens, and one suspects that this one was "custom-made" for him!
The curator of the collection in the 1940's was Frederick H. Pough, but I never had the good fortune to meet him in those days. What would I have thought of the idea that in the future our paths would cross numerous times and that I would ultimately consider him a dear friend? I had cut my mineralogica teeth on his Field Guide to the Rocks and Minerals, and I suspect that countless mineral collectors and mineralogists can say the same. Perhaps many would never have entered the world of minerals had Fred not taken the time and effort to write this classic.
One old display at the museum that is sorely missed by me, and I am told, by others too, is the collection of minerals found on Manhattan Island. A good number of those specimens belong to the New York Mineralogical Club and are placed on deposit at the museum. Incidentally, the club bestowed on me, a few years ago, honorary life-membership. Most visitors to the museum have no idea of the wealth of minerals that occur, literally, under their feet in New York City. Perhaps some day the New York display will re-emerge from storage.
The only mineral hall of these days, that I have visited, that evokes memories of the old Morgan Hall is at Harvard. I enjoy my visits there and walking on the old creaky wooden floors is a special treat.
Strangely enough, although there were a few really great, large specimens in the wall cases of the Morgan Hall, such as the superb Japanese stibnite (See Gratacap4., opposite page 22), I spent almost no time studying them. Perhaps it was because I lived in a small apartment and could not personally relate to very large specimens, or perhaps it was because the few really good things were surrounded mostly by pieces of indifferent quality.
Another recollection is that in the many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours that I spent in the Hall, I never once met or spoke to a fellow mineral enthusiast. Although there were many times when I was completely alone, there were times when I certainly was not. Perhaps mineral collectors in those days were too reserved to speak to strangers or perhaps, it was a large-city hang-up. And yet it is much the same today, even at mineral shows having fine exhibits. Too few people take the rare opportunity offered to to introduce themselves and get to know others who are obviously interested in the same thing.
There were some special occasions, perhaps Christmas or my birthday, when I would have two or perhaps three dollars to spend on a mineral specimen at the museum's gift shop. Unlike today, there certainly was not much of a selection of fine things for sale and all suffered from the inevitable invidious comparisons with the "great stuff" upstairs; but things like a 2x2 inch polished slab of "tiger-eye" (silicified asbestos) could be had. It was certainly not a great Chinese cinnabar, but it would save the day.
Special thanks to George Harlow, Joseph Peters, Charles Pearson, Louis D'Alonzo and Peter Schneirla. All photographs were provided courtesy of the Department of Library Services, American Museum of Natural History.
1. From The Final Disposition of some American collections of Minerals, by Frederick A. Canfield (1922).
2. The system, a chemical one, was invented by James Dwight Dana (1813-1895), and later refined by his son, Edward Salisbury Dana (1849-1935). Every mineral species known at the time (less than 1000) was assigned a "Dana number." Diamond was originally number one. This system was the natural result of the preoccupation by mineralogists of the nineteenth century for order in their science, and "systems" were published frequently. Needless to say, a "system" with numbers became incomplete upon the discovery of even one new species. Nevertheless, some present-day collectors use Dana numbers to help them organize their collections.
3. The actual breakdown was, in 1987, as follows: 4300 minerals, 1700 gems, 125 meteorites and 100 rocks.
4. The full title is A popular guide to minerals, with chapters on the Bement collection of minerals in the American Museum of Natural History, by Louis Pope Gratacap (1912). Incidentally, I heartily recommend this book although copies are costly and hard to find. It is one of my favorite books and the favorite of others too. The late Paul Desautels, former Smithsonian curator once wrote to me that "it is one of my favorite historical books. The back section particularly is packed full of thought-provoking tidbits including Gratacap's opinions on things mineralogical plus his early 1900's attitude toward minerals, etc. (much of which I find myself attuned to)." In addition to his philosophy, Gratacap added 120 good photographs of specimens from the Bement collection, including one in color. There are also numerous fine quality crystal drawings.
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