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Q & A: Manager of mineral collection has dug rocks for a long time

Annual show set for next weekend at State Museum

Sunday, February 20, 2011
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Vendors from around the Northeast will be selling various gems, minerals and fossils at the annual gem show at the New York State Museum Feb. 26-27. (photo: New York State Museum)
Vendors from around the Northeast will be selling various gems, minerals and fossils at the annual gem show at the New York State Museum Feb. 26-27. (photo: New York State Museum)

Cleveland isn’t the only city with a Rock Hall of Fame.

In Albany, the New York State Museum is home to the world’s largest mineralogy collection, which is only part of a mind-boggling, scientific treasure chest of 1.5 million rocks, minerals, gems and fossils.

Collected over nearly two centuries, most of the specimens, from beryl to tourmaline, are stored in cabinets on the third floor. They’ve been settled there for more than 30 years, but before that, many of them were moved three times.

The museum began as the State Geological and Natural History Survey in 1836, and by the early 1840s, barrels of rocks and minerals filled three rooms of the old State Hall. In 1857, the museum, which changed its name to the State Cabinet of Natural History, had outgrown that space and the Geological and Agricultural Hall was built. The rocks hung out there until 1915 when the New York State Museum of Natural History moved into the State Education Building. Then, in 1976, the 11-story Cultural Education Center was built on the Empire Plaza to house the New York State Museum, the State Library and the State Archives.

18th Annual James E. Campbell Memorial Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show and Sale

WHERE: Terrace Gallery, fourth floor, New York State Museum, Empire State Plaza, Madison Avenue, Albany

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

HOW MUCH: $6 for adults, free for children age 12 and younger; admission includes “New York in Bloom” on first floor of museum

MORE INFO: 474-5877 or www.nysm.nysed.gov

Michael Hawkins, a Kingston native who dug geology from his early boyhood, has been the museum’s geology collections manager since 1992, but has been tracking the state’s rocks and minerals since 1988.

And for the 18th year, at next weekend’s James E. Campbell Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show and Sale, Hawkins will be fielding questions about meteorites, moon rocks, gems and geodes from the thousands of visitors who come to the show.

Last week, he answered questions from The Gazette:

Q: How long has the New York State Museum been collecting gems and minerals?

A: Geology was the impetus behind the creation of the state museum. In 1836, the Geological Survey, which was the forerunner to the museum, was formed by Governor Marcy and the Legislature. They divided the state into four sectors and they sent geologists out to look for economically valuable mineral deposits.

Q: What’s the connection between the mining industry and the museum’s collections?

A: There’s a long, long history of mining in New York state. There’s still significant mining in New York state. Now it’s mostly sand and gravel or quarrying for stone. There’s a large salt mining industry in central New York. Zinc is still mined a little bit, talc a little bit. There are garnets up near Gore Mountain. A lot of the specimens we have in the collection come from this. People disturb the earth and something pops out.

Q: How did you get interested in geology?

A: When I was a boy, my uncle had gone out West and brought back these shiny micas and galena, and I was just fascinated. He had this box in his attic of all these minerals. That caught my attention. I collected rocks from when I was a young, young kid.

Q: What does a geology collections manager do?

A: I came in as a volunteer in the late ’80s, when we were just starting with computerizing the collection. My first decade was catching up on data-basing, organizing the collections. I try to find as much information as I can about the collections. We’ve photographed thousands of the important specimens so the information doesn’t get lost. If you have a question, if you have an interest in geology and mineralogy, we’re the source of information. We can help you. We’re there to preserve the collections, we’re there to build the collections. We help small museums and not-for-profits, universities and colleges.

Q: Do you work in the field as well as the office?

A: I’ve been in tunnels under Manhattan. You don’t think of Manhattan as a big mining area, but they are working on subway tunnels now at 63rd Street. I go down, I meet with the geologists. Everyone tries to keep their eyes open. You can’t be everywhere in New York at one time, but over the years, you make contacts with the geologists and miners and different quarries and mines and construction sites.

Q: What happening at this year’s gem and mineral show?

A: Both afternoons at 2 p.m. I will do a tour of the Mineral Gallery and explain the history of the collections. There will be people demonstrating different crafts and cutting stones. We have 25 vendors from around the Northeast selling minerals and fossils. Our staff geologists will be there if people want to bring in rocks or fossils to be identified.

Q: How many specimens do you show in the Mineral Gallery on the first floor?

A: We’re constantly rotating the collection, bringing new things out. We have maybe 1,200 specimens on display out of many thousands in the collection. We probably have about 50,000 specimens in our mineral collection, of which about half are from New York state, and half are from what we call “the world collection,” from outside New York state.

Q: Are scientists around the world interested in the museum’s collections?

A: Oh yes. New York is home of many “typed specimens,” meaning things that were first described in science from New York state. Our curator, Dr. Marian Lupulescu, is engaged with research scientists all over the world. Sometimes specimens from New York are compared with known specimens from other locations to see their similarity. It’s a valuable research tool.

Q: Are the collections still growing? How does that happen?

A: It is purchases, it is donations, it is field work. Probably several hundred a year on average. We won’t spend money on specimens that are not from New York, but if we get a donation of superb specimens, we put those into the permanent collection. We keep in contact with project engineers and their geologists. We work with the 25 mineral societies throughout the state. We are constantly tracking down “orphan collections.” A lot of these small institutions don’t have the wherewithal or knowledge, and you’ll get unscrupulous mineral dealers in there. It’s important for us to give support to smaller institutions.

Q: How do you decide what to add to the collections?

A: It’s constantly a refining process. You can’t put every rock in the world in your museum. For example, the Herkimer diamonds. That’s a widespread formation. Those things come out by the tens of thousands every year. That’s not something that’s going to disappear any time soon. Now, let’s say you come across something in a New York subway, a rare mineral and it’s a little grouping and that’s all there is, and this is going to be buried for hundreds of years and maybe never opened again, then you are going to have a different attitude.

Q: Do you remember the geology and mineralogy exhibits at the old New York State Museum?

A: Oh, yes I do. It was a religious experience. It was like hallowed ground, the old state museum. You could spend days and days looking in every nook and cranny. There’s a difference between seeing things on a computer and seeing the real object. There are not that many institutions anymore that have extensive natural history collections. And it’s important to preserve them.

Q: Why does the museum charge admission to the show?

A: One of the important things we derive from the mineral show is revenue to run our programs and to buy minerals. Minerals can get fairly expensive. In this era of cutbacks in state funding, we sort of have to raise the monies we need to acquire specimens through our own resources.

 
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