Class trips are stressful for everyone involved. What begins with the promise of a day out of school quickly devolves into being lectured at but having to stand this time, boxed lunches even worse than a cafeteria offering. For a child in New York City, being stuck in the crosstown loop between the Met and the American Museum of Natural History can feel, when you’re nine, like an eternity. Every year the same dinosaur bones, the same Egyptian temple, the same whale. Everything big and impressive, with a hundred facts to memorize and forget.
That is, until we passed from the lights and tall ceilings of the rest of the natural history museum into the angular, carpeted darkness of the Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals. My teachers never seemed to know what to do with it. Aside from pointing out the meteors, they mainly let us wander the room ourselves, because really, who cares about rocks?
From the collective mourn of anyone who ever sat on a musty stair staring at a cube of malachite, got lost in the specter of a star sapphire, or just made out next to the radioactive minerals while the teachers weren’t looking, it appears a lot of people cared.
Last week, AMNH announced that it would be closing the Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals on October 26 — that’s the day after tomorrow — for extensive renovations. When it reopens in 2019, the newly named Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls will “reflect new science” with interactive displays and a white, minimalist space that looks more like an Apple Store than a museum. It will no longer be the weirdos’ lounge. And I fear it’ll be missing the element that so many loved about it — that it wasn’t a room for learning, but one for feeling.
That was intentional. When the Morgan Memorial Hall first opened in 1922, it had a collection of gems “third in size and second in value to any in the world.” But when it was redesigned in 1976, it was specifically to allow people to experience emotions. “We want people to touch these specimens, put their arms around them, fall in love with them,” said Dr. Vincent Manson, who was in charge of the hall at the time. “We want minerals to come across not only as scientific documents but as art objects, as objects of esthetic value that anyone can look at and see the beauties of the earth.” The New York Times wrote, “In fact, esthetics is clearly the main consideration in the hall.”
I don’t know shit about where the gems were found or how they were made, but I know how the rooms they were in made me feel. It started with the petrified wood. I stood staring into its hardened whorls, trying to reckon with how a tree, a thing whose life I viscerally understood, became this. Why did no one talk about nature that glowed neon and grew in glittery crags? How could you possibly be entranced by leaves and skin and fur when the entire spectrum of color and beauty was lying cold and pulseless beneath your feet?
Last weekend, I revisited the gem room, both to say goodbye and in an attempt to quantify what felt so heartbreaking about a room in a 148-year-old museum getting remodeled. It was darker than even I remembered. There were endless corners in which to hide, and no screens blaring educational videos or bright facts. Descriptions of the gems and minerals were in small green boxes with white text, or sometimes gray text on beige walls, all the better to ignore that this was meant to be an endeavor in learning at all.
Instead, everything was color and shape, angles and lights. A corner of amethyst rubbed smooth by decades of small hands. Plexiglas scratched cloudy by rings and nails. In every dark corner where the musty carpet absorbed the echoes of the rest of the museum, the ghost of a thousand moments where someone looked at a crystal and thought “Wow.”
The Hall of Gems and Minerals wasn’t for everyone. Last Saturday, the carpet was threadbare and the wallpaper peeled off corners in brown sheets. One excited dad tried to explain to his kid that some rocks are full of electricity or glow in the dark, while the kid clearly wanted to get back to the dinosaurs. It was weird and static, and probably evoked a lot of claustrophobia compared to the high ceilings and wide halls of the rest of the museum.
In speaking to others who will miss the Hall of Gems and Minerals, we shared stories of staring at a particular cluster for what felt like hours, or running our hands over the petrified wood like an oracle, or sitting in the dark until a teacher had to come and get us. We who loved it formed a club run on fixation and solitude, the shared appreciation for looking at small, shiny things. In a museum designed for interaction and socializing, it was a literal crystal fortress of solitude.
It’s easy to emote with an elephant. It was alive once, just like you. But the great secret of the Hall of Gems and Minerals is that it forced you to consider something that has never been alive, and yet grows and changes and shines just like you do. It was the most emo place in the museum, including the rooms with legit bones in them. It offered you nothing but the chance to sit in a dark corner and think about how you felt.
Walking around the rest of AMNH, I began to worry. What of the script font on wood paneling of the New York State Environment halls? What of the adorable vignettes of the Hall of Small Mammals? Would those eventually be doomed for sleeker upgrades?
I mean, probably. The Hall of Gems and Minerals’ other lesson was that worthwhile things are hidden and rare, not always found or recognized for what they are. A star sapphire looks like any other rock until you chip away at it from the right angle, and most people don’t have the eye or the patience for that. Beauty is all around us, and it’s okay, natural in fact, that most of it is overlooked.
The new hall will open, and maybe loners will fall in love with gems again. A girl will spot a geode and use her allowance to buy a tiger’s eye from the gift shop and become the school witch. Kids will find other dark corners in which to hide and think. We’ll find beauty elsewhere in the museum. It won’t be the same, but those of us who had the Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals will at least know what we had.