Day Five: Mineralogy

Figure 1: A snapshot of some of the stunning rocks and minerals housed at the NHM. (Photographed with the permission of the Natural History Museum).

Today was our final day at the NHM (sob!); but at least we went out on a high with some really interesting information and viewings of the mineralogy collection.

David Smith was our guide for the day; and alongside Peter Tandy and Deborah-Jayne Cassey.  David is the rock (mineral aggregates) curator; Peter is the minerals (a solid chemical substance with a characteristic chemical composition, highly ordered atomic structure, and specific physical properties…deep breath!) curator, and Deborah looks after the meteorites.

Figure 2: These display cabinets on the Mineralogy section of the musuem are were the bulk of the minerals are kept and also the only existing part of the original 1881 museum still left! (the cases were originally from the British Museum).  Some of the old labels on show were printed on the same paper used for banknotes! (Photographed with the permission of the Natural History Museum).

The mineralogy department has 8% of its collection on display which is very high!  You may think that it is easy to look after rocks and minerals but having this high a percentage on permanent display presents its own problems (such as dust from cabinets lacking in a rebate lining, though light doesn’t seem to have faded the minerals that have been on display for over 100 years!).  There are general storage problems such as moisture, which can affect iron pyrites, and is a reason why the meteorites are no longer handled as much as they were.  Also affected by moisture are rare carbonatite rocks which spew out from some volcanoes! (Just so you know ‘ites’ at the end of a name refers to rocks; trilobites and ammonites are so called because they were originally thought to be a type of rock!)

Figure 3: Some of the rocks have historical significance. These were collected by the Scott Terra Nova expedition (1910-13). The Scott exhibition was co-curated by David Smith, and you can see it at the NHM now (I recommend it). (Photographed with the permission of the Natural History Museum).

Anyway, the mineralogy collection at the NHM is widely spaced; incorporating minerals, ores, rocks and part of the Geological Museum which was left behind when the British Geological Survey moved to Nottingham.  Most of the rocks and minerals are stored in drawers, although the meteorites are now bagged up to avoid moisture and potential rust.  There is the potential for ‘collision’ between specimens in the drawers, but this is really the only concern for most specimens.

In common with Biological specimens, different minerals are referred to as species; and each mineral species has a type specimen.  However, the mineralogy curators aren’t as ‘precious’ regarding the type specimens as biological curators are because the data stored from them is often more useful than looking at the mineral itself.

Figure 4: Meteorites available to handle (but for how long!) (Photographed with the permission of the Natural History Museum).

In summary I had a great day and now know the difference between meteorites (found on earth), meteoroids (before they enter earth’s atmosphere), and meteors (falling from the sky!).  If anyone is still in doubt may I recommend the song ‘Emily’ by Joanna Newsom, in which she tries to learn about the difference from her scientist sister.

I’ve had a great week at the Natural History Museum and would like to thank all the staff members mentioned in this blog (and others who I may have unforgiveably forgotten!) for making the week such a fun and informative learning experience.  Stay tuned for future exploits as I head back up to the ‘grim north!’


About Trainee Curator

I will be writing a blog about the next twelve months spent as a trainee biological curator based at Manchester Museum.
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