The American Museum of Natural History announced this week the closing of its Hall of Gems on October 26. Designed by architect William F. Pederson in high 1970s style, these galleries are as close as you can get to lounging in a conversation pit in public in New York City. I am sad to see them go.
One of my first parenting memories of New York is being at the Museum of Natural History with my toddling son, and happening upon the soft darkness of the (as it’s officially named) Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals and Morgan Memorial Gem Hall. Finally, a place to rest! With no hard corners and no other exits, I could park the stroller and let him wander on feet or knees at his will. Maybe he’d learn something from his explorations, maybe not. When you go to a museum with a 2-year-old, it’s as much for change of location as it is to foster a future scientist. He’d learn something from the geode just as he learned from the sandbox.
On repeat visits I figured out that this surrender to the visual and tactile was Pederson’s point: more engaging than the old-fashioned taxonomic case, less technological than today’s touchscreens, that era of exhibition design leaned in to the body as a teaching tool.
As Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times in 1977, soon after the galleries opened:
There are round amphitheater areas of steps to permit teaching to small groups, but these have been so cleverly integrated into the overall design that they appear more as terraces within the main room than as separate features. In the center of the terraced areas, large gems provide a strong focus; throughout the exhibit there are a number of large minerals anchored to pedestals but unprotected by glass so that visitors may touch them. (One enormous chunk of jade sits astride a small stairway connecting two parts of the display; until museum officials decided that such behavior was not quite what they had had in mind, schoolchildren were sliding down its smooth surface.)
Returning to the halls for a last visit, I duly noted the tattered quality of it all: carpet worn smooth and to strings, taped-up upholstery around columns, lights out. But the show must go on. A little girl wound around a set of polished stone stumps, running her hand over the flat top and attempting to sit. Later, she popped down on one side of a carpeted wedding cake, her mother on the other, resting by a giant specimen striated with blue. Atop its plinth it looked like a holy object.
Everything in the room is designed to entrap a child’s interest. Your first steps are like entering a cave. Which way to go? Along the western wall, a series of knee-high cutouts in the carpeted wall glow like nighttime shop windows. Within each one, different examples of a single mineral are arranged on long mounts, reaching out toward the viewer. Even the backdrop is scooped forward, increasing the illusion that you might fall in. The same scoop is employed in the adult-height displays, making sure the periodic tables and tetrahedral structures are visible to even the smallest visitor. You can touch a lot, and what you can’t touch is offered to you on a color-coded platter, no reading required.
Optical properties, molecular structure, fluorescence, range—all these things the cases display through arrangement, with text if you want to go deeper. But the room is also telling you something: to find these minerals you must dig, spelunk, or climb, and the room lets you do that, albeit with a softer landing. The mushroom-colored carpet could be dirt or rock or concrete, an uninterrupted surface climbing the stairs of a stepped kiva, descending a ramp, swathing the railings. Chad Randl has written of the 1970s embrace of shag carpeting as ersatz nature; here, even though it is as dirty as any other floor in the museum, it somehow feels okay to sink down.
Goldberger noted the then-worth-remarking-on audiovisual presentations. Above us, what must be the same voice went on telling us about the minerals, but that was just white noise: more fun to bounce from amphitheater to mountain to ramp, touching the prickly tetrahedrons of the amethyst, running a hand (if not a rear) down that same enticing green slab.
The 1970s were a fruitful time for building for children, with new science museums, aquariums, and children’s museums integrated into downtown development. My early childhood included many visits to the New England Aquarium and Boston Children’s Museum; the Brooklyn Children’s Museum also opened in 1977. Many of these made use of topography, creating interior landscapes (and sometimes exterior too) that embedded instruction in physical experience. To stand and watch, listen or read was not the point: kids got to touch more than screens, splash and climb and build.
There’s no making in the Hall of Minerals, but it is not hard to imagine adding toy tetrahedrons or balls and sticks to give kids a chance to construct minerals or molecules. The topography of the gem room is also very similar to that of the adventure playgrounds built just outside in Central Park during the same era. These too brought ancient architectures down to kid size.
The new gem galleries designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates are light and bright, all on one level, with one cave-like room for the precious stones, and lots of free-standing glass cases. It looks like a jewelry store—the same comparison Goldberger made way back when—but a relatively ordinary one, without mystery and its associated sense of discovery.
There will be no atmospheric change as you pass from the adjacent skulls to the far more ancient rocks. You will be able to learn more—“Forty-plus years ago, when the current galleries were designed, scientists had not yet begun to explore the concept of mineral evolution,” said George E. Harlow, curator of the renamed Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals in the press release—but will you also want to hang out? There aren’t even any benches in the renderings.
Studio Gang’s proposed $340 million expansion of the museum employs a rocky language, exploiting the concept of the canyon and the cave to add on to a motley collection of structures. Pederson was more abstract and more circumspect in his reference to the natural world, but one hopes the new wing captures some of its enchantment. The Museum of Natural History is an exhausting place, and visitors need refuges and changes of scenery throughout their journey. I hope there will be new places to nest.